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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Mending the Breach: Overcoming the Digital Divide

A closer look at what the digital divide is and who it affects most.
By Andy Carvin

Editor's Note: While some of the information in this article is no longer current, author Andy Carvin is still an activist and commentator about media, education technology, and society. His thoughts about the digital divide, back in 2000, show us both how much and how little things have changed. For more current information, visit our Digital Divide Resource Roundup.

The digital divide, simply put, is the gap between those people and communities with access to information technology and those without it. Yet, the fact is there are many divides, characterized by community, ethnic, economic, and age groups.

While some communities are gaining greater access to information technologies, others are falling further behind. According to the 1999 U.S. Department of Commerce report, Falling Through the Net: A Report on Telecommunications and the Information Technology Gap in America:

  • Households earning incomes over $75,000 are over twenty times more likely to have home Internet access than those at the lowest income levels.
  • Whites are more likely to have home Internet access than African-Americans or Latinos have from any location.
  • Latino households are still roughly half as likely to own a computer as white households and nearly two-and-a-half times less likely to use the Internet.
  • Only 6.6 percent of people with an elementary school education or less use the Internet.
  • People with college degrees or higher are ten times more likely to have Internet access at work as persons with only some high school education.

The divide in our nation's classrooms parallels what we see in the larger society. The U.S. Department of Education report, Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms, 1994-1999, points out that while the percentage of schools with at least one connection to the Internet increased from 89 percent to 95 percent between 1998 and 1999, the nation's poorest schools -- those where 71 percent or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches -- made no progress in expanding connections to individual classrooms.

The percentage of classrooms in such schools with Internet access remained flat, at 39 percent from 1998 to1999. For many school-age children, classrooms may hold the best hope for access to information technologies, yet many schools struggle with basic infrastructure issues like leaking roofs and electrical upgrades, and much less powerful computer networks.

No Easy Answers

Unfortunately, there is no one answer to solving the digital divide. Some critics insist that the divide will fade due to market pressures, with decreasing hardware and connectivity costs inevitably leveling the digital playing field. There is some merit to this argument, but only in part. Falling technology costs have indeed allowed more people to participate in the Internet revolution, but the digital divide isn't simply an issue of whether everyone can afford access to the Internet. Other factors must be considered as well.

According to the U.S. Department of Education's 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey, as many as 44 million American adults -- one out of four -- are functionally illiterate, while another 50 million adults are plagued by limited literacy skills. When discussing solutions to the divide, many focus solely on increasing technology literacy. Technology skills, of course, are imperative for anyone who wishes to take advantage of the Net, but one cannot even begin to build such skills if basic literacy hasn't been mastered.

Another component of the divide is the lack of high-quality content for all Internet users. Much work still needs to be done in treating citizens as producers of information pertinent to their community's interests. The market has begun to create content for minority groups -- BET.com is one well-known example addressing the lifestyles of African-Americans -- but it has yet to address the particular needs of many other communities. The new Children's Partnership study, Online Content for Low-Income and Underserved Americans, is the first attempt to identify content for low-income users of the Internet, both what is available and what does not exist. One key finding is that low-income users want more localized information in addition to information at lower literacy levels and in different languages. Generally speaking, those persons interviewed indicated they would use the Internet more if there were content that was engaging and useful to them.

Similarly, when the market fails to produce content for a particular population, members of that population should be able to establish online spaces with their community's interests in mind. Scores of community networks like the Austin Free-Net in Texas, and Davis Community Network in California have pioneered non-commercial, local, online content. Communities must embrace this opportunity and become producers of content that is pertinent to their cultures and needs.

Comprehensive Strategy Needed

Will the digital divide ever be solved? Admittedly, there will always be certain members of society who can afford the latest technologies before others, but there is much we can do to alleviate the effects of the divide. Community Technology Centers (CTCs), subsidized Internet access for low-income families, and non-commercial community networks are some of the methods being implemented across the U.S. to lessen the divide. But as programs develop, it must be recognized that many factors have led to the digital divide, and as a society, we need to establish a comprehensive strategy that addresses it from all angles. Access, literacy, content, cultural relevance, and community needs are just a few of these factors. Only when we develop a comprehensive digital divide strategy will we be able to make a real difference.

Now a senior strategist at NPR, Andy Carvin was formerly a senior associate at the Benton Foundation in Washington, DC, and was editor of the now-archived Digital Divide Network. He was also the creator of EdWeb: Exploring Technology and School Reform, and blogged about educational technologies for PBS.

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