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Debate Rages Over 'Digital Divide'

Are your students "haves" or "have-nots"? Are they technology savvy? Or are they being left behind because your school hasn't kept pace with technology? Explore the "digital divide" in this special Education World story!

"In our schools, every classroom in America must be connected to the information superhighway, with computers and good software, and well-trained teachers. We are working with the telecommunications industry, educators, and parents to connect 20 percent of California's classrooms this spring, and every classroom and library in the entire United States by the year 2000."

--- President Clinton, 1996 State of the Union Address

Three years later, huge inequities in student access to technology still exist.


"Equity access to information technologies in the K-12 classroom is the test of what kind of society we will be in the future," says Roger Hoyer, Chair of the 1999 Conference on K-12 Networking, being held this week in Washington, D.C. "Will we allow a digital divide to exist based on what zip code our kids live in?"


In Computers and Classrooms: The Status of Technology in U.S. Schools, a 1997 study by the Education Testing Service (ETS), these facts were disclosed:

  • Only 14 percent of U.S. classrooms have Internet access.


  • Only 15 percent of U.S. teachers reported having at least nine hours of training in educational technology.


  • Eighteen states still do not require new teachers to take technology courses before they are certified.

According to the ETS report, "The states with the best ratio of students to computers, about 6 to 1, are Florida, Wyoming, Alaska, and North Dakota. Massachusetts, Mississippi, Delaware, and Louisiana have the highest student-to-computer ratios, ranging from 14 to 1 to 16 to 1." The U.S. Department of Education's recommendation is a ratio of 5 to 1.

A year later, Secretary of Education William R. Riley spoke about the potential of today's technology and the threat of the "digital divide." In his speech, Technology and Education: An Investment in Equity and Excellence, he noted that while 27 percent of the nation's classrooms have Internet access, the number falls to 13 percent in low income communities and minority neighborhoods.


Last March, the Washington Post reported the results of a Scarborough Report Corporation survey. That survey found the majority of U.S. students do not have Internet access in their homes either. The disparity between technological have and have-nots is especially evident between poor city and rural students and those in more affluent areas.

Teachers and administrators interviewed for the report feel the gulf between students with computer access and those who do not have it is one of the most troubling inequities in the education system. They see students who do not have access not only excluded from much of the newest information but also falling behind in skills needed to be competitive in the job market of the future.

Other statistics seem to support those sentiments.

Last July, the Department of Commerce released its second report on U.S. household penetration of telephones, personal computers and online services. The report, Falling Through the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide, shows that the gap between the information "haves" and "have nots" widened in the last three years. Black and Hispanic Americans lag even further behind white Americans in computer ownership and on-line access despite significant growth in computer ownership and overall computer usage in America.

"Too many Americans are not able to take part in the growing digital economy," said Commerce Secretary William M. Daley. "The growing trend of information 'haves' and 'have nots' is alarming. We must continue to reach out to under served communities through programs like the e-rate and TIIAP grants and aggressively work with community and business leaders to seek solutions to this problem."

"The data demonstrates that there are still pockets of 'have nots' among low-income, minorities and the young, particularly in rural areas and central cities," said Secretary Daley.

Findings of the report include:

  • About 93.8 percent of households have telephones; 36.6 percent have personal computers; 18.6 percent have online access.


  • While 19.3 percent of black households and 19.4 percent of Hispanic households own PCs, 40.8 percent of white households do.


  • Only 7.7 percent of black homes and 8.7 percent of Hispanic homes have Internet access, compared to 21.3 percent of white homes.


  • While overall household ownership of personal computers has grown by over 12 percentage points, a 52 percent increase over 1994, ownership for households earning less than $35,000 per year is still below the national average. Computer ownership for households in rural and central city areas is below the national average of 36.6 percent.

The report updates information from the 1994 "Falling Through the Net" report also issued by the Department of Commerce.


Schools do what they can to make computer technology available for their students, but often there are not enough computers to meet the demand. In a recent listserv posting a teacher described this situation in a rural North Carolina school:

"In the library, a computer reservation calendar is crammed with the penciled names of hundreds of students who will wait weeks to get on the lone Internet-access computer."

In some schools, the only time students can gain access to a computer is during lunchtime, but when a student does use it then, he often not only has insufficient time to do his research, but also as a trade-off for computer access has to give up his lunch -- frequently the most nutritious meal a poor student receives!

Schools that try to provide computer access before and after regular school hours frequently cannot afford to pay staff overtime to do so, and often have trouble finding volunteers. Additionally, many students depend on school busses to get them to and from school, and school bussing rarely allows for extensions of the school day. Through the largess of businesses and grants a few schools in such areas as Union City, N. J., Miami Beach, and San Francisco have attained enough computers to be able to lend them to students who have none at home. But even in some of those cases there is a hitch as these are often old computers and are prone to breaking down.


Others say the need to bring city and rural schools on a par with schools in more affluent neighborhoods goes beyond the need for money. In some cases "the degree to which a school or school district embraces and utilizes technology is not as much a wealth issue as it is a leadership issue," David Warlick, an instructional technology consultant, said in a recent wwwedu listserv posting.

"I know very poor and rural school districts that are light years ahead of some of the wealthy urban districts," said Warlick. "This has happened because the leadership has recognized the value of technology both with regards to students learning to use these tools to become more effective workers and more empowered and fulfilled citizens in the future and because students can learn in very powerful ways when using technology within creative and well crafted learning experiences."


According to the ETS, "It will cost about $15 billion to make our schools 'technology rich.' This is about $300 per student, 5 percent of total education spending and about five times what we now spend on technology."

To be able to offer students technological training schools need additional funding. The somewhat diminished Telecommunications Act of 1996, the E-Rate program, offering K-12 schools and libraries discounts on telecommunications and information services is a beginning, but for the millions of poor city and rural students slated to enter the job market over the next few years without technological skills, will it be too little too late?

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