After a brief welcome from Roy, Intel's Wayne Grant introduced himself as having traveled more than a million miles to understand and remediate digital divides. As a user-experience researcher for Intel, he helps them to not just distribute existing technology, but to customize it for local needs. Wayne pointed out that computers are no longer an ancillary tool, they are a key medium within which one lives and works. Robots and artificial intelligence are taking over for routine physical and cognitive skills, emphasizing the importance of education for non-routine skills that involve digital tools. There has been a resulting groundswell of government and tech-company investment in education and tools for skilled workers. But politicians are often incentivized to distribute large numbers of computers for public approval without including the costly but crucial software, support, and internet infrastructure. Ultimately, the near future is looking like an unevenly distributed mixture of high- and low-tech. Wayne argued that the digital divide might be in some ways "inevitable" because of exponential improvements of technology that are distributed gradually.
UC Irvine's Mark Warschauer then took the stage to discuss some qualities of successful programs for reducing digital divides in America. He began by noting that digital divides are aligned more along income and education gaps than race gaps. He also echoed Wayne's citation of research by Levy and Murnane on the economic value of non-routine cognitive skill. So are existing tech-distribution programs cultivating these skills? Mark described a pilot of the "One Laptop Per Child" program in Birmingham, Alabama, that rapidly failed due to a lack of repair support. Learners in Birmingham spent less time engaged in non-routine cognitive skills with technology after the program than before. However, this is not the norm: Mark and his colleagues have generally found consitent positive effects of tech-distribution programs on non-routine cognitive skills and academic learning outcomes. How does this happen? In his view, four key factors are Content, Composition, Construction, and Community. Students can get content online for cheap, and it can be represented in ways that support learners and decrease divides. Composition, specifically persuasive writing, is critically important for knowledge economy. Most of the best laptop programs are paired with writing curricula to close divides. Community is not achieved simply by putting people online, but by active attempts by teachers to support students in collective meaningful online dialogue. Finally, Construction activities offered through programs like Scratch can support sophisticated thinking, literacy development, and unique epistemological approaches to learning. Mark ultimately agreed with Wayne that programs to reduce digital divides depend not just on access to tech, but also on skilled support.
The panel concluded with a Q&A session. Roy began by asking how teachers might better understand the skills that students need to succeed. Mark responded with optimism that better assessments will help guide educational enterprises, including teachers, towards more important competencies. A question about the role of entrepreneurs was taken up by Wayne, who responded that interfacing with entrepreneurs was critical to his job. Big players like Intel need to offer ways to collaborate with local entrepreneurs in order to meet local needs. In response to a question about the importance of teachers, Mark and Wayne agreed that high-quality teachers are indisputably essential, and that good teaching has some surprising similarities across cultures. Teachers looking for professional development should engage with the literature on "technological pedagogical content knowledge". Finally, another audience member brought up the issue of parent participation. Mark noted that most of the best tech-distribution programs involve parent engagement and support in some way. Roy echoed this point, noting that Sesame orkshop research demonstrated the importance of parent-child active co-viewing.