I’m currently in the process of researching an essay on the ‘digital divide’, essentially looking at what different commentators believe that it is, whether it is widening or closing and what it’s implications might be for educators and school systems. Today’s post will reflect on the differences between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ of technology in an educational setting, and in doing so illuminate some of the issues surrounding the gap.
A very basic concept of the digital gap is the difference in access to technology, specifically between lower and higher socioeconomic groups (Wilheim, Carmen & Reynolds cited in Eamon, 2004). In an Australian setting this was a significant issue in the early 2000s, with approximately one third of households lacking internet access, although this situation has improved somewhat with ninety-seven percent of households with children under fifteen having access (ABS, 2016). Despite this, various commentators argue that the digital divide has not gone away, but has rather become more complex in nature. McCollum (2011, p. 53) argues for a redefining of the digital divide, maintaining that the simple presence of computers in classrooms, (however dysfunctional), has not sufficed in closing the digital divide. He highlights that as opposed to being less digitally engaged than their more privileged peers, children from low-socioeconomic groups are more likely to game, network socially or access videos online. Furthermore, they are more likely to use smartphones to access online materials, using the same devices for homework tasks. Evidently, such children are disadvantaged in the non-educational quality of what they choose to access online and in the devices they use to access information that are ill-adapted to study.
This evidence has several implications. An earlier understanding of the digital divide may have lent itself to the argument that poorer children would, on the contrary, benefit from limited exposure to technology. The fact that they have even more exposure to aspects of the internet which have arguably the least educational benefit, at the expense of more educational activities, highlights a serious disadvantage. Smartphone dependence, although fostering a type of digital competence, is unlikely to equip disadvantaged students to use computers in the way that they will be expected to in further education and in the world of work. For example, these students could struggle to undertake research which requires managing several documents at once, using referencing programs and word processing. More advanced IT skills, which youth surveys have shown as being perceived to be key to employment prospects, may also be limited (Eamon, 2004, p. 94). Failure to access online media can equally exclude students from low-socioeconomic groups from civic participation, leading to disadvantage in terms of political awareness and civic participation (p. 94). In this light, it is clear that the digital divide has not dissolved over the past few decades, but that it has changed its form. Current and future teachers, therefore, face a significant task in attempting to remedy the disadvantages perpetuated by these more recent findings.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2016). 8146.0 – Household Use of Information Technology, Australia, 2014-15. Retrieved August 23, 2016, from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/8146.0
Eamon, M. K. (2004). Digital divide in computer access and use between poor and non-poor youth. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 31(2), 91–113.
McCollum, S. (2011). Getting Past the “digital divide.” The Education Digest, 77(2), 52–55.