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School of Education professor tries to narrow the digital divide

November 18, 2009

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When the last bell rings at Frazer School in Syracuse, the day is far from over. Instead of heading home, middle school students go to the Digital Entrepreneurship and Excellence Program (DEEP), designed to teach students how to use and benefit from new technologies. Whether they’re making movies or learning to blog, students are exposed to resources that are not typically available in inner-city schools like those on Syracuse’s South Side.

Jing LeiAddressing issues of technological inequity is important to Jing Lei, a professor in the Department of Instructional Design, Development and Evaluation in SU’s School of Education. “The digital divide is a serious issue for a number of students,” Lei says. “We talk about the digital haves and have-nots. Some students have the technology and can reap the benefits, and students without them will lag behind.”

Lei recently co-wrote a book on the divide with Paul Conway and Yong Zhao called “The Digital Pencil: One-to-One Computing for Children” (Routledge, 2007). “The digital pencil means every student having one device that can be connected to the Internet,” she says. “The use of laptops and PDAs in schools is on the rise. Our book examines how mobile devices are shifting the context of the classroom, and how schools can take advantage of that shift.”

A Chinese native, Lei earned a master’s degree in education and a bachelor’s degree in comparative and higher education from Peking University. During her research in China, she became aware of inequities in education throughout the world. Upon her acceptance into the Ph.D. program of learning, technology and culture at Michigan State University, Lei began studying the issue of educational disparities. Having earned her doctorate in 2005, she joined the SU faculty, a decision she’s never looked back on. “I felt like it was the right place for me,” she says. “I’m lucky to have such a supportive department, for myself and my research.”

It was through the University that Lei was awarded a grant from the Syracuse Campus-Community Entrepreneurship Initiative (Enitiative). Enitiative stems from a five year, $3 million grant given to the University by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to promote entrepreneurship in education. Lei used the money she received to buy video cameras, iPods and software for DEEP. As principal investigator and e-professor of the program, with the help of graduate students, she observes and collects data from the project for a research paper in the works. She also linked DEEP to “Instructional Technologies for Educational Settings,” a graduate course offered every fall semester. The course explores how the use of technology both influences and is influenced by teachers, students and school systems.

Lei’s devotion to equity in schools and how technology can level the academic playing field is driven by her personal beliefs about what it means to be a teacher. “In China we always say a teacher is not only one who teaches you the knowledge and the skills, but most importantly one who teaches how to be a good person,” she says. “Being a good person and a good scholar go together.”

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