What do you get when you install computers in a dysfunctional school? According to Mark Warschauer, you get a dysfunctional school with computers.
“Technology can be part of the solution to the gap between haves and have-nots – but not the solution itself,” explains Warschauer in Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide. His new book offers a unique perspective on the gap dividing people with computer access and those without, in particular school-age children.
“We need to think about creating good learning environments, then integrating computers as part of a broader process of education and social reform. We should be teaching carpentry, not ‘hammer,’” says Warschauer, assistant professor and vice chair of UCI’s Department of Education.
Research for his book, published this year by MIT Press, took Warschauer on a six-year odyssey to India, Brazil, China, Egypt and across the United States, where he discovered a common theme among countries: obsession with the computer itself.
He cites the New Delhi government’s “Hole in the Wall” project as one example. As an experiment in “minimally invasive education,” a five-station computer wall was set up in a poor section of the city, giving children 24-hour, unsupervised access to learn at their own pace. The kids mastered “skills” like painting and playing computer games, while parents complained that their children simply “hung out” at the computers, leaving their schoolwork to suffer.
Although outstanding computer applications do exist, Warschauer found that many disadvantaged schools tend to emphasize remedial drills and basic tasks. In contrast, schools in affluent neighborhoods more frequently use computers to instill critical thinking skills and help prepare students for college.
To Warschauer, conquering the “digital divide” means opening a window for all students to use computer technology for inquiry, analysis, research and communicating ideas. He proposes an entirely new goal of social inclusion, whereby individuals and communities use technology to achieve a more meaningful stake in the educational, economic and personal benefits society offers.
Warschauer wrote most of his latest book after coming to UCI in 2001 from the U.S. Agency for International Development in Cairo, where he was director of educational technology on a large aid project. He holds a joint appointment in the School of Information and Computer Science and also works with the Center for Research on Information Technology and Organizations. He likes that UCI offers the chance for collaboration with UC colleagues and the community, such as on the multi-year research project he’s designing with the Newport Mesa School District to promote and evaluate technology in literacy development among Latino students.
“Our society is at a turning point,” says Warschauer. “We have to use computers more intelligently in schools, community centers and social service settings so they can be instruments of social inclusion, not an unintentional means of deepening inequality.”