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The Participation Gap

A Conversation with media expert and MIT Professor Henry Jenkins

Henry Jenkins is the Co-Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities. He is the author and/or editor of twelve books on media and popular culture. He also writes writes regularly about media and cultural change at his blog,

What is the “participation gap” and how does it relate to the digital divide?

The digital divide mostly referred to the gap in access to technology in American schools and libraries. The goal over the last two decades was to provide every student access to networked computing. That challenge has largely been met -- most American young people have access to the Internet through schools and libraries.

The participation gap takes it to the next level. When developing cultural competencies, there is a big difference between having access only in a library or at school. There's a huge gap between what students with 24/7 broadband access can do and what students can do when their only access is through the public library or a school computer lab, where there are often time limits on how long they can work, when there are filters blocking access to certain sites, and when there are limits on their ability to store, download and upload material. This leads to a gap in skills and competencies.

How does the participation gap impact students?

Digital literacy is the new hidden curriculum. In the 1960’s, we talked about access to opera, encyclopedias, theaters, museums, and dinner table conversations about culture and world events. The research showed us two things – those with access to this hidden curriculum developed learning skills that enabled them to do better in school. They also developed a style of discourse that prompted teachers to respond to them more positively than the kids without the same experiences.

Today, the ability to navigate social networks, play games, or participate in online conversations affects the way young people present themselves to the world. There’s an informal learning that takes place as they interact with digital media, which gives way to certain skills, competencies, and literacies.

What can educators do?

Many say that adults are badly suited to help students with technology because kids have become the experts in that realm. But we do a disservice to the kids who are at risk by taking that attitude. If they aren’t able to interact with technology outside school in the same way as their peers, we need educators to help provide them with the informal learning and competencies that other students develop at home.

Educators should also engage students in different forms of technology to provide guidance. These kids are facing serious ethical choices when interacting with technology. There are complicated issues they must grapple with when using social networking sites like MySpace. The diametrically wrong approach is preventing access to those sites in school. Students will find a way to get onto these sites, and they are much better off having knowledgeable adults around them.

What if we don’t close the gap?

All of the evidence suggests that the Internet is allowing us to develop a collective intelligence. Online collaboration is a major influence affecting our world. That process is dramatically improved when a multitude of voices with different perspectives can contribute. The participation gap strips the collective intelligence of diversity, and that has ramifications for us all.

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