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Caught in the Digital Divide

As record numbers of Americans go online, the gap between those who have access to technology and those who don't may be widening. Education World looks at the digital divide and what it means to educators. Included: Links to information and resources on the digital divide.

You've heard about the digital divide. Everybody's talking about it. Journalists condemn it. Government leaders scramble to close it. Educators struggle to cope with it. What exactly is it? The digital divide, in brief, is the gap between people who have access to computer technology and people who don't. It appears that, even as record numbers of Americans go online, the gap may be growing. Before it can be closed, the questions of who is caught in it-- and why-- must be answered.



Larry Irving, assistant secretary for communications and information for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), has called the divide a "racial ravine." The divide does appear to affect black and Hispanic households most. According to an NTIA report, Falling Through The Net: Defining The Digital Divide, although black and Hispanic households are twice as likely to own computers today as they were in 1994, those households are still only 40 percent as likely to have home Internet access as white households are. In addition, whites are more likely to have access to the Internet from home than blacks or Hispanics are to have access from any location. A survey conducted by The Public Policy Institute of California found that even in California, a hot bed of technology, only 39 percent of the state's Hispanic people accessed the Internet compared to 65 percent of white people.


Do you think the digital divide is primarily the result of a lack of access to technology or a lack of interest in technology? What do you think schools can do to close the gap? Share your thoughts and experiences on today's message board.

Blacks and Hispanics are not the only minority groups caught in the digital divide. According to Evans Craig, of the Albuquerque High Performance Computing Center in New Mexico, the divide also affects Native Americans. In The Native Digital Divide: A Review of Online Literature, a study of the divide in the southwestern United States, Craig states, "The main telecommunications artery for the southwest runs parallel with the Rio Grande. A telecommunications artery similar to the Silicon Valley is generally referred to as the Rio Grande Corridor (RGC). Along the Rio Grande are the Pueblo reservations. The RGC runs through these reservations. ... How many of [those people] have access to the RGC? Zero! Although the lines run right through the reservations, people do not have access. Why not? Is the cost too prohibitive to put digital centers there?"

Apparently it is. Only one-fourth of the homes on the Navajo Reservation have phone service. According to some estimates, extending phone lines to existing homes in the area would cost more than $10,000 a mile. Even if digital centers were installed, Craig points out, access to the RGC would do the Navajo no good.



The digital divide is not strictly a racial issue, however. The divide also affects rural areas of the country. According to the NTIA report, people living in urban areas are 50 percent more likely to have Internet access than people who live in rural areas are. Smaller telephone and cable providers simply cannot afford to provide the technology to their customers.

Adult learners, many of whom are recent immigrants, are also victims of the digital divide. Sarah Phinney, the distance learning coordinator at Porterville Adult School in central California, told Education World, "In my seven years' experience working with this population [of adult learners], I have found that a great number of the students we serve, especially those who speak English as a second language, are computer illiterate and thus are on the lean side of the divide."

Whether the immediate factors are ethnic, geographic, or societal, however, the digital divide does appear to spring from a larger economic gap. According to a TechWeek Live article, "New Efforts Bring Poor And Minority Users Into Tech Revolution,"" households with incomes greater than $75,000 are more than 20 times more likely to have Internet access than households in lower income brackets are. In addition, between 1997 and 1998, the disparity in home Internet access between households at the highest and lowest income levels grew by 29 percent.



Many people, however, question whether a digital divide fueled by ethnic, geographic, societal, or economic factors exists. The major issue, say the digital dissenters, is not a lack of access to technology but a lack of interest in technology. The educational system does not adequately address that lack of interest, they say.

In Louisiana, for example, although computers are available to schools, many don't ask for them. Steve Bett, director of TeleLearning for Louisiana, told Education World, "We serve 100 under-resourced high schools across the state of Louisiana. Fifty of them have obtained computers and Internet connections. Thirty have next to nothing and no real interest in joining the digital revolution. I contacted all the schools with an offer for a free computer and Internet connection. All a school had to do to receive federal funds was fill out a 20-page form. Most of the most under-resourced schools did not respond. I think that the only way to involve these schools is to provide a turnkey solution. This is what we did with the 15-year-old audio-conferencing system we now have. We supply everything. All the school has to do is contact us on our toll-free help line when the equipment does not work."

Dr. Margi Winters, director of instructional technology at Tunxis Community-Technical College in Connecticut, agrees that the digital divide is frequently a matter of choice. "It's been my observation that it's a values divide," Winters told Education World. "There are numerous free computer giveaways out there, from corporations and colleges who are upgrading to state-of-the-art computers. Our little community college is replacing 50 to 100 Pentium-class computers this fall, all of which are more than capable of being used for Internet access; Microsoft Office functions, such as Excel and Word; and teaching and learning programming. Used computers cost less than $150 and are Internet capable, and often Internet connections are free."

Sarah Phinney also sees this lack of interest in her work with adult learners. "I don't believe simply giving people computers is a very efficient way of closing the gap," Phinney said. "Sure, this gets a computer in the home at someone else's expense, but it does not address a person's attitudes toward computers. You can give a person a computer, but if they do not see its value in their life and do not know how to operate it, chances are good that they will sell the computer to produce cash-- something that everyone sees a personal value in."

That lack of interest in computer technology apparently exists among female students as well. According to Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age (2000), a recent study by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation Commission on Technology, Gender, and Teacher Education, a majority of high school girls are totally disinterested in technology education, and fewer women than ever before are entering technology fields. "Girls," the report said, "find programming classes tedious, computer games redundant and violent, and computer careers uninspiring." (See the Education World story: Educating Girls in the Tech Age: A Report on Equity.)



In April of this year, in Remarks by the President to the People of the Navajo Nation, President Bill Clinton pledged funding for low-cost phone service to Native American homes and for technology education. He also discussed establishing partnerships with large corporations to bring technology to reservations and rural areas of the United States. In his January 2000 State of the Union Address, Clinton also pledged monies in tax incentives and funding to "close the digital divide and open opportunity for all our people." The president's plan includes $100 million to create community technology centers in low-income neighborhoods and $10 million to prepare Native Americans for technical careers.

A wide variety of organizations and non-profit groups are also working to close the digital gap in their communities. One such group, The Computers for Schools Foundation, collects used computers, refurbishes them, and distributes them to K-12 schools in need. Since it began in 1991, the program has placed more than 80,000 computers in schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In many districts, the Computers for Schools program is the only source of computer equipment.

In California, members of the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group sponsor paid internships at which local teachers learn about technological advances and develop plans for sharing that knowledge with students.

In a world increasingly dependent on computer technology, answers to the question of how to prepare students for the workplace of the future are not easy to come by. Finding them is imperative, however. According to the TechWeek article cited above, the difference in home Internet access between people at the highest and lowest education levels increased by 25 percent between 1997 and 1998. The digital divide appears likely to become self-perpetuating-- the most highly educated have the greatest access to technology, and those with the greatest access to technology become better educated. Children from families who don't have access to today's computer technology will have a hard time catching up in tomorrow's technological job market.


You can find out more about the digital divide with the following links to resources and reports.

Sherril Steele-Carlin
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World


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Links updated 4/26/2002