Journal Issue: Children of Immigrant Families Volume 14 Number 2 Summer 2004
Harris N. Miller
E-mail. Instant messaging. File sharing. Internet games and entertainment. The reality is clear: The technological knowledge of many of America's children already surpasses that of their parents, teachers, religious and government leaders. A 15-year-old child in high school today has probably never known life and learning without computers and the Internet. Today's children are the Internet generation.
Not all children enjoy equal access to computers, however. Minority children and children of immigrants, in particular, tend to have less access to computers and the Internet, both at home and at school.1 To ensure that all of our nation's children are reaping the benefits of information technology (IT), policymakers and stakeholders must take an active interest in promoting math, science, and technology education to today's youth, and they must promote ubiquitous broadband (high speed) Internet access.2
IT is important to the nation's children--and the nation--in several ways. First, it can be a catalyst for changing how American children learn. As noted in the article by Garci´a Coll and Szalacha in this journal issue, research reveals that use of computers can enhance learning by giving children opportunities to both be more self-directed and to collaborate with others.3 For those who acquire skills in this area, IT offers the potential of well-paying jobs into the future. In addition, IT holds promise for facilitating the delivery of a wide range of services, including health care. Finally, IT also has the potential to extend the reach of democracy by breaking down the barriers to political participation.
The Demographics of IT
Minority children tend to have less access to computer technology both at school and at home. This disparate access is tied, for the most part, to disparate school and family socioeconomic status. Income, education, and ethnicity are all strong predictors of the type of access children have to IT.4 Gender also can play a role, with girls traditionally tending to use computers less than boys.
There are some hopeful signs, however. Programs, such as E-rate, are helping to reduce the digital divide in public schools. Also, as technology has expanded the use of computers beyond games to include e-mail, instant messaging, and schoolwork assignments, the disparities in use between genders has diminished. In 1998, girls reported using home computers as often, and with as much confidence, as boys.5 Still, more must be done to ensure that all of America's children have access to the increasingly technological world that is evolving.
The Potential of IT
Broadband access to the Internet will bring new opportunities for e-learning, e-work, and e-government to today's children. The price for high-speed connections will continue to fall, and the Internet in classrooms and homes will become ubiquitous. For today's children, Internet anytime, anywhere can benefit their lives in many ways.
Changing How Students Learn
Promoting math, science, and technology education among all demographic and socioeconomic groups is an important first step to improving the lives of America's children. Math and science form the foundation that children need to advance in technology fields. Unfortunately, many children--especially minority children and children of immigrants growing up in disadvantaged neighborhoods' do not have equal access to technology to inspire them to pursue these fields. As of 1999, 39% of disadvantaged schools were not connected to the Internet.6 But even among children who do have access, many "turn off" to these subjects as early as the third grade. Once children decide that math and science are too difficult, too boring, or too irrelevant, they begin to take themselves out of the technology pipeline.
The high school graduating class of 2008 will be the largest in our nation's history.7 While the high school population is growing, the number of colleges and universities is not. The opportunity to spend four years on a college campus is likely to become increasingly difficult.
This fact alone is reason for stakeholders--specifically state, local, and federal government--to improve technology access to children. Broadband Internet access is an important educational tool and governments have an interest in seeing this technology integrated into the learning process.
The Web-Based Education Commission outlined the importance of broadband accessibility in its first call to action in December 2000, urging Congress and the president to "make powerful new Internet resources, especially broadband access, widely and equitably available and affordable for all learners."8 Through technology that enables broadband Internet access, stakeholders have the opportunity to extend the benefits of e-education and lifelong learning to economically disadvantaged, geographically remote, inner city, and other "offline" demographic groups.
Indeed, e-learning can benefit children in the classroom by enabling educators to utilize the Internet to augment lesson plans. It can also open doors to additional learning at home, in libraries and community centers on weekends, evenings, and summer vacations. Thanks to technology, future generations have the opportunity to experience learning on levels today's adults never enjoyed.
Growing the Economy
IT is important to the American economy and to future employment opportunities for America's youth. As discussed in the article by Nightingale and Fix in this journal issue, the demand for high-skilled workers, especially those with technological and computer skills, is increasing--and not just for jobs such as computer programmers and other technical positions. The article points out that a wide array of jobs now prefer or require some knowledge of computers, from manufacturing jobs to retail sales positions, and that this trend is likely to continue.
