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The Digital Divide

What is the Digital Divide?

There is nothing new in stating the critical importance of Vision within the context of any school innovation. What is new, however, is establishing the link between the macro level vision of the school or school district and the micro level vision of the classroom teacher and ensuring alignment between the two in practice, not just in words. This is shared vision: shared across different constituencies within the school community and articulated through classroom practice and organizational culture.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD) defines the Digital Divide as:

The gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different social-economic levels with regard both to their opportunities to access Information & Communication Technologies and their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities. (OECD, 2001, 5)

The digital divide is, in fact, considered to be comprised of multiple divides characterized by factors related to age, gender, socio-economic and geographic location. In this context it is suggested that, while the divide is narrowing in some developed countries, it is widening in some developing countries.

Why is this important?

The importance of the capacity for all citizens to play an active role in 21st century society was highlighted by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Anan in 2003:

The swift emergence of a global information society is changing the way people live, learn, work and relate. An explosion in the free flow of information and ideas has brought knowledge and its myriad applications to many millions of people, creating new choices and opportunities in some of the most vital realms of human endeavor. Yet too many of the world's people remain untouched by this revolution. A digital divide threatens to exacerbate already-wide gaps between rich and poor, within and among countries. The stakes are high indeed. Timely access to news and information can promote trade, education, employment, health and wealth. One of the hallmarks of the information society -- openness -- is a crucial ingredient of democracy and good governance. Information and knowledge are also at the heart of efforts to strengthen tolerance, mutual understanding and respect for diversity. (Annan, 2003)

In the educational context, computer and Internet non-users will increasingly become dislocated from opportunities to learn from 'the millions of organizations and learning centers that have posted their material on the Web, and less opportunity to interact with others through email and instant messaging.' (Lenhart, 2003, 6)

The Kaiser Family Foundation 2005 Report makes a clear statement concerning the impact of a lack of access to media on the lives of children:

The kinds of media to which kids have access make a difference. For example, lack of easy access to a particular medium by any particular social group may have important consequences. Such a point seems obvious in the context of something like the possible effects of a "digital divide." In light of studies indicating that homes from the lower socioeconomic strata are least likely to contain personal computers (Roberts, et al., 1999), disquiet over inequities in personal computer access and the associated disadvantages often assumed to follow seem quite reasonable. Kids who do not have computers are presumed to suffer. They have limited opportunity to develop computer literacy, to go online, to search the World Wide Web-- in short, to become fully functioning members of the "information age."

What does the research tell us?

The 2003 Pew Internet & American Life Project reported that overall 42% of Americans do not use the Internet. Whilst the Internet population has grown, The Pew Project reports a variety of demographic factors separating Internet users from nonusers:

* Younger Americans are much more wired than older Americans.

* Well-to-do Americans are more wired than less well-off Americans, and the employed are far more wired than the unemployed.

* White Americans are more wired than African-Americans and Hispanics.

* Well-educated Americans are more wired than those who only completed high school.

* Suburban and urban residents are more wired than rural residents.

* Parents of children living at home are more wired than non-parents.(Lenhart, 2003, 4)

There are also social factors separating Internet users from non-users:

* Those who are socially content--who trust others, have lots of people to draw on for support, and who believe that others are generally fair--are more likely to be wired than those who are less content. There is also some modest evidence that those with positive and outward orientation towards the world are more wired than those who are worried about America and more focused inward.

* Those who feel they have control over their lives are more likely to be wired than those who feel they do not have much control of their lives.

* Those who read newspapers, watch TV, and use cell phones and other technologies are more likely to use the Internet than those who don't. (Lenhart, 2003, 4)

In a 2005 update to the 2003 study, Pew Internet and American Life project reports that 54% of households with income less than $30,000 per year are online and 38% of people with an educational attainment of less than high school are online. This compares with 94% of households with income of $75,000+ and 92% with educational attainment of college and above. (Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2005)

The Kaiser Family Foundation study of children ages 6 months to 6 years old indicates that children from lower income homes are less likely than other children to have a computer at home, and those from minority homes are less likely to start using computers at an early age. (KFF, 2004)

Key Questions

  1. How does the online access data shown in these reports match with your community's experience?
  2. How does data like this impact classroom practice? How does the digital divide impact educational strategy in your context?


OECD. (2001).Understanding the Digital Divide. Retrieved 30 June 2004 from http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/38/57/1888451.pdf

Annan, K. (2003).IT Industry Must Help Bridge Global Digital Divide. Retrieved 29 June 2004 from http://www.digitaldividenetwork.org/content/stories/index.cfm?key=272

Lenhart, A. (2003). The Ever-Shifting Internet Population. A new look at Internet access and the digital divide. Retrieved 29 June 2004, from http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Shifting_Net_Pop_Report.pdf

Pew Internet and American Life Project. (2005) Retrieved 21 February 2006 from http://www.pewinternet.org/trends/User_Demo_12.05.05.htm

Kaiser Family Foundation. (2004) Digital Divide...Where To Go From Here Retrieved 20 February 2006 from http://www.kff.org/entmedia/internet.cfm

Kaiser Family Foundation (2005) Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-olds Retrieved 12 January 2006 from http://www.kff.org/entmedia/internet.cfm