Barstow School teens hope to narrow digital divide

This much Barstow School teenagers know they cannot change.

They are the face of privilege. They are classmates in a private school, saturated in digital technology access.

Now their school is launching a program of interactive online classrooms it intends to share with a consortium of schools reaching as far as China and Australia.

They were recruited to pioneer one of the classes. Yet more opportunity for them.

But then came their course assignment: How do we bridge the digital divide?

They know how wide the gap is between those with technological access and those without — not only between nations, but between Kansas City communities.

“We have three cellular plans in our house fighting over the Wi-Fi,” 14-year-old Elizabeth Baughman said.

But when Laura Bernard, 14, volunteers at a Kansas City, Kan., community center, she said, she surveys a room where almost no one has a computer. She is helping students with homework knowing that many of them don’t have the Internet at home to help answer their questions.

“It seems like two steps forward and one step back,” Laura said. “While we’re connecting, there are people who are not connecting. What do you do?”

The adults at Barstow are asking the same kinds of questions.

The school hopes to get creative as it looks for ways to spread the opportunity it sees in its Hybrid Learning Consortium.

Right now, their partnerships are mostly with other private schools in the U.S. and abroad.

But the school is also looking outside that box.

For instance, it is working to share educational programming with the Ethiopian Leadership Academy, said Sarah Hofstra, Barstow’s director of hybrid learning.

The schools are exploring whether programming can work through smartphones, she said. And Barstow is interested in crossing the line between private and public schools.

Give a student a laptop or a tablet and connectivity and the hybrid course could go with him anywhere.

There would be instructional video links, conversational chat rooms with classmates, and — because Barstow plans to limit enrollment to 17 per class — plenty of attention from the instructor.

It made sense to bring students into the discussion of the divide, Hofstra said.

“Our students, by their nature, are empathetic,” she said. “But they are often unaware. (They live in) a culture of protected youth.”

The class is daunting, the students said.

“Lacking technology is accentuating class differences and race differences,” 14-year-old Rosie Pasqualini said. “It stresses the racial situation in Kansas City and other places.”

“You feel guilty,” said Catherine Lang, 15. “But you don’t want to forget your own opportunities. You have to find that balance.”

They’re still just teenagers.

“You can’t just say, ‘This is how you fix this,’ ” Elizabeth said.

“It’s idealistic. People have made it their life’s work to solve this problem.”

But teacher Nic Shump is putting them on the job anyway.

To get them started, he’s had them write essays on entitlement.

They’re reading J.F. Rischard’s “High Noon: 20 Global Problems. 20 Years to Solve Them.”

They’ve latched onto Aleph Molinari’s RIA project, which promotes the idea of spreading computer centers into neighborhoods and nations where computers and connectivity are scarce.

Over spring break they used online applications that identify nearby Internet hotspots to chart the varying amounts of connectivity from neighborhood to neighborhood.

In their face-to-face conversation, just as they have in their online discussion threads, they championed the idea that Internet and technology access is a right.

“Futurists always see the sinister,” Shump said. “We’re suspicious of technology. But kids are so immersed in this world, they intuitively can think of ways technology can be used better.”

It’s OK, Hofstra assured the students, to think large.

“This is your moment to be idealistic.”