It has been slightly more than a decade since the U.S. Department of Commerce's NTIA division published its first major report on home computer access, "Falling through the Net: A Survey of the 'Have Nots' in Rural and Urban America." Published in July 1995, the report focused on serious gaps in the levels of technology available to different households in the U.S. It revealed that white and well-educated households were far more likely to have access to telephones, computers, and telecommunications than Native American, Latino, and African American households, or those whose residents had lower levels of education.
This gap, which was soon dubbed the digital divide, became a central issue for political, business, and education leaders in the years that followed. The Clinton/Gore administration focused further attention on the topic with the 1998 publication of "Falling Through the Net II: New Data on the Digital Divide" and convened a National Digital Divide Summit in 1999 to focus on solutions to the problem.
Several initiatives grew out of these discussions, ranging from corporate grant programs to grassroots organizations like the Digital Divide Network (DDN). Andy Carvin, DDN's founding director, explains that the definition of the divide evolved over time. "At first the focus was on access and infrastructure issues," Carvin says. "This was important, but it neglected a large part of the challenge. It's possible to have access but still lag behind when it comes to technology literacy or the availability of meaningful content — it became clear that there was a knowledge divide, as well."
Over time, digital equity leaders began drawing attention to a variety of other divides, including a generation gap that made it less likely for older people to access computers and the Internet, a lower level of connectivity in many rural areas, a gender gap in many classrooms, and a lack of access for an alarming number of disabled Americans who had a vital need for adaptive technologies. In addition, the focus gradually shifted from a national to an international one, with many current initiatives designed to eliminate the divide between countries that have plentiful high-tech resources and those that do not.
Home Access Today
Conduct an online search today using the terms digital divide or digital equity and you are likely to uncover a variety of defunct projects and outdated resources as well as a growing number of international Web sites focusing on the global divide. But does the dwindling amount of information on the digital divide in the United States mean the problem has been solved? Is ongoing and meaningful access no longer an issue?
The most recent NTIA report on technology access is 2004's "A Nation Online: Entering the Broadband Age," based on U.S. Census Bureau data from 2003. Like the 2002 NTIA report that preceded it, this publication's title no longer focuses directly on concerns about individuals "falling through the net." Instead, the title and commentary are rather upbeat, reporting on progress that has been made in connecting a majority of Americans to the Internet in recent years and the Bush administration's commitment to supporting the development of "universal, affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007."
According to "A Nation Online," 61.8 percent of households had computers and 54.6 percent had Internet connections by 2003. Not surprisingly, those numbers have continued to grow since then, with estimates from the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the USC Annenberg's Digital Future joint survey indicating that in 2005 approximately 70 percent of Americans had Internet access. Broadband connectivity is also growing at a rapid rate. In fact, according to the Pew researchers, the majority (53 percent) of Internet users had high-speed connections.
But a closer look at the numbers shows that the digital divide —at least, as measured in terms of home access-is far from gone.
- According to the NTIA report, 65.1 percent of white households had some sort of Internet access in 2003, but only 45.6 percent of African American households and 37.2 percent of Latino households reported having access.
- The Pew Internet & American Life Project found similar differences in 2005 — reporting, for example, that 70 percent of whites went online, compared with 57 percent of African Americans.
- The Pew survey also found differences based on education levels; only 29 percent of those who had less than a high school degree reported having Internet access, compared with 61 percent of high school graduates and 89 percent of college graduates.
When it comes to broadband access, the Pew researchers report, "Not surprisingly, the groups who were initially most likely to lag in adopting the Internet now lag in access speeds. Those with less education, those with lower household incomes, and Americans age 65 and older are less likely to have embraced broadband than those who are younger and have higher socioeconomic status."
There are some hopeful signs that aspects of the divide are becoming narrower. For example, the 2003 census showed significant gains for individuals with disabilities; 63.7 percent of users who were blind or had severe vision impairment and 72.1 percent of deaf and hearing-impaired users had Internet access, as compared to the 54.6 percent overall average in that same year. And according to the Digital Future data, the income gap has become smaller, with households earning less than $30,000 jumping to 61 percent access in 2005 — not that far below the 66.2 percent average for all users in the study.
But Carvin warns that "as mainstream America moves online in larger numbers, the problem actually becomes worse for those who are not connected. More and more information is shared through the Internet, and people begin to think there's no problem. While access, by itself, is not enough, it is an essential first step. We can't allow the privileged majority to be the only ones who have access to essential information. We need to extend this right to everybody."
Students and Schools
So far I have been looking at national data about a wide range of households. But what about technology use specifically by school-age children? In general, across the socioeconomic spectrum, children and teens have more technology access than the adults around them. According to Pew's Parents and Teens survey, 87 percent of all youth between the ages of 12 and 17 used the Internet in 2004, and adults who had minor children living with them were far more likely to have Internet access at home than those who were not parents of school-age children.
However, the growing number of minors who have Internet access does not negate the existence of a gap for this group. In fact, according to Robert Fairlie, associate professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the 2003 census data showed a gap that was "larger for children than for adults, which is especially troubling given the potential importance of access to technology on educational and future labor market outcomes."
For many digital equity activists, a key part of the solution has been to fund school technology programs in a way that narrows the gap. This may not be sufficient to even things out totally — after all, students who use computers both at school and home have an advantage in terms of access time. Nevertheless, targeted grants and government initiatives have set out to bridge the gap by gearing the level of technology support to the economic need of the community.
It looks, on paper at least, like these efforts are paying off. It is widely accepted, for example, that 99 percent of public schools now have access to the Internet. And, according to a 2004 survey of district leaders conducted by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), broadband connectivity has made its way into schools quite rapidly, with 95 percent of all classrooms nationwide having high-speed Internet access and 62 percent of respondents indicating that every classroom in their district had broadband access.
This doesn't mean that the school computers and connections are all being used, of course. According to Pew's