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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Digital Divide: Where We Are

A status report on the digital divide from 2002.
By Norris Dickard, Diana Schneider
Credit: George Abe

Editor's Note: While much of the information in this article is no longer current, it remains an interesting snapshot of our ideas about the digital divide in 2002. For more current information, visit our Digital Divide Resource Roundup.

The digital divide is most commonly defined as the gap between those individuals and communities that have, and do not have, access to the information technologies that are transforming our lives. In February 2002, the U.S. Department of Commerce released "A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet," the latest study on computer and Internet use in America. Formerly a national benchmark for measuring disparities in access, the implied message of this latest release is that the digital divide is no longer a major concern. Many organizations feel differently, and as the debate intensifies, we are asking after ten years of national leadership to address the issue, "Where are we?"

"A Nation Online" pointed to U.S. Census data showing that 143 million Americans, or about 54 percent of the population, are using the Internet. It also reported that the rate of growth of Internet use in the United States is currently 2 million new Internet users per month, with Internet use continuing to increase across income, education, age, race, ethnicity, and gender lines.

This is all good news, and a testament, in part, to the effectiveness of several federally funded programs such as the E-Rate, or telecommunications discounts to schools and libraries, the Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) and the Community Technology Centers Program (CTC). The CTC program provides matching grants that leverage state, local, and other resources to create and improve technology access and training facilities. The TOP program provides matching grants for projects that use technology in innovative ways to solve social problems and improve community access to modern telecommunications.

The Debate

Progress has been made, but a deeper look at the numbers in "A Nation Online" reveals that considerable work remains to bridge the digital divide. With 54 percent of Americans online, the current Administration sees "A Nation Online" as proof that a targeted national commitment to bridging the divide is no longer necessary. Along with a 17 percent decrease in educational technology funding from FY 2001, the TOP and CTC programs have been slated for termination in 2003. The rationale is that Americans are gaining access to computers at an acceptable pace and as a result the role of government can be curtailed.

Sonia Arrison, director of the Center for Technology Studies at the Pacific-Research Institute, is one of several conservative commentators who has argued recently that "the digital divide is not a crisis that places citizens in urgent need of more government help." Echoing past comments of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell that what we have is a "Mercedes divide," Arrison also argues "many of the Internet's so called 'have-nots' are really 'want-nots.'"

On the opposite end of the debate, numerous organizations have rallied in support of continued federal funding for the CTC and TOP programs by launching the Digital Empowerment advocacy campaign. They note that almost half of Americans do not have Internet access at home and only 25 percent of America's poorest households are online compared with approximately 80 percent of homes earning over $75,000. Only around 30 percent of youth in the lowest household income category use computers at home compared to over 90 percent of youth in the highest income category.

Even more striking is the fact that this gap has expanded in recent years. Similar disparities can be found among populations with limited formal education. Hispanics (31.8 percent) and African Americans (39.8 percent) lag behind whites (59.9 percent) in Internet access at home, suggesting serious ethnic and racial divides.

The Civil Rights Forum, Consumers Union, and the Consumer Federation of America released a report in May 2002 called "Does the Digital Divide Still Exist? Bush Administration Shrugs, But Evidence Says 'Yes.'" (PDF) The report concludes that the true measure of the digital divide is in assessing home Internet access. It also states that an inability to access the enhanced content available via broadband is creating a second-generation divide.

In response to arguments that the Internet is unnecessary or something of a luxury, Mark Lloyd, Executive Director of the Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy, said, "Being disconnected in the Information Age is not like being deprived of a Mercedes or some other luxury. Being disconnected means being disconnected from the economy and democratic debate."

Reaping the Rewards of National Investment

A new policy brief from the Benton Foundation, publisher of the Digital Divide Network, explores the likely impact of the federal budget cuts and how ending targeted efforts to bring technology to underserved communities could dampen economic and community development.

The brief focuses on how national programs such as the CTC and TOP have helped to wire schools and libraries and bring technology training into underserved communities. Objective research on the CTC program from SRI International, one of the nation's premier education technology research groups, shows technology being used in disadvantaged communities is improving pre-school, after-school, and adult learning. A recent report on telecommunications access in rural America shows that TOP has been instrumental in enabling rural communities to enhance local economies, better manage natural resources, and improve access to education and health services. Like the CTC program, its funding peaked in 2001 and elimination is in the works for 2003.

Continuing to Overcome the Digital Divide

Nobody believes that technology will be a quick-fix solution to poverty, but ensuring that underserved individuals and communities can access education and tools to improve the quality of their lives certainly appears to be a critical piece of the answer. The appropriations process will go on until September, when the 2003 budget will be finalized. Until that time, the debate will continue with one side saying "the invisible hand" of the free market is taking care of the problem and another pressing to save federal investments they feel are critical to connecting all Americans.

Norris Dickard is a senior associate at the Benton Foundation. His work focuses on public policies related to universal service, educational technology, and bridging the digital divide. Diana Schneider formerly served as the Assistant Director of Outreach at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. She currently works with the Benton Foundation Communication Policy program on projects related to educational technology and bridging the digital divide.

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Sue Krumrei's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We have a new program at our school within the last 2 years to try to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots. The state has a grant that supplied computers for all of our 6th graders. The laptops go home with them and to class. They all now have them in the 7th grade and the word is that our 6th graders will again get this opportunity later in the year. It has definitely been a big change in making technology accesible to all. There needs to be some reinforcement from their family and friends outside of school. So far, I think it has helped those of differing backgrounds to be motivated and educated in what the internet and technology can do for them.

