The Digital Age and Educational Opportunity

digital age

I have had an opportunity-rich life. I won the parent lottery. I lived in a wealthy enough area to go to a good pubic school, play soccer, be in a play or two, to be on student government. I went to Stanford, stayed for a Masters Degree and started my career with the auspicious network that was my friend’s parents and my parent’s friends.

I worked hard, and I still work hard, but that’s not the point. I based my career on relying on whom (not what) I knew to succeed. That was entirely because I understood, from a very young age, that opportunities were out there ripe for me to seize and I was lucky enough to be connected with them.  

A major theme in education reform centers on how young people identify and seize opportunity.  In this country, and perhaps in this world, to whom a young person is connected, and to what opportunities he is connected, can be as much of a predicator of his success than anything else.  This is one of the things that make public education so difficult. This is also at the core of the challenge with a system that works with disconnected youth– the challenge of building networks of opportunity where few exist.

The power of the Internet to fuel this kind of connection at scale is what I find most interesting and what fuels my work in education. The Internet allows a lawyer in Chicago to give advice to a young person interested in Law in rural California. It allows The Onion on-line newspaper to put out a national call for interns to help with their online newspaper, it allows a writing tutor in Kansas to help a student in India write the essay that she will submit to get into college.

It is critical to understand that this work is part of a bigger movement, across all of society, towards “connected solutions” to hard problems.  By using networks to solve problems, and creating connective tissue so that people can collaborate directly, organizations and individuals can work together in new ways.  This kind of thinking is changing everything, from fundraising, to health, to energy, and to learning. This is a really big idea on the precipice of a completely changed culture.

I feel strongly that the best of America lives in the untapped potential of our youth. Social mobility is about networks and about learning opportunities. Networks are about real, lasting connections. Public education is the one industry that has managed, so far, to duck the digital age. As our world connects with websites and smart phones at a rapid pace, our classrooms exist almost as a shrine to the education of our parent’s childhood. It is just recently that educators have started looking to the Internet as a possible way to approach problems. We are in a new time, one where the Internet and its related applications link people in new ways, allowing for even the most disconnected youth to connect to support and opportunity. As Clay Shirky (2011) remarks, “[the Internet] has given way to a world in which most forms of communication, public and private, are available to everyone in some form.”

What is truly innovative and exciting about the work that is happening in these other sectors is that these organizations are able to build connection and access specifically over the internet, democratizing opportunity and the learning that accompanies it in a way that has basically been impossible to do until now (Shirky, 2011).

My relatively extensive work in education has convinced me of one thing: the education system we have in this country isn’t fair. And until we look at that, and devise some solutions to make it more so, all of the rest of the policies, programs and attempts at reform are just band-aids that are bound to fall off. All students deserve these connections, and it is my hypothesis that when disconnected young people use a digital network to seize opportunity their lives will be better. And that feels like a goal worth fighting for.

3 thoughts on “The Digital Age and Educational Opportunity

  1. Certainly one must use the tools to further the skills we are already teaching, and unlock potential for new skills and connections. Just so long as we never abandon the face to face interaction. At least in higher ed, it seems administrators are too eager to replace quality faculty with online courses.

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  2. So I work at a pretty poor and marginalized school and somehow we won some sort of grant for all the kids to be able to rent iPads for the year for classes. There are definitely downsides to it, but man, it is amazing how helpful they are.

    Also, major motivational tool. They have to earn them through attendance and keep their grades a certain level to not be told it has to be returned.

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  3. Yes, if disadvantaged youth have access to a suitable computer and a reliable network, they can (theoretically) tap into previously unattainable riches. But what does one DO with those riches without fundamental skills (technological, reading, and speaking, as a start), an attitude sympathetic to the act of learning, and lively interchange with other learners and the learned? Those who have profited from the privilege of parental connections are likely to possess the firm foundation of education from growing up in an environment of literacy, not to mention behavioral and intellectual discipline. Far from ducking the digital age, (and as an online instructor) I find that education has embraced all things digital too uncritically. Finally, as an educator for many decades, I fear the educational establishment takes the internet, not reform, to be the band-aid.

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