How Is The Digital Divide Affecting Schools?

As we enter the second decade of the new millennium, how is digital access changing, and what are the implications for schools?

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 95 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 use the Internet? And all of this is happening while we are in the midst of an explosive rise in mobile technology.  According to Pew research, in 2010, just 45 percent of households that earned less than $30,000 a year had broadband in their homes. Access to the Internet has become a necessity.”

How Things Have Changed

Mobiles: According to CTIA – The Wireless Association, some 91 percent of Americans now use a cell phone, and 90 percent of cell phone subscribers in the United States and Western Europe have phones that are Internet-ready, according to comScore’s 2010 Mobile Year in Review. Whether cell owners are using the Internet-access feature or not, it’s there, and if the trends say anything, they’ll be adopting its use by leaps and bounds.

“Kids are bringing more technology to school in their pockets than we have been able to buy them over the last thirty years,” says Shelly Blake-Plock, blogger in chief at TeachPaperless and a faculty associate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. This fact has prompted some to say that the digital divide is shrinking: African Americans and English-speaking Latinos are among the most active users of the mobile Web, and cell phone ownership is higher among these groups than it is for whites, according to several recent studies. But for many of these cell phone users, mobile technology is the only way they can get online. At the same time, many schools continue to ban cell phone use during school, which may be an outdated policy. Not only are there an increasing number of educational applications for mobiles but also, as Blake-Plock suggests, prohibiting phones now means “disconnecting the kid from what’s actually happening in most of our lives.”

Digital Inclusion: In some circles, the term digital divide is itself defunct. Students who are excluded from the digital universe know exactly what they’re missing, according to Deloney. “They know they’re not getting the homework help that everyone else is; they know they’re not getting that discount textbook or taking classes to further their degrees.”

Perhaps the authors of the “NMC Horizon Report: 2011 K-12 Edition” — part of a series of research-based analyses of trends in ed tech by the New Media Consortium — said it best: “The digital divide, once seen as a factor of wealth, is now seen as a factor of education: Those who have the opportunity to learn technology skills are in a better position to obtain and make use of technology than those who do not.”

How to Level the Digital Playing Field

Schools need to look at how the new technology enhances learning.

Availability of the Devices Themselves: Is there broadband installed at home or at a library close by? If there’s a computer in the classroom, does it do more than collect dust? Has it been updated in the last five years?

Accessibility of the Technology At Hand: Once there is a Web-enabled computer at a community center or school, can students access the websites they need to in order to learn, contribute, and create? Is there help nearby if a computer breaks down or if a piece of software fizzles? If it’s a broadband connection at home, is the monthly cost sustainable for the family? Blake-Plock calls this the access divide. This is a more complex issue to address because it encompasses a variety of obstacles. Among the remedies is to end the practice at many schools of blocking creativity-enabling websites, to make sure there’s a computer maintenance staff on hand (or to allow tech-savvy students to do the troubleshooting), and to regulate telecommunications companies so they adopt open-Internet rules when it comes to low-income consumers.

Literacy: Blake-Plock refers to a final and crucial barrier to digital equality. This refers to literacy, not only with hardware and software but also with the vast global conversation that the Internet enables. He notes that there is a gap between those who are “getting connected into broader networks, building their capacity and their social capital, creating the new wave of learning” and those who are, for a slew of complex reasons, not doing so. Addressing this means beefing up effective technology-integration programs at schools of education, encouraging and enabling students to create media and to participate in collaborations with others around the world, and making sure that every computer lab — whether at a school or elsewhere — has a way for users to tap into an educational component.

Affordability: 36 percent of non-adopters, or 28 million adults, said
they do not have home broadband because the monthly fee is too
expensive (15 percent), they cannot afford a computer, the installation
fee is too high (10 percent), or they do not want to enter into a
long-term service contract (9 percent). According to survey
respondents, their average monthly broadband bill is $41.
We also know that Broadband is not available to many Americans.

Digital Literacy: 22 percent of non-adopters, or 17 million adults,
indicated that they do not have home broadband because they lack the
digital skills (12 percent) or they are concerned about potential
hazards of online life, such as exposure to inappropriate content or
security of personal information (10 percent) So in some places that I go
even when schools have the access the filtering even weeds out the National Geographic. At the Wireless Conference last week, most of the Superintendents
admitted that filtering was used because of the fear of cyberbullying and inappropriate access to pornographic sites
Relevance: 19 percent of non-adopters, or 15 million adults, said they
do not have broadband because they say that the Internet is a waste of
time, there is no online content of interest to them or, for dial-up
users, they are content with their current service.

Digital Hopefuls, who make up 22 percent of non-adopters, like the idea
of being online but lack the resources for access.
Few have a computer and, among those who use one, few feel comfortable
with the technology. Some 44 percent cite affordability as a barrier to
adoption and they are also more likely than average to say digital
literacy are a barrier. This group is heavily Hispanic and has a high
share of African-Americans.

Computers and the Internet can make learning more authentic and powerful for students. The question is not whether we can get an iPod into every kid’s hand. It’s whether communities can leverage the capacity of networks to make It’s not just word processing, but blogging and tweeting; not just a class project, but an international student collaboration; not reinventing the wheel every time, but tapping into a professional-learning community that shares ideas and resources”.

For more information on the digital divide, visit our Digital Divide Resource Roundup.

Sara Bernard is a former staff writer and multimedia producer for

Additional Resources on the Web

I am indebted to my friend, Bonnie Bracey Sutton for bringing this article to my attention.