I had the chance to spend part of yesterday afternoon with a group of very talented teachers at Maize South Middle School talking about the best way to teach social studies. For the last year and a half their mandate has been to focus on the use of digital materials as their primary teaching resource.

The eight teachers are making progress with a different way of thinking and leading. But one of the themes I heard yesterday from the group is their concern that some of their students are struggling because of a lack of access outside the classroom.

Their concern is echoed in an article in the most recent issue of neatoday titled Mind the Gap.

Gordon Stewart, 16, has his own computer in his bedroom in Arlington, Virginia, as do his two sisters. He uses the Internet for homework, but spends hours online long after his studies are completed—if he’s not chatting with his friends or updating his blog he’s busy posting mash-ups to YouTube or playing elaborate, multi-partner video games.

Students like Gordon are so digitally connected it’s as if they were born with their own ringtones and MySpace pages. But not everyone in “Generation Next” has access to this seemingly ubiquitous technology.

The article goes on to describe those kids who don’t have “24/7 access.” We’ve all talked about the “Digital Divide,” the problem of those who have access to technology and those who don’t. Mind the Gap discusses something a bit more elusive. The article interviews MIT media guru and professor Henry Jenkins who calls this elusive something the “Participation Gap.”

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.

The article and Jenkins suggest that perhaps schools have gotten lazy in ensuring that computer access is 24/7 for ALL of their students. The key is the 24/7 part. We’ve done a pretty good job of making sure that all kids have some sort of access, either at school or a library somewhere. But we are not doing a good job of ensuring access at a moment’s notice.

Without this type of access, Jenkins says that we are leaving kids behind.

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.

Just as we once worried that the “Digital Divide” would create two classes of people – the haves and the have-nots – Jenkins now worries that the “Participation Gap” will do the same thing.

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.

Can we be happy that we have computer carts in schools? Or labs kids can go to? Is that enough?

I think it’s a great question. When I hear that teachers and their students don’t have access to technology during the months of March and April because they’re being used to give state assessments, I cringe. Perhaps I should be more concerned that those same computers aren’t available to our kids after 3:30.

The current Kansas Department of Education page cites the Technology Counts 2007 report that awarded Kansas a B- for its efforts on encouraging the use of technology.

Kansas districts have provided computers for public school students to use at a rate of one computer for every 2.6 students. This enables expanded learning opportunities to be provided to Kansas students through the use of technology.

But do those computers ever leave the buildings they are housed in? If not, I have to agree with Jenkins. Providing access only in schools is not the same. Without the kinds of 21st century skills that 24/7 access creates, kids and teachers will fall further and further behind.