Oct. 29-Nov. 4, 1999
IN THIS ISSUE
U.Va. to host public forum with alumni about the future of the Internet age
Former dean Raymond J. Nelson receives U.Va.'s Thomas Jefferson Award
U.Va.'s foster families fill the breach for children in need

Conference explores ways to internationalize universities

Winston, Weaver 'rapt' up Film Festival
Sigourney Weaver on motherhood and other roles
Sharing digital resources to help teachers use technology in class
Hot Links - President's Office
Film, panelists explore 'digital divide' in computer access
After Hours - arborist Jerry Brown
U.Va. well on its way to ringing in the Year 2000 without a systems glitch
Off the Shelf - recently published books
Digital prints on display Nov. 1-29
CEO of Pew Trusts to give talk Nov. 3
TOP NEWS

Film, panelists explore 'digital divide' in computer access

By Dan Heuchert

There is a scene early in "Virtual Equality,"a made-for-PBS documentary screened Oct. 23 as part of the Virginia Film Festival, in which a young girl talks about receiving a failing grade on a report because she was unable to gain access to a computer to finish her writing.

The scene reinforces the film's main thrust, that children in inner-city America are not sharing in the information revolution that supposedly will make society more democratic. Director Lorna Thomas, who presented the film at Vinegar Hill Theatre, put vivid faces on the so-called "digital divide," focusing on a handful of children from the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of New York City in danger of being left behind technologically.

But for the many educators in the audience and on the panel who discussed the film afterward, the scene made another subtle point: children must not be allowed to make lack of access an excuse for educational failure.

"Computers are extensions of our minds, not replacements for our minds. We still need to learn how to read and write," said panelist Carol Camp Yeakey, a professor of urban politics and policy in the Curry School, which co-sponsored the event.

Lack of access to computers "won't keep us out of the 21st century,"said longtime community activist and former Charlottesville School Board chair Alicia Lugo, "but we don't want to limp in, we want to walk in."

For her documentary, Thomas interviewed dozens of children she met at community-based computer centers and settled on a half dozen children between the ages of 11 and 15. The camera follows them to school, where they often share limited time at scarce computer keyboards in pairs or groups. The vast majority could not afford computers at home.

In one emotionally wrenching scene, a mother is dismayed to find that her son, Steven, is not taking computer classes at his school, which she selected for him because she thought it would provide better access to technology. Focused on a TV video game, Steven just shrugs indifferently and says he took the woodworking class that was assigned to him.

Children need multiple points of access to computers -- in schools, libraries, community centers, churches or homes, several panelists said. Nicholas King, an assistant principal at Walker Upper Elementary School, added, "We have to take it a step further and make it purposeful access. Computers not just as games and entertainment, but as tools for economic, social and educational development."

Computer manufacturers came in for some criticism, too. On-screen and offscreen, some lamented the lack of marketing to inner-city consumers.

Thomas said she heard complaints that even in making high-profile donations, computer companies "just threw those computers into communities without any follow-up."

She talked to some companies, and "no one told us how they plan to market to these communities," she said. They viewed the inner cities "sort of more as a charity case, as opposed to looking at these communities as consumers."

Lugo noted that few donations involve putting computers into actual homes, where children can have almost unlimited access. "I've heard all the arguments -- 'If you put those computers in these poor houses, they'll sell them and use the money to buy crack,'" she said.

She sees something more sinister in the computer companies' reluctance to market to poorer communities. It is, she suggested, an effort to maintain the status quo, to insure an unskilled labor pool to do society's dirty work -- fast food, housekeeping and trash hauling.

"Power yields nothing without a struggle," she said.


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