George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Digital Divide: Where We Are

A status report on the digital divide from 2002.
By Norris Dickard, Diana Schneider
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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Editor's Note: While much of the information in this article is no longer current, it remains an interesting snapshot of our ideas about the digital divide in 2002.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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murwil's picture

We have developed an innovative approach to e-waste that tackles three problems at once. Re-Use of old PCs and UBUNTU to empower the less fortunate, using at-risk youth as the labor force - TEDxCreativeCoast - Murray Wilson - eWaste and the Social Landfill

Carmen Tomii's picture

It's good that the government is funding the use of technology in schools; however, it is unfortunate that has been budget cuts and less money going towards these kinds of programs. Children are more excited about learning through the use of computers. They are also really necessary when it comes to writing research papers, and teaching students how to find appropriate websites for the right kind of information--many things are learned online.

Morgan Rosas's picture

[quote]It's good that the government is funding the use of technology in schools; however, it is unfortunate that has been budget cuts and less money going towards these kinds of programs. Children are more excited about learning through the use of computers. They are also really necessary when it comes to writing research papers, and teaching students how to find appropriate websites for the right kind of information--many things are learned online.[/quote]

I agree that it's good for the govt. to fund things like such because the students do need to know how to find reliable sources and be able to have access to the internet since some probably do not have that resource at home.

Amber Blake's picture

I agree with you 100% It is important to expose our students who are from lower income homes to technology because they have fewer opportunities to that exposure. In todays day and age the the internet is a necessity and administrators should be aware of that fact. One day libraries won't exist and all reserch will evolve around the internet.

[quote]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.[/quote]

Amber Blake's picture

This is interesting because the digital divide is caused because of lower income communities not having the same access to technology that middle and high classes do. It is especially important to expose students that are from lower income homes to technology because they have fewer opportunities to be exposured to it. In todays day and age the the internet is a necessity and administrators should be aware of that fact. One day libraries won't exist and all research will evolve around the internet. Student's need to learn how to navigate around a computer to use the internet, and other tools such as word processing programs, presentation software, ect.

Lexi's picture

I have written a position paper on the digital divide and its correspondence to low Socioeconomic status schools. It touches on why low SES schools are hit the hardest and how it is impacting their future and our society. My paper discusses statistics and supports why we need to take action now rather than later.

It is important that you read it because our society is struggling with finding people to hire that has proficient skills in using technology and the Internet. It is becoming increasingly clear that technology is used in everyday communication, teaching, and learning. Thus, having people who are familiar with these new technologies are more desirable to hire. Closing the digital divide gap and bettering society starts with helping the low SES schools by improving their technologies, making them more available, and hiring teachers who are qualified to teach these technologies.

After reading my position paper, I hope that your knowledge of the digital divide is broadened. As well as, I hope that you are more aware of the consequences of not helping the low SES schools with closing the gap and the importance of taking action now.

The link to my paper is here

Nicholas Turecamo's picture

The idea that computer access isn't a necessity was most likely true in 2002. However, it does not reflect today's current situation. For instance, I am reading this article as part of an online course from Utah State's Educational Technology/Learning Science department in order to advance my understanding of educational technology in order to add this skill to my repertoire. Without access, I would be unable to do so. You are expected to have these computing skills in today's world.

However, the reason this is necessary is because the free market really did succeed in spreading the use of the computer and the internet, to the point that virtually everyone now has access. I'm not saying that TOP didn't have it's time, but if we had continued this program, it only would have gotten in the way of real progress.

Shelia Davis's picture

I would like to respond to two statements you made about the digital divide. I agree that the "digital divide" exist because of affordability, which results in low accessibility. However, many of the students in low SES schools are highly skilled with computer operations and technology usage. I have asked students to show me how to use a particular application on many occasions and they are able to navigate and use computer software with ease. The digital divide could be lessened if there was a public school recycling program that gave computers away instead of throwing them away.

Doug Pederson AKA SpectateSwamp's picture
Doug Pederson AKA SpectateSwamp
Supported numerous library systems over the years

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over 6000 family pictures
10,000 videos with 2800+ on youtube.
Tons of notes since 1999

Readily available through 1 simple search engine / MultiMedia player.
The latest feature can randomly pick a text - video grouping. Displaying the text in 48 point font followed by the video segment.
I don't have to remember anything. All my searches / url's / passwords are quick to find. Everything runs from a USB stick so it's easy to take my stuff with me and to have current backups.

Having a computer without access like this is almost useless. I have been challenging folks to a showdown for years. Nobody has better access to their info than me. You just don't.

The above post about the digital divide is from 2007. This app paves over the digital divide.
This video show examples of large font, slow motion, replay, resume speed... Next random group..

Being able to randomly sample all your stored information is like having total recall. Some do especially if they have this app. It's free.

Swomack Fairfax VA Bail's picture

Agreed, it's not the cost or availability of computers, but the cost of internet access that is difficult to overcome for low income families. We provide free internet access at our bail bonding office in Fairfax Virginia to defendants recently released from jail to help them keep up their their court appearances as well as get connected with other services such as job placement.

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