Where is the Digital Divide in Higher Education?

What the Digital Divide Means for Higher Education

Our society is so heavily dependent upon web technology, it‘s easy to forget that a digital divide could exist – and yet it does. The phrase ‘digital divide’ has taken on various meanings since it was introduced in the 1990s and is typically associated with factors such as income, race, and class. Even though advances in mobile technology have made Internet usage more accessible, a divide still exists. The current digital divide is caused by differences in income, location, and quality of Internet access, which ultimately affects the availability of educational opportunities for many Americans.
Access to Technology is Not an Option

When the term ‘digital divide’ was first introduced, it referred to those who had or did not have access to technology and it was often based upon ethnicity. However, issues of access to technology are leveling out, as noted in a 2010 Pew study, Technology Trends Among People of Color. One example cited by the study found that laptop ownership among African Americans, Latinos, and whites is equal. This has not eliminated the divide but transformed it. Now the digital divide refers more specifically to Internet access. In fact, a study by the Federal Communications Commission, Broadband Adoption in Low-Income Communities confirmed the necessity of Internet access to be included in society.

Susan P. Crawford, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, explained the extent of this divide in her New York Times opinion piece The New Digital Divide. Crawford believes “we are a country in which only the urban and suburban well-off have truly high-speed Internet access, while the rest — the poor and the working class — either cannot afford access or use restricted wireless access as their only connection to the Internet.” Unfortunately this is further substantiated by economic reports.

In 2011, the Department of Commerce released a report that indicated for households with incomes below $25,000 (in 2010), only four out of ten had Internet access. This is in contrast to households with incomes in excess of $100,000, which had a 93% access rate. When broken down by race, 55 percent of African-American homes had Internet access and 57 percent of Hispanic households had access.  A Pew study in 2011, For minorities, new 'digital divide' seen, had similar findings related to mobile Internet access. Researchers found that 51 percent of Hispanics and 46 percent of African Americans gained Internet access by their phone. Without quality Internet service, educational opportunities may be limited, especially for those who live in a location where access to a traditional college is not available.
A Pew study, Home Broadband 2010, found that most minorities accessed the Internet through their phone, which makes it difficult for them to fill out an online application or write a resume. As educator Mary Beth Hertz stated, “the divide has shifted from an access issue to a kind of access divide.” Susan P. Crawford explained that most smartphones are not an effective substitute for broadband Internet, which means that those who use this option can expect “even lower-quality health services, career opportunities, education and entertainment options than they already receive” because mobile devices often offer Internet access through browsers with limited capabilities and connections that may be less reliable or slower. While some online schools offer apps for use with mobile devices, it is still difficult to display web pages, view materials, and type responses or papers.

How to Address the Digital Divide

There are numerous initiatives in place at a local school or city level across the United States, attempting to address access issues. From a national perspective, broadband Internet access for rural areas is a primary focus. In a November 2011 report, the U.S. Department of Commerce noted that only 57 percent of rural households had broadband Internet access, as compared to 72 percent in urban areas. Also in 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that telecommunications companies in 16 states will utilize federal funding ($103 million) to expand broadband access to rural areas that are presently underserved.

This year the White House announced the launch of a public-private partnership called US Ignite that will create broadband networks in rural areas. The White House’s press release indicated that “this network will become a test-bed for designing and deploying next-generation applications to support national priorities areas such as education, healthcare, energy, and advanced manufacturing.” Over the next five to six years these networks will be launched in over 25 cities. As stated by educator Justin Marquis, “making computers and broadband access more widely and affordably available to all is a first step in allowing technology to begin spanning the chasm that is the current digital divide.”
Higher Education Must Be Prepared

As the digital divide is addressed and more people gain quality Internet access, schools and educators will need to address the issue of useful usage. Having Internet access does not guarantee that users will know what to do with it. This is true for many students that are new to the online classroom environment. While they may be accustomed to checking with Facebook or using other forms of social media, they have not developed technological proficiency in communication or other skills necessary for work in an academic setting.

As noted in the report, The Digital Divide and Its Impact on Academic Performance, students who do not have strong technological skills are likely to struggle and may fail to complete their courses. If Internet access is provided but not supported with appropriate skill sets, a different form of inequality or divide will likely emerge. A New Media Consortium report summed it up 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." Reducing the divide means increasing opportunities for access and learning. Technology alone will not resolve it.

You can follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ and Google+.

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