By Oscar S. Cisneros
Tejas Staff Writer
When 17-year-old Daniel Soto visited the Alcatraz Web site, a former prisoner’s digitized voice greeted him. Stunned and giddy, the Brownsville teen quickly summoned his classmates to witness the computer’s chatter.
"Everybody was laughing because they couldn’t believe the computer was ‘talking back’," says Araceli Cardenas, an English teacher at Porter High school.
But a simple sound file would not be the last of the online "marvels" encountered by these students from Brownsville's poorest areas. Quacking ducks on the endangered species list, Tejano stars and a journey inside a pyramid awaited them on their first tour of the Internet.
Cardenas says most of her students had no concept of what the Internet was and had to overcome fears of breaking the computers before they could take infant-like steps into the global medium of the World Wide Web.
"I told them, ‘Search for anything that you’ve always wanted to know about’," she said. "They were completely clueless as to how to work the systems, much less what the Internet was."
The apprehension and lack of computer literacy shared by Cardenas’ students and the vast majority of children in South Texas present a complex obstacle to overcome, especially in a country where experts estimate three-fourths of jobs involve computer interaction.
Yet the "obstacle" of the Internet can also act as a stimulus, says Cardenas, who has witnessed her student’s moments of discovery and seen the excitement on their faces.
Cardenas says her students feel more at ease with the Internet after visiting a few sites. She stresses the international nature of the medium to these humble teens, who dream of paying off their parents’ debt.
But the global village spanned by the World Wide Web does not embrace a town where 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty level, a city where keeping the family car running takes precedence over "those silly computers."
Demographically speaking, the 90 percent Mexican-American population of Brownsville has little in common with the typical World Wide Web user.
Compare Brownsville’s high high school dropout rates to the results of a recent survey where 82 percent of users said they had some college education. A mean average income of $58,000 also distances users from Brownsville residents, whose incomes average $25,000.
The problem exists outside of the Lower Rio Grande Valley: Only 1.98 percent of 19,000 respondents identified themselves as "Hispanic" or "Latino" in the Georgia Tech "Graphic, Visualization, & Usability Center's 7th WWW User Survey."
But these statistics belie the true gap - access. Access to information in an area where few educators possess the computer or Internet know-how to share with their students.
In absence of this, students like Diego do not have a complete diet on which to nourish their education nor an enhanced world view that allows them to see beyond the enclosing nature of the their culture. And with 49.1 percent of the population aged 25 and under, school-aged residents make the city a youthful one.
"This area is an impoverished area," says Manuel Medrano, professor of Social Sciences at the University of Texas at Brownsville in Partnership with Texas Southmost College.
Medrano says he avoids misrepresenting all his students as poor and undereducated, adding there is no "typical" Brownsville student. Still, the educator says his students face a unique combination of factors that make educational goals like computer literacy difficult.
"I think a lot of it has to do with the family – if you have eight or nine brothers and sisters it’s very difficult to get space for yourself and time to yourself," he says. "You come with a package when you come to school and that package is the parents, the income and the parents’ income level."
The "baggage" students bring to school with them has a major effect on their performances, he says. Income level is a powerful factor, he adds, but one parents can overcome for their children by fostering and nurturing an education.
"People who are poor usually lack connections," says Neil Pierce, a veteran syndicated urban affairs columnist. "The Internet is a tool that blasts through some of these barriers for some people in poor communities."
"Internet literacy is going to be as important as letter literacy," Pierce says. He adds that a lack of computer access "means a lack of opportunity and being closed out ... We’re in a very cool and competitive global environment and if you can’t compete you’re in trouble."
Pierce described computer and Internet literacy as "absolutely critical." Youth take to computers quickly and can find "all sorts of potential positives" in the invaluable research tools.
Gary Chapman, director of the 21st Century Project, a research and education endeavor aimed at increasing public involvement in science and technology at UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, stresses that poorer communities form isolated islands of perspective.
"The Internet provides a source of alternative viewpoints that are not available in mainstream media and that’s important for lower income communities," says Chapman. "It’s important for poor people to have access to those tools. If not, they’ll fall further and further behind."
While poor communities need the world view lent by the Internet, Chapman adds that it is equally important for these communities to participate online, lending their voices to a medium that needs diversity.
Chapman says entrepreneurial possibilities await online, with some of the varied job opportunities including Web design, and marketing and selling products.
"About three-fourths of the jobs in the U.S. involve interaction with computers," he adds.
Other experts agree that as the Information Age presses on, employers increasingly seek college graduates with computer knowledge.
"Demand is extremely high for just the basics like Microsoft Word," says Patrick Scheetz, author of a study entitled "Recruiting Trends 1996-97." Scheetz has had his pulse on the job market for 27 years, interviewing recruiters from companies of all sizes and types from the East coast to the West.
Scheetz says employers think "the Internet is nice," but want graduates with basic computer literacy skills like the ability to use a word processor or a spreadsheet. Graduates with these skills, he says, attract recruiters.
Beyond the basics, Scheetz says the job market craves graduates with computer-related degrees. Currently, employers cannot fill positions in these areas.
The growing importance of computers in society makes questions of access paramount, says Scheetz, who added that the economic factors that prevent families from acquiring computers can act as barriers of opportunity to developing children.
"If you’re coming from a background where your parents lack the funds to have plumbing and electricity, they’re going to be hard pressed to put a computer on the desktop," he says. "If you have some kids who come out of elementary and have never used a computer aren’t they going to have some trepidation? – ‘Don’t hit that key, you’re going to break it’."