Dr. Denroy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What are the recommendations for overcoming digital divide?

Diane Demee-Benoit's picture
Diane Demee-Benoit
Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

Staff comment:

Dear Dr. Denroy:

Check out our archive of Edutopia stories on bridging the digital divide.

Links to and information about research, data, resources, and grants available on the topic of inequitable access are also available at the Digital Divide Network.

Caroline's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found this very interesting as a teacher in Baltimore City. When I first came into teaching, I found myself overly sensitive to the fact that most of my students would not have computers. Because of this, I focused all writings and projects non-digitally. Then, one night, I got on-line... to a little place called "myspace.com" and here I found, not only do my students have computer access, but REGULAR use. If my students did not have a computer at home (which was true for less then 10%), they had free access to the internet at the P.A.L. Center and Library. Additionally, as a school, we have weekly access to the computer lab. For my students, limiting their internet assignments was more because I was a "want not", not about them being a "have not."

Danielle Hewitt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How as teachers can we ensure we are using technology in a way to meaningfully impact student achievement? First off, as teachers we should be using technology as a means to expand our knowledge and to ensure we are keeping up to date with national content standards, so that our students' achievement can be compared with national student achievement data.
As a foreign language teacher, I am constantly having my students access technology so that they can explore the diverse world around them. Do we have the ability visit Mexico and experience the Day of Dead, explore El Museo del Prado in Spain, and watch a bull-fighting match? No we do not. However, by incorporating the use of technology into my class, my students are instantly transported to a world where they can work to meet the National Foreign Language Standards by demonstrating an understanding of the relationship between the practices and perspectives and products of the culture studied, by making cross-disciplinary connections, by comparing the Spanish language to English, and by showing evidence of becoming life-long learners by using the language for personal enjoyment and enrichment.
I believe it is imperative that my students and I explore our content through different lenses and technology is one of the many ways we do so. Without access to technology, the majority of my students would be closed off from the world and experiences available beyond West Baltimore. Providing low-income communities access to technology (especially the youth in these communities) is necessary in order to fight educational inequity.

Amanda R.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a 9th-grade English teacher in West Baltimore, MD - I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of my students fall into the "lowest household income" bracket mentioned in the article. I agree with Caroline (poster below), many of our students *are* able to access the internet to surf the web, download music and access MySpace - but I'm not sure that's indicative of any kind of technological advantage per se. I believe that the problem of technological "haves" and "have nots" lies not so much in a student's ability to access the internet generally, but to be able to access it reliably and efficiently *at school*. My ninth-grade students simply do *not* understand how to do research on the internet - they don't get which sites are trash, which can be modified (like a wiki) and which are reputable and appropriate for research projects. These kinds of things need to be taught, but with the unreliable access to technology that schools in most economically-disadvantaged neighborhoods have, it's nearly impossible to teach the students how to use the internet appropriately (worksheets are just NOT effective here). So, what we have is students using MySpace and Itunes, but not JStor and Google Scholar (generalizations both, I know). I think that it's interesting that Sonia Arrison states that the digital divide is not something that places citizens "in urgent need of more government help," (I'll dismiss the overly-snarky use of the word "more") because I think that she misses the point. We need to educate people so that they can access technology appropriately and reliably - we don't need the government to wire up every house in the United States. I believe that the answer to the digital divide lies not so much in "home access" but in acquiring funding for schools and community organizations to have computers, the internet etc. at hand in order to teach these skills to those that require them.

Heidi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I find that I am able to relate this article to my own students. Only a few of my students are without a computer or internet at home. Those who do have access to a computer with internet fail to use it in what I would consider constructive or educational ways. Part of this is simply because they are not educated about how to use the internet. While they understand how to use the technology of the computer, they are inable to use the internet even to do research. In addition, I notice that students have great difficulty typing. I am always surprised by these observations that I have made because I feel as though I grew up in a generation in which we were experiencing the boom and growth of the computer and internet. I guess that I assume my students should be even more advanced than me in terms of these technologies simply because they are younger and have been immersed in these types of things their entire life. However, I tend to forget that there is another element there in terms of how technology gets brushed aside in impoverished communities and families. While many of my students do have computers with internet, they are nonfluent in terms of understanding how to use it properly because they have never had the opportunity to be taught how to use it.

Adam Trifiro's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

One of the most interesting thoughts of this article, in my mind, was the idea of the second generation divide that the growing use of broadband has created. This second generation divide has particular implications for teachers in schools that firewall teacher's ability to connect to content and media found on the internet. In my school and across the district I work in, the school has installed a firewall on the computers to prevent unwanted search for inappropriate or irrelevant content in the school. Although I think this generally a good idea, it prevents teachers from accessing a wide variety of 'good' teaching content, essentially relegating our classrooms to a pre-internet age of education. This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that my school has a limited number of LCD projectors to display this content once we as teachers find other ways to show the information in class, and we are required to sign up for them weeks in advance. While, I understand I have digressed from my original point, I think this creates yet another type of digital divide, when students are denied access to educational content that students in other schools are able to access, due to the trust, or lack thereof, in teachers judgment in certain schools.

Allison Craney's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a public school teacher in a low income community, I associate the digital divide with the achievement gap. Students growing up in low income communities have a variety of disadvantages, and one of those disadvantages is unequal access to technology, such as the Internet. When I teach, I work to include technology as often as possible, but with little funding and few resources, this is a struggle. I was struck when I learned that some believe the Internet is a luxury- it is not! It is a necessity for gaining access and information about all sectors of society.

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