Moreover, the growing practice of sending technology work--specifically programming, help desk, and back office operations--to workers in low-wage countries is likely to heighten demand for an even more technologically-savvy workforce in the United States. While offshore outsourcing has the unfortunate consequence of job dislocation in the short term, history and economics tell us that the globalization of jobs will ultimately result in new, better high-paying jobs created here at home, at the same time expanding markets for our products overseas. Technology will continue to play an integral role. By contributing to a strong knowledge base in math and science, today's children will help ensure that the nation's economy creates new, high-paying industries using technology for decades to come.
To realize this vision, however, U.S. children must have the foundation, tools, and inspiration to create and work in the great industries of tomorrow. Unfortunately, many youth are not preparing themselves adequately for this technological future. By the time they reach college age, relatively few minorities and women choose to enter computer science and engineering fields at the undergraduate level. In the 1999-2000 academic years, the number of white college graduates nationwide with degrees in computer science, engineering, or an engineering related field far outstripped the percentage of minorities. (See Figure 1.) Similar data show that women received 22% of the undergraduate degrees in the computer science and engineering related fields, compared with 78% for men.9
Although small gains have been made in the numbers of minorities and women working as IT professionals, these groups still are underrepresented in the IT workforce overall.10
For example, African Americans made up 10.9% of the U.S. workforce in 2002, but only 8.2% of the IT workforce. The underrepresentation among Hispanics and Native Americans was even greater, with Hispanics making up 12.2% of the U.S. workforce but only 6.3% of the IT workforce, and Native Americans accounting for 0.9% of the U.S. workforce, but only 0.6% of the IT workforce. Overall, women made up 46.6% of the U.S. workforce in 2002, but only 34.9% of the IT workforce.
The reasons for underrepresentation in IT and related fields are diverse. As mentioned earlier, lack of access is clearly a factor. But other factors may also contribute, including an absence of appropriate role models, an information gap at the school level, or persistence of stereotypes that may impede interest on the part of young people in studying math and science, or present roadblocks to hiring qualified minorities. Whatever the reasons, one thing is clear: Society must continue to peel away hindrances to progress on the part of underrepresented groups in IT.
Improving Service Delivery
Broadband Internet access enables the creation of an electronic government--or "e-government¡"--that looks and acts far different than the government of today. Many state and federal agencies are already offering services through the Internet, allowing citizens to avoid travel time and waiting in lines. Internet sites such as www.firstgov.gov allow individuals access to information on vehicle registration and drivers licenses, professional licenses, vital records, social services, relocation, jobs, bills in the state legislature, news, and much more. Businesses can tap these government portals for information on procurement, taxes, licenses, regulations, road construction, complaints, building permits, labor rates, court opinions, and other critical information on state and local business requirements.
Of special importance to children, high-speed Internet technologies can also deliver improved healthcare. Rural areas, states, and communities that are traditionally underserved by the medical community are benefiting from "telemedicine"--the use of information technology to deliver medical services and information from one location to another. For example, it enables physicians to consult with patients from long distances, making preventive medicine and routine well-child visits more accessible. While technology cannot deliver a vaccination, the Internet can also be an important educational tool for parents on the importance of childhood vaccines and check-ups.
Expanding Political Participation
Beyond bringing faster, more efficient services, the potential unlocked by Internet voting could allow today's children to be much more involved in governing when they reach adulthood compared with previous generations. For example, the Michigan Democratic Party recently announced over 42,000 voters participated in their caucus process through online voting in February 2004, about twice the number of voters who normally participate in "in person" caucuses. Through such innovative practices, the Internet has the potential to involve more citizens than ever before in the democratic process. At a time when historically low numbers of Americans even go to the polls, online voting and other Internet mobilization strategies should be explored and promoted by stakeholders.
Most Americans do not question the premise that technology is making their lives better with each decade. At work, productivity increases, the American economy strengthens, and U.S. jobs provide more value because of technology. At home, technology allows parents to spend more time with family and less time on the road or waiting in lines, and both children and adults can expand their knowledge base like never before.
To realize the promise that technology holds of raising the standard of living for today's children, however, stakeholders must take action. They must strengthen math and science public education for all students--both boys and girls of all races and socioeconomic groups. And they must endorse broadband applications such as e-learning, e-work, e-health, and e-government that promote children's strong development, productivity, and well-being. With access to quality instruction and compelling content, children will grow and expand their horizons in directions never before considered or even dreamed of. Just as the IT industry of today could not have been imagined 25 years ago, children of today will generate ideas and found companies--maybe even entire industries--25 years from now with business propositions that are not even imaginable today. But one thing that is imaginable today is that technology will likely be the foundation of many of the future endeavors of our nation's children. Ensuring all the nation's children acquire skills in technology not only promotes their individual success, doing so also helps ensure continued American global competitiveness and innovation into the 21st century.