Does technology unite or divide us in Carver County?

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Earlier this month I had the pleasure of joining the Beacon Group in Carver County. They are working to support and celebrate the inclusion of the new members to their communities, including Chaska, Chanhassen, Carver and Victoria. Each month or so they gather to talk about a topic that somehow relates to their mission. This month they spoke about broadband and asked me to join.

The Beacon group isn’t large in terms of people – but there are a lot of hats because everyone seems to wear at least three. You know those meetings where the person from the local broadband provider is also on the school board and the annual event committee. So there were a lot of perspectives in one room. We had a few questions to lead the discussion – but in the hour we really centered around one – does technology unite or divide us. For folks looking for the Reader’s Digest version – the answer is yes.

Lots of good things are happening in Carver County. There are ARRA broadband funding recipients and are working on Middle Mile broadband. The City of Chaska has provided fiber for years – and more recently added wireless access for residents. But like most areas – broadband gets scarce in the outskirts of town. And adoption is uneven. There are still homes without broadband. That’s where the conversation hovered – the need for ubiquitous access and adoption.

We talked about some of the fun things you can do with broadband – especially in education. We talked about the Khan Academy, which offers a flipped program where students watch videos to learn material as homework and class time is spent practicing and demonstrated comprehension. Online education also opens to the doors to learning new subjects. There are online classes available for languages where there may not be a local teacher. Niche science courses open up – because you no longer have to limit the classes you offer based on the teachers you have and majority interest in the student body. Finally online classes might help boost graduation rates when students can study when and where they are best able.

These are exciting approaches that have the potential to bring folks together – but what do you do for students without broadband access or even a computer at home? The libraries are already overtaxed with folks wanting to use their computers – plus is it putting undue hardship on families and students to expect that those without broadband access make it to the library frequently enough to catch up.

Another component is adoption in the family. Are we widening the gap when we put student information online? Many schools have online portals where parents can communicate with teachers and see how their students are doing with daily assignments. Households without computers and/or broadband are not able to take advantage of these online tools. Parents without computer skills are at a disadvantage too.

One option would be to use the opportunity to introduce families to computers. Some schools provide students with laptops or ipads and as computers get cheaper that becomes an easier option – but offering training might help too. For some parents offering computer training at the schools provides the incentive and excuse to learn more about computers. We do for our kids what we won’t do for ourselves. But is the school and the community ready and able to take on such an ambitious adoption program – especially during a slow economy.

Finally we talked about the danger of bringing too much of our community online especially in terms of social media taking over social life. Social media (Facebook, Twitter, Chat rooms…) can be great for keeping in touch with people. They can be great for promoting local events. Kids seem to take to social media – in fact they seem so engaged that they would often rather text than talk. Does that mean that the community loses something from the real world? How do we sustain the real world interaction too.

So as you see, we didn’t come up with a lot of answers, but they were asking a lot of good questions.