Understanding the Digital Divide

These days, most people assume that access to computers - and the skills needed to use them effectively - is a given. But for many people, personal computers are still an expensive luxury, and the information superhighway races by too quickly. The gap between the tech-savvy and the tech-impaired is known as the 'digital divide,' and it can have a very real effect on a student's ability to get a good education.

Computer Technology

Falling Behind in the Digital Age

People call the 21st century the 'digital age' because it seems dominated by technology. According to the Consumer Expenditure Survey (CES) by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), more than 75% of American households owned at least one computer in 2008. And 'personal computing' isn't just done on desktops and laptops anymore. People are gaining Web access and other computing power through gaming consoles, e-readers, mobile phones and tablets like Apple's hot new gadget, the iPad.

In the past, the digital divide has been understood as the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Individuals on one side of the divide have easy access, typically at home, to computers, smart phones and any other devices they might need to stay on top of the latest digital trends. On the other side of the divide are those who simply don't. These are typically low-income people for whom tech gadgets and high-speed Internet access are financially out of reach.

It's easy to see how there can be a huge negative impact for people on the wrong side of the divide. Consider how much more difficult it is to find work when you don't have access to Internet job listings, a word processor for writing your resume or email for submitting your application.

Likewise, not having a computer at home can make it exceedingly difficult for students to perform research, write papers, communicate with their teachers or participate in the increasing number of Web-based class assignments. And forget about distance education. These programs have gone entirely online, and they require enough computer time that it's just not possible to complete an online course when your only Internet access is at the local library.

But in education, researchers are finding that a new type of divide is emerging: The gap between those who can and those who can't.

Computing Student

The Knows and the Know-Nots

Because of the proliferation of technology into so many areas of education, the digital divide is no longer just about those who do and don't have access to computers. It's about those who do and don't have high-level computing skills.

Dr. Joanna Goode, a professor of education studies at the University of Oregon, recently performed a study on 500 undergraduates examining the impact of their previously existing technology skills on early college coursework. She found that the degree of technology preparation a person received in high school significantly affected his or her ability to engage in many areas of university life.

Consider the number of tasks that require computer skills: Registering for classes, applying for financial aid, emailing professors and using popular education software suites like Blackboard are just a few of the tech experiences that a new student will encounter in her or his first couple of weeks.

Then, as classes go into full swing, students will need to know how to use the online library catalog, search online journals and perform Internet research. And while most students learn how to use word processing programs by high school, those who are already comfortable with graphics applications, database software and other organizational tools will quickly pull ahead.

In fact, Dr. Goode found that how much students knew about technology when they started college could even affect their choice of major. During the study, Dr. Goode performed in-depth interviews with three of her subjects. One was Lara, a first-generation student who emigrated to the U.S. when she was 16. She had learned to use Microsoft Word and PowerPoint in high school, and even taken a college prep program oriented toward minorities the summer before her freshman year.

But Lara was still totally unprepared for the degree of Web proficiency that she was expected to have when school started. Frustration at the road blocks she encountered due to her lack of Internet tools and know-how led her to change majors from science to Spanish. It wasn't until much later that she learned that the college provided access to free Internet and educational software.

Dr. Goode even found that students who had much greater access to computers and the Web during high school, but simply lacked an interest in technology, were at a disadvantage when they started college. And while many schools offer remedial English or math courses, there's no safety net for those who are behind technologically.

Computer Lab

Closing the Gap

The problem presented by the digital divide is vast, and so are the possible solutions. Some researchers have focused on increasing access to technology for impoverished children around the world through programs like the One Laptop Per Child project. Others are seeking to increase the number of high-tech tools (and support) available at community centers and libraries here in the U.S.

Two things need to happen to close the tech knowledge divide among college students. First, technology needs to be part of the core curriculum for elementary and secondary students. Dr. Goode found that while there is some tech training in the K-12 public schools, it is primarily focused on low-level vocational uses like word processing and presentation software. This prepares students for office jobs, but not for college. Just as educators are seeking to connect the K-20 pipeline when it comes to basic academic skills, so should they be passing college-level tech skills down the line to high school students.

Second, colleges and universities need to provide better support. Most institutions have computer user services centers, but as Dr. Goode points out, it's primarily the tech-savvy kids who use them. Rather than assume that incoming students have the tech skills they need for administrative and academic purposes, schools need to provide computer training as part of the orientation process.

In the long run, if the U.S. economy is going to thrive in the 21st century, we need to get everyone on the right side of the digital divide.

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