Gray Chapman on Tue, 2 May 2000 20:22:24 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Problem of Technology Gap Starts With Shortage of Skilled

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Below is my Los Angeles Times column for today, Monday, May 1, 2000. As
always, please feel free to pass this on, but please retain the copyright

Happy May 1st (May Day, for those who remember that term, and for European

We have one more class session this week and then I'm off for a few weeks
until summer school starts in June. Carol has left for Mexico this
morning, where she'll be touring old but renovated haciendas that have
been turned into hotels and B&Bs, writing these up for a travel magazine.
Kind of a dream assignment for her. She'll be in Cuernavaca, Guanajuato,
Patzcuaro, etc., the old heart of Mexico. 

Bit of news here is that I've been signed up to write another newspaper
column, this one a biweekly commentary for our local newspaper, The Austin
American-Statesman. This will appear every other Thursday on the op-ed
page of the Statesman. The first one ran last week. These will be
different from my L.A. Times columns; I'll be writing about how high tech
is changing Austin and Central Texas. 

For anyone interested, I'll be part of an interesting event in Seattle on
Sunday, May 21st, when Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems and well-known author
Howard Rheingold and I will be discussing and debating Bill's provocative
cover story in Wired magazine of last month, "Why The Future Doesn't Need
Us." (It's at This was
an essay about how artificial intelligence, robotics, and biotechnology
may someday produce "beings" that will supersede the human species. It
created quite a lot of discussion on the Internet and was the subject of
an event at Stanford a few weeks ago that drew over a thousand people and
lots more press coverage. Bill, Howard and I will be a panel at this
year's DIAC 2000 conference at the University of Washington, sponsored by
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (see Hope to see some of you there. 


-- Gary


Monday, May 1, 2000

Problem of Technology Gap Starts With Shortage of Skilled Teachers

By Gary Chapman

Copyright 2000, The Los Angeles Times, All Rights Reserved

President Clinton has put the "digital divide" at the top of his deck this
past month, pushing the issue into headlines and editorials all over the
country. But there is still a great deal of confusion, contradiction and
muddled thinking in how politicians and the technology industry are
talking about bringing more Americans into the "new economy." 

The president convened a White House summit on the new economy in April
that was attended by 125 national leaders and experts. He followed that
with his national digital-divide tour. He visited both East Palo Alto, the
persistent and by-now-familiar symbol of the digital divide, and a Navajo
Indian reservation. Then he urged executives at an industry convention in
Chicago to do something about the technology gap. 

Clinton announced $2.25 billion in proposed federal programs and tax
breaks to expand technology access and skills in low-income communities. A
dozen or so high-tech companies pledged an additional $200 million in
programs aimed at employing more minorities, women and disabled workers. 

The White House has tied the issue of the digital divide to the high-tech
industry's growing anxiety about the nationwide shortage of skilled
technology workers. In East Palo Alto, the president held up a copy of a
local newspaper's classified ads section and said there were 10,000 jobs
in it that could be filled by local residents if they had the right

This is a predictable, if limited, approach to the problem of the digital
divide. It helps focus the technology industry's attention by attempting
to link the industry's No. 1 problem -- the shortage of workers and the
resultant high salaries for technical talent -- to the employment deficits
in low-income neighborhoods. 

In other words, the president is trying to show an otherwise preoccupied
industry that its self-interest is attached to closing the digital divide. 

But both the White House and the technology industry need to grapple with
some significant holes in their thinking. 

Before we can start to turn out more skilled technology workers, for
example, we need more people who can train those workers. 

Barbara Simons, president of the Assn. for Computing Machinery, told the
participants at the White House summit last month that when teachers
acquire advanced technology training, they often leave teaching for
higher-paying jobs in the industry itself. This was confirmed recently in
a report by the Joint Venture Silicon Valley organization. 

"Systems administrators can get starting salaries of $80,000 per year in
the valley now," Simons said. "And many of these people have no degree in
computer science." That figure is often double or more the salary of
public school teachers, and there's far more money to be made after just a
few years in the private sector. 

The lack of qualified teachers in high-tech subjects is reaching crisis
proportions in schools, from K-12 to top-tier university research
programs.  Some experts refer to this as the "seed corn" problem. That is,
if we eat our seed corn -- meaning the people who will train the future
generation of technologists -- we may stifle economic growth altogether. 

There are many obstacles to a solution. Teachers unions, for example, have
opposed salary differentials for teachers in public schools. But the most
fundamental obstacle is that most schools and universities simply can't
pay salaries competitive with the private sector. 

This problem is compounded by the technology industry's campaign to keep
the Internet a tax-free zone. If e-commerce grows as expected and remains
tax-free, public revenues will decline and the prospect of improving
schools and raising teacher salaries will become even more remote. 

The technology industry is sending mixed signals about the kinds of
workers it needs. Top-level managers consistently say they want workers
with generic skills such as problem-solving, communication, ability for
teamwork and independent initiative. 

But the classified ads tell a different story: There, employers say they
want people with specific technical skills and experience. The employment
ads are a blizzard of technical acronyms and jargon that must be
discouraging to young job-seekers. 

Technical workers also know they are largely self-taught. Young computer
experts even complain that school programs get in the way of what they
need and want to know. 

Judith Lambrecht, a business professor at the University of Minnesota,
agrees that most formal training programs are not very helpful. "Students
who just get the basics, and that's all, never really link it to
real-world problems. This is what people have when they're self-taught,"
she said. 

The best training programs get students into internships, real-world
exercises and problem-solving and foster students' ability to tinker with
software and hardware, she said. 

But for most schools, there's an imperative pointing to "efficiency,
credits and serving lots of students at once," Lambrecht says. "That's why
teaching devolves into such systematic, mindless learning," she says,
exactly the opposite of what attracts or prepares students. 

Finally, there's a spectacular gulf between how people learn technology
skills and the current enthusiasm for standardized tests. Both Al Gore and
George W. Bush have endorsed standardized tests for school accountability. 
Bush has staked his reputation for educational improvement in Texas on the
state's public school exam. 

But there is little or no connection between such tests and acquiring
technology skills. Indeed, some Texas schools have de-emphasized computer
use because the technology is a distraction from preparing their students
for the state test. 

Lambrecht says the best practices for technology training and standardized
testing "are diametrically opposed." 

"It's hard to do project-based learning and get predictable outcomes," she

Standardized testing turns out students who are more or less the same,
shaped by the questions on the test, whereas the tech industry wants
innovators, tinkerers and people who think "outside the box." 

Controversies about educational philosophies and approaches are not new in
the U.S. and probably will never go away. But it's certainly time for the
technology industry and politicians to get beyond empty, uninformed and
contradictory placebos and photo ops with poor people, and to start to
engage the hard problems we need to solve. 

Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of
Texas at Austin. He can be reached at 

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