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A New Understanding of the Digital Divide

Mary Beth Hertz

HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA
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As an urban teacher whose students are often lacking access to a computer and the Internet at home, I have strong opinions and experiences with the digital divide. I decided to do some research to see where my students fit into the current trends.

What is the digital divide?

If you ask most people to define the digital divide, most of them would answer that it has to do with those who have access to technology and those who don't. Ten years ago, they would have been right. However, over the last ten years access to technology has become more and more ubiquitous. In fact, in a 2010 Pew study (Technology Trends Among People of Color), laptop ownership among African Americans and whites broke about even and the percentage of Hispanic and African American Internet users, which was 11 percent in 2000, rose to 21 percent in 2010. A 2011 study showed that 83 percent of American adults own a cell phone (Americans and Their Cell Phones). Recent advances in cell phone technology mean that more and more people are using their phones to access the internet. As a result, many previously unconnected populations are connected through their phones. In fact, another Pew study ("For minorities, new 'digital divide' seen") reported that 51 percent of Hispanics, 46 percent of African Americans, and only 33 percent of whites used their phones to access the Internet.

So what does this all mean?

We are looking at a completely different kind of divide. While access has increased substantially, the kind of access varies. Most minorities in the Pew studies reported using their phone for accessing email and the Internet. In 2010 only 56 percent of African American households reported having broadband access compared to 67 percent of white households (Home Broadband 2010). This creates an entertainment vs. empowerment divide. As one of the Pew studies suggests, you can't fill out a job application through a cell phone or update your résumé on a game console (another way that many minorities report they access the Internet). The divide has shifted from an access issue to a kind of access divide.

Another group that is often left out of the conversation are Americans with disabilities. The divide for these citizens has always been there, and assistive technologies have definitely made access easier (if the people who need them can afford them), there are no laws stating that websites need to be accessible to people with disabilities. Even something as simple as a Captcha can prove to be a nightmare for someone with a disability. There are groups right now working on making navigation of important sites more accessible to Americans with disabilities.

Most of the reports about the digital divide center around racial and socio-economic differences (a 2010 study confirmed that household income is the greatest predictor of Internet use). However, for those families in rural areas, access is still the number one issue. In a study of groups and organizations and their use of tech, farm organizations were one of 3 reported groups for whom tech doesn't dominate at all. In addition, there are still 4 percent of teens reporting that they have no Internet or computer at home.

What are some solutions?

As the studies suggest, the problem isn't access, it's the kind of access. Families, particularly minority families, are lacking in home broadband access. Just recently, Comcast launched Internet Essentials, a low-cost Internet service for families receiving free school lunches that is available wherever Comcast provides services. In addition, communities need to ensure that libraries stay open, schools can provide access to their labs after school, and organizations need to plan their communication strategies around the connection style of the populations they serve.

States also need to invest in broadband infrastructure to bring broadband services to rural households. Companies like Comcast could provide mobile labs that could visit communities in the same way bookmobiles used to travel the country.

Sadly, the dichotomy of haves and have-nots is not going away any time soon, but as long as we understand what this divide looks like and how it evolves and changes, we can better address the underlying causes and provide resources for all US citizens, regardless of ethnicity, geography or socio-economic status.

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Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

I can't agree with you more, Cossondra. Geography does play a huge role in your educational opportunities, even in urban locales. It seems a bit crazy for a district to spend so much money on hardware, grant or no grant, without investing in infrastructure! I wonder what your thoughts are on access to the Internet being a basic human right in this country?

John Norton's picture
John Norton
Education writer, Founder & co-editor of

Much has been made about the use and misuse of stimulus dollars, but they're having a large impact in my rural Appalachian county, where the local cable company is running fiber to something like 97% of homes in the next 18 months. It's quite an undertaking in this area of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I'm fortunate to live in the woods and have DSL service via AT&T but it's an expensive add-on. The stimulus project will definitely narrow the divide some in our area.

Cossondra George's picture

Reality? The cost of purchasing ~300 netbooks for our 7th through 12th graders is a drop in the bucket of what providing high speed internet access to those students would be. Our district is roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island, isolated, rural, with a fair number of students with no electricity or running water. No internet provider is willing to spend the money it would take to provide access to all this area for the small amount of revenue they would receive even if every family were to access their services.

I do think access to high speed internet IS a basic human right. Like your original article said, having cell phone access is different from 'real' access. And even cell phone access is limited here. (I live 8 miles from school and do not have reliable cell phone coverage at my house.) Students who do not have access are left behind before they even begin. They are not only left out of the educational possibilities and opportunities afforded those with internet, they are also left out of the social aspects of the internet which are critical in today's world.

Until we find a way to bridge this divide, students such as mine, will continue to fall further and further behind their more 'endowed' counterparts in other districts.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher


I do think access to high speed internet IS a basic human right. [/quote]

Can you please cite any part of the U.S. Constitution that would support that contention?

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

[quote] I wonder what your thoughts are on access to the Internet being a basic human right in this country?[/quote]

This is why liberals represent the anti-thesis to practical common sense, because they fail to realize that an activist court that would support such a notion wouldn't just stop there. If I was to think hypothetically that cable TV access was also a basic "human right," then were do the absurd wants end?

As I've said many times before to people with their heads in the sand, this is indicative of the sick and overly entitled societal mindset that believes that "wants" are actually "needs" which must be legally ensured and protected.

Meanwhile, complete global economic collapse is imminent and too many of my fellow education professionals are more concerned with getting the new iFad.

The reason why the education system is "broken" is because of the so-called "leadership" who play with toys and social media all day and night and fail to act like true adults who have little time for such nonsense. Getting back to the basics and simple hard work, combined with proper doses of traditional discipline as needed, represents much of what kids should have in school. This generation and all that follow are also going to have to upgrade their basic survival skills which will mainly require cunning and a strong will, not the "skills" of twiddling their thumbs over a keyboard or telling the world at what restaurant they're eating dinner tonight.

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

Very true. What do you think about a mobile Internet library like the old 'bookmobiles?'

Luz's picture
2nd Grade Bilingual Teacher in Texas

"51 percent of Hispanics, used their phones to access the Internet"
In my class of 19 Hispanic students, where 100% are on reduced-fee or free lunch, the digital divide is evident. When I recently asked how many had Internet access, only 3 raised their hands... How can they get up to par technologically with their non-Hispanic peers, if they don't have use/access to the resources at home?

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

Sometimes that technological equity boils down to even their parents' ability to compete for jobs and other resources that their non-Hispanic counterparts have access to. If the parents lack resources, it definitely has an adverse effect on their children.

Amanda's picture

I have many students who don't have internet access at their homes and some of those students don't have cell phones with internet access either. This creates a problem if I want them the access the internet to do research for the next day at school. I end up taking time away from other areas of the lesson plan to make sure all students have the same time to work on computer projects.

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

We do end up using up school time for things that kids in higher income households do at home. Still, I think it's vital that our lower income kids get the experience and the skills of their higher income peers.

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