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Technology for Social Inclusion: An Interview with Mark Warschauer
Author: Francis Raven, A Sense Of Place Network | May 4th, 2005
Communities: Literacy & Learning , Economic Development,

Mark Warschauer is Assistant Professor of Education and of Information and Computer Science at the University of California, Irvine. Dr. Warschauer's research focuses on the integration of information and communication technologies (ICT) in schools; the impact of ICT on language and literacy practices; and the relationship of ICT to institutional reform, democracy, and social development. His most recent book, Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide, was published by MIT Press in January of 2003. His previous books have focused on the development of new electronic literacies among culturally and linguistically diverse students and on the role of ICT in second language learning and teaching.

DDN: What are some circumstances when the concept of the digital divide is problematic?

MW: The notion of a digital divide suggests a digital solution--i.e., trying to solve a social problem by throwing computers and Internet connections into the mix. But without the right social supports, inputs of hardware and connections might be wasted or even have a negative effect. Putting computers into a situation where there is inadequate electricity, lack of trained personnel to upkeep them, and lack of a plan for using them well can divert attention from more effective approaches to social problems.

Why don't you believe that "social problems can be addressed through provision of computers and Internet accounts"?

People need the language, literacy, and computer skills to use the equipment; there need to be plans for maintaining equipment; and there needs to be an understanding of how use of the equipment may help address a social problem. An excellent approach is that of "community informatics," in which a community makes careful plans for its own community and social development and works together to define and plan the role that technology and media can play to contribute to that.

You write (citing Steve Cisler) that there is not a binary division between information haves and have-nots but rather a "gradation based on different degrees of access to information." Would you explain how these information differentials function?

Is a person who has access to the Internet only through occasional use at an Internet cafe an information have or an information have-not? There are lots of gradations on the have/have-not scale, based on regularity and convenience of access, type of equipment and connections, individual skill level, amount of personal freedom in computer use (from control by states, employers, or others). All these things contribute on a graded scale to determining access.

What is needed in addition to computers and Internet accounts?

Literacy is essential, and "digital literacy" is valuable too (computer literacy, information literacy, multimedia literacy, etc.) Knowledge of one or more major international languages is often essential. Social support from others who know how to use technology and provide assistance can be critical as well.

How do a personís lack of access to computers and a person's life chances interact?

There is a high degree of correlation between individuals, communities, and nations that have high degrees of computer/Internet access and social factors such as income, wealth, and education. Of course, the causality can be mutual--wealth helps people afford computers and computer access helps people to have better employment opportunities or otherwise achieve social inclusion.

What concept would you replace the digital divide with and why? Could you explain your alternate framework: technology for social inclusion?

Technology for social inclusion deemphasizes the notion of bridging divides and instead looks at the broader goal--achieving social inclusion for all--and then considers the role that technology can play within that. Social inclusion refers to the extent that individuals, families, and communities are able to fully participate in society and control their own destinies, taking into account a variety of factors related to economic resources, employment, health, education, housing, recreation, culture, and civic engagement.

Social inclusion is a matter not only of an adequate share of resources, but also of participation and control over one's life chances. Even the well-to-do may face problems of social exclusion, due to reasons of political persecution or discrimination based on age, gender, sexual preference, or disability. Technology can be used to promote social inclusion, not only by allowing people and communities more economic opportunity but also by providing other opportunities for people and communities to control their destinies.

What role can technology play in social inclusion?

Many ways, depending on the context. These include better access to health information, greater opportunities for political participation, and information to economic data of benefit to rural farmers (such as crop prices at different markets). Some of the rural Internet kiosk projects in India provide an outstanding example of effective technology use for social inclusion. In a rural village, even one computer with an Internet connection--if well used by the community--can make a big difference in people's lives.

How can a more sophisticated understanding of ICT access lead to more comprehensive social inclusion?

By helping people understand the broader social context that facilitates good technology use. Just to give one example, using a metaphor of Chris Dede at Harvard, people throughout the world seem to have a "fire model" of educational technology. In other words, they seem to think that a computer generates learning the way a fire generates warmth. This leads to lots of wasted money, with computers put into schools but either unused or used poorly. For computers to actually contribute to learning, much more thought needs to be put into issues of pedagogy, curriculum, professional development, software, maintenance, scheduling, etc. In other words, as Dede would say, computers are less like fire and more like clothes--they make you warm when they fit well.

A few of Dr. Warschauer's relevant papers are available online:

Warschauer, M. (2002). Reconceptualizing the digital divide. First Monday 7(7).

Warschauer, M. (2003, August). Demystifying the digital divide. Scientific American 289(2), 42-47.

Warschauer, M. (2003). Dissecting the "digital divide": A case study in Egypt. The Information Society, 19(4), 297-304.

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