Scheetz stressed the importance of viewing the Internet and computer access as a challenge, not a barrier.
"Here’s something we need to do to get past an educational challenge and that’s to get computers into the hands of every child," he says.
En route to that goal, a select number of educators in South Texas are focusing on computer literacy. Before the students can explore the resources of the Web and Internet, they must become conversant in basics, explains Chris Rowan, a technology instructor at Morningside Elementary in Brownsville.
"Very few of the kids know how to use a Windows 95 capable machine," he says.
Rowan has pioneered technology instruction at the elementary school, introducing his students to computers when district administrators still considered the tools frivolous expenditures.
He teaches a technology course to elementary students of all ages at the school, connecting them with computer literacy. How to use a mouse and the basics of windows navigation make up the first few lessons, he says.
Successive lectures focus on word processing applications and spreadsheets, like Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, he says. Learning comes relatively easy to the students since they already have the skills to accomplish the tasks and only lack familiarity with the new tools, he adds.
"When a child in pre-school is told to sort things by color, they’re doing database management – All you have to do is add the word ‘field’ and you’re using a spreadsheet," he says.
"It’s a critical mass. Once they’ve learned a certain amount then they don’t need me anymore. I just guide them along the way and show them the tricks I’ve learned."
Rowan says that computers have better uses than solely running education-related programs whose only options for student interaction include the answers "A," "B," "C," or "D."
"A lot of the software is really good but to me computers are a lot better than that – you can create so many things," he says.
With TAAS scores low, Cardenas says district policy now prevents her students from using the Internet during class time. Instead, they use the systems to answer multiple choice questions for TAAS training. The result: rather than excited anticipation for the Internet, students now dread going to the computer labs, she adds.
Rowan says society accepts and expects traditional forms of literacy like the ability to read and write and understand math, adding the definition of literacy needs to be expanded.
"There should also be technology literacy," he says. "It may be as fundamental a right as the ability to write sentences."
While Rowan has yet to begin teaching Web publishing – the process of creating and publishing Web pages on the Internet – to his elementary students, the Brownsville resident can claim victory in the Brownsville Independent School District’s technology seminar.
Technology educators and 30 interested students of all ages and grade levels gathered last summer for an intensive three week course.
"In a one week period of time we trained them on Windows 95, Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, FrontPage, Netscape, Internet Explorer, image processing and Web development," he says.
But the successes enjoyed by Rowan tell the story of only one of the 52 campuses in the BISD.
Derek Weaver, BISD’s technology coordinator says that despite a total of $1.2 million grants for technology upgrades, computer literacy among faculty and the quality of the hardware varies from campus to campus. Some schools like Morningside have had Web pages for more than four or five years, while others suffer from lack of equipment and personnel changes.
"We’re kind of moving out of the Ice Age, but it’s slow," he says.
The district has a total of 5,500 computers, with only 1,800 Internet-capable systems. Age afflicts many systems and the multitude of Macintoshes owned by the district present particular problems – upgradeability.
"The Macintoshes are really giving us a hard time because there is not much you can do for them," he adds.
With BISD quickly forming into its own Internet Service Provider, Weaver says hardware worries take a back seat to the more pressing problems - training. Faculty literacy will be a slow goal to reach beacuse the district only allocates Weaver and two other technology specialists to train 3,800 teachers.
Weaver says two more specialists will be hired this year, but Cardenas says trainers will have to overcome more than just the sheer volume of faculty to train – technophobia and resistance to change make bigger foes.
"Porter is the last school to implement a computerized grade book," she says.
Faculty members have professed an inability to use computers, and the training mechanisms in place cannot keep pace with teachers who want someone to sit by them every time they enter their grades into a database, she says.
But beyond the phobias and apprehensions of teachers, Cardenas expresses concern that much of the problem is resistance to change – even when the new way of doing things makes the overall job easier.
She describes the grade book software as self-explanatory and time-saving: It prompts teachers for the necessary information, calculates grades and automatically generates report letters – in English or Spanish – to the parents of students falling behind in their studies.
Despite this, she adds, a lot of the staff at her high school resent having to use the software. With all the feet-dragging, full implementation has been delayed and the old manual means of tallying grades are still used.
"There is such a negative, negative resistance to these computers," she says, recalling that many instructors said they were glad that only English teachers had to use the Internet labs.
At the same time, students leaving BISD often do not possess the casual familiarity with computers that many folks outside of the Valley enjoy, Weaver says.
"Students come back from major universities with an e-mail account and they don’t know what to do with it," he adds.
But the school systems of South Texas have a united ally in the libraries of the Valley.
"There is a problem with basic computer skills here in the Valley and in Brownsville," says Jerry Hedgcock, system administrator for the newly built Brownsville Public Library’s Internet Resource Center.
Questions of access, according to Donna Public Library Director Bruce Kalter, present a huge hurdle to South Texas youths. Computer Literacy is paramount, he says.
"There entire future depends on it – If we don’t get caught up with the rest of the world, we’re going to get left behind," Kalter says of the Valley. "I don’t want to dwell on the issue but we’re deprived, at least technologically."
Thanks to a Texas State Libraries and Archives Commission grant, Hedgecock has recently helped establish an Intranet or "freenet" between 16 public libraries in South Texas, providing free Internet access to their patrons.
Though maintenance funds are scarce, Hedgecock says the project matches his philosophy of libraries as the free disseminators of information and knowledge – a virtual extension of the free flow of information that the Internet embodies.
"You go back to the concept that knowledge is power, and where is knowledge needed more than in places like Brownsville?" Hedgecock asked. "The Internet gives the libraries the ability to level the playing field."