Computers and the poor

Americans have received fresh warning that a new class of poor people could be created by lack of equal opportunity for computer learning in America's public schools. At the same time they are hearing of organizations and individuals dedicated to preventing such an outcome.

A leader among these organizations is the Minnesota Educational Computer Consortium with its goal of ensuring equal access to computers for every student from rich suburbs to poor rural districts. The consortium and its ripple effects are described elsewhere in today's Monitor.

As for individuals, a senatorial champion with the highest relevant credentials has emerged to join the cry against leaving poor children out of the computer revolution. He is freshman Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey, former head of Automatic Data Processing, who used his maiden speech this week to stake out the effects of ''the information age'' as a framework for his Senate tenure.

Without doubt Congress can benefit from the focus of such a qualified individual on the rising importance of information in all forms - both for those who draw on it and for those with the skills and resources to control and purvey it. Many matters beyond education - privacy, security, manipulation - have to be addressed as information technology burgeons. But Mr. Lautenberg was on the mark in warning at the outset that, without equal opportunity for ''computer literacy ,'' a new class of poor people could be created.

As it is, he noted, computers are proliferating in the homes and schools of the affluent, while schools in poor districts average 25 percent fewer computers than other schools. The urgency of correcting the situation is suggested by another event drawing attention to the need. It is the start of Project Athena, a $70 million academic-industrial experiment to overhaul university teaching, with computers as the textbooks of the future. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology - allied with two computer manufacturers in the venture - compares it to previous MIT projects revamping whole academic fields with new sets of texts. In some cases a computer disk might be packaged in the cover of a textbook; it could simulate processes otherwise requiring much time and expense.

Since MIT's faculty includes at least one notable skeptic about computer teaching, particularly for young children, Project Athena will no doubt take account of pitfalls as well as promise in its assignment. But its thrust toward computerization appears in one form or another on many campuses.

The point for us - and presumably Senator Lautenberg - is that computer skills, like reading skills, are soon going to be taken for granted in higher education as well as in a growing number of workplaces. Students at lower levels without access to learning these skills will be just as surely discriminated against as those suffering any other denial of equal opportunity.

Fortunately the challenge is not going unnoticed. More evidence has come in since our editorial, ''Children and computers'' and the Monitor's special education section on computers (April 15).

There are examples on our own Massachusetts doorstep. In the fall a Cambridge magnet school will teach computers from kindergarten to eighth grade. The University of Massachusetts offers scholarships and other incentives to science students in exchange for agreeing to teach in public schools.

All this may be news more to parents than to young people taking to computers like ducks to water. But it cannot be said too often that children without water can hardly learn to swim.

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