On a recent visit to New York City, Craig Watkins went sightseeing down 125th St. in Harlem, a cradle of African-American culture and home to the legendary Apollo Theater. Today, the street is crowded with shops and vendors selling mobile phones. But Watkins found not a single shop selling a desktop or a laptop computer.
To Watkins, a University of Texas associate professor who teaches in both the College of Liberal Arts’ African studies department and in the College of Communication, it was a stark illustration of a new digital divide: the gap between how minority teens and white teens use the Internet. It’s a divide with economic fallout, hindering today’s black and Latino youth from creating the businesses of tomorrow.
The dimensions of the divide have changed radically in a short time. Ten years ago, says Watkins, the challenge was access: making computers and Internet connections available to kids whose families could afford neither. In 1998, a survey by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration found that only 13 percent of Latino households and 11 percent of black households had Internet access, compared to 30 percent of white households.
Then came a piece of technology that, in some ways, closed the gap completely: the cell phone. A July 2010 poll by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that minorities were the leading users of the mobile Web. Fifty-one percent of Hispanics and 46 percent of blacks used mobile phones to go online, versus 33 percent of whites.
At first glance, that’s good news, says Watkins. Smart phones give teens a freedom and autonomy that they don’t have using computers at school or libraries, which often limit time and block websites. His concern is about how those teens use the Internet.
“This is no longer a question about access to technology,” says Watkins. “It’s more about what young people are doing with the technology. Now, I talk about the participation divide rather than the access divide.”
By participation, he means that minority youth are experts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but they’re not learning how to build websites, blogs, games, and businesses. “They need opportunities to create, share, and distribute content rather than just consume content,” says Watkins. “They need skills related to creating new technology, writing new technology, and leveraging technology to solve the problems of their communities.”
Part of the problem is that there’s still a racial gap in home computer ownership. A 2009 NTIA survey found that only 40 percent of Hispanics and 46 percent of African-Americans had broadband, compared to 66 percent of non-Hispanic whites. Broadband connections tend to be faster than wireless, and desktops and laptops are better suited than smart phones for creating content.
If low-income youth can’t learn digital literacy at home, where can they learn it? Probably not at school, says Watkins, with budgets being cut nationwide. He’s banking on informal learning environments: after-school programs, summer camps, museums, and libraries.
He points to the Chicago Public Library. Its Harold Washington Library Center hosts YOUMedia, a learning center crammed with laptops, books, software, and studios for producing videos, photos and music. Just as important, it offers mentors to lead workshops and one-on-one training. The MacArthur Foundation, which gave seed money for YOUMedia, now seeks to spread the model to 30 libraries nationwide.
Back home in Austin, Watkins spent four weeks this summer helping 20 high school students design an educational video game. Sponsored by the local office of microchip maker AMD, the goal of the game was to highlight the company’s use of green architecture.
The students toured the AMD campus, then learned programs like Photoshop and GarageBand, along with a game-development program called GameSalad. Five teams created competing games, with themes such as killing invasive species that threaten native plants. A local game company is reviewing the results and will pick one game to go on AMD’s website.
The teens, many of whose parents had never been to college, proved to be quick learners, says Watkins. “Many worked harder for this project than they ever would for a project in school, because they never get the chance to do these things in a traditional classroom.”
The key to bridging the new digital divide, he says, is “To empower [teens] to see technology not only as a device for accessing games, music, movies, and videos, but also using technology to promote social change and improve the quality of their lives. A secondary outcome of this work is opening up kids’ eyes to the possibilities technology offers, to the entrepreneurial potential of technology.”