1’s and 0’s
Mind the Gap: The Digital Divide as the Civil Rights Issue of the New Millennium
by Andy Carvin
Senior Associate • The Benton Foundation • Washington, DC
MultiMedia Schools • January/February 2000

The digital divide is one of the most important civil rights issues facing our modern information economy.

In the years since the start of the Internet Revolution, the American public has been exposed to more than its fair share of overused catchphrases. Way back in the early ’80s, then-Senator Al Gore spoke of an Information Super Highway that would connect the country’s citizens to an overwhelming variety of telecommunications opportunities. (Okay, so he didn’t invent the Internet, but at least he gave us its most hackneyed metaphor.) We read about the near-Messianic coming of a 500-channel universe in which we’ll be able to relish a mind-numbing array of programming options, from The Jack Russell Terrier Channel to Ex!, The Ex-Convicts Network. Countless Web sites and multimedia products boast about their “interactivity” when in truth the only interactivity they offer is in choosing which hyperlink to press next. And consider the phrase “click here”—before the advent of the Internet it would have been seen as a completely baffling command. (For fun try picturing it being blurted out in a variety of awkward social settings.) Now it’s the Cyber Age equivalent of a welcome mat: Click here and enter the Web site of your dreams.

Click here and show me a way to get away from the endless hype. Please!

But despite the media’s penchant for beating to death anything to do with the Internet, a new phrase has recently entered the public’s online lexicon, one that actually carries significant societal ramifications: the “digital divide.” In the most basic sense, the digital divide is the ever-growing gap between those people and communities who have access to information technology and those who do not. (In other words, to use another pedestrian metaphor, the have’s and the have-not’s.) The digital divide has been on the radar screens of those of us in the policy world for a while now, but over the course of 1999 its profile was raised as more political leaders took an interest in the subject.

The digital divide may seem like an intangible concept to some, but studies have begun to articulate it in no uncertain terms. Consider these statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce:

Such stats should not be taken lightly. The digital divide is one of the most important civil rights issues facing our modern information economy. As telecommunications increasingly entwines itself with educational, social, financial, and employment opportunities, those communities lacking access will find themselves falling further behind the rest of society. The Internet has the potential to empower its users with new skills, new perspectives, new freedoms, even new voices; those groups who remain sequestered from the technology will be further segregated into the periphery of public life.

In schools, of course, we’ve seen the digital divide tackled head-on with the implementation of the E-Rate program. Each year tens of thousands of schools receive over $2 billion in federal telecommunications subsidies to help support classroom Internet access. Though some schools still haven’t felt the benefits of the E-Rate, many others have: Over 50 percent of classrooms now have Internet access. Real progress is being made.

Whether the issue is in schools or in communities, the digital divide is finally beginning to receive the attention it deserves. But as we try to develop a long-term strategy for combating the divide, it begs an important question: Is the digital divide essentially an access issue? In one sense, of course, the question is a no-brainer. There is a widening gap between those who have access to information technology and those who don’t; therefore, when dealing with the digital divide we need to concentrate on giving more people Internet access.

But giving people access doesn’t instantly solve the manifold woes of our communities and schools. If it did, every kid with Internet access would be getting straight A’s and every adult with access would be gainfully employed and prosperous. It’s just not that simple. Technology access is only one small piece of a much larger puzzle, a puzzle that if solved might help raise the quality of life for millions of people. None of us can rightfully say we’ve found all the individual pieces yet, but some of the pieces are obvious enough that we can begin to put the digital divide puzzle together:

The digital divide is about content. The value of the Internet can be directly correlated to the value of its content. If all you can find online is shopping, Pokémon trading clubs, and porn, you could make a pretty good argument that it’s not very important to give people access to the Internet. As anyone who’s used it knows, the Internet can offer a wealth of opportunities for learning and personal enhancement, but we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of its potential. As more underprivileged and disenfranchised communities gain access, the Internet itself must provide the right tools so people are able to take advantage of and use it for more varied purposes, more learning styles, more languages and cultures. The Internet may feel like a diverse place, but when compared with the wealth of diversity and knowledge amongst humanity in the real world, it’s still pretty weak. Until the Net contains content that has true value to all of its potential users it will remain a place for the elite.

The digital divide is about literacy. As much as we hate to admit it, functional illiteracy amongst adults is one of America’s dirty little secrets. Millions of adults struggle to fill out forms, follow written instructions, or even read a newspaper. The 1993 National Adult Literacy Survey suggest as many as 44 million American adults—one out of four—are functionally illiterate, while another 50 million adults are plagued by limited literacy. We often talk about the importance of information literacy when it comes to using the Internet. Information literacy is an obviously vital part of the equation, but how can we expect to conquer the digital divide when nearly half of all American adults can’t even process written information competently? Literacy must be tackled at the most basic level in order to afford more people the opportunity to use technology effectively.

The digital divide is about pedagogy. As I wrote recently in the e-journal the Digital Beat (http://www.benton.org/DigitalBeat), Internet access in schools isn’t worth a hill of beans if teachers aren’t prepared to take full advantage of technology. Research has shown that educators who are resistant to constructivist teaching practices are less likely to utilize the Internet in their lessons, while educators who are more comfortable with constructivist practices are more likely to do so. Teachers who employ more real-world interaction are thus more inclined to employ online interaction. How can professional development be reformed to take these differences into account?

The digital divide is about community. One of the greatest strengths of the Internet is in its facility for fostering communities. Communities often appear in the most low-tech of places: You can surf the Web until your knuckles implode and yet not feel like you’ve actually bonded with anyone, but you can subscribe to a simple e-mail listserv and join a gathering of people who have been enjoying each others’ wisdom for years. It’s paramount for people coming to the Internet for the first time to have opportunities to join communities and forge new communities of their own. Public spaces must be preserved online so that people can gather without feeling like direct marketing or more popular and powerful voices are crowding them out. If people can’t build meaningful relationships online, how can they be expected to gravitate to it?
Digital Divide Network
Interested in learning more about the digital divide and efforts to combat it? Visit the Digital Divide Network (http://DigitalDivideNetwork.org), developed by the Benton Foundation in conjunction with the AOL Foundation and the National Urban League. The Clearinghouse provides the latest news and research on digital divide efforts, as well as a database of community projects around the US. For more information, email the author at andy@gsn.org

These five puzzle pieces—access, content, literacy, pedagogy and community—may not be enough to complete the entire digital divide puzzle, but they go a long way in providing us a picture of what’s at stake. Giving people access to technology is important, but it’s just one of many issues that need to be considered. Schools, libraries, and community centers are taking that first step in getting wired, but they must also consider the needs of the learners, the teachers, and the communities that support them.

We must continue fighting the scourge of illiteracy—among students, their parents, and among the community—by expanding formal and informal opportunities that improve reading and critical-thinking skills. We must demand engaging content from online producers and refuse to buy into mediocre content when it doesn’t suit our teaching needs. We must encourage all learners to be creators as well, sharing their wise voices both online and offline. And we must open our schools and libraries to more connections with our communities—no computer lab or training room should sit idly during evening and weekend hours. These are but a few examples of what the education community can do.

The digital divide is real, and it will only get worse if we ignore it. Click here to change the world.

Communications to the author may be addressed to Andy Carvin, The Benton Foundation, 1800 K St. NW, Second Floor, Washington DC, 20006; phone: 202-454-5627; e-mail: andy@gsn.org.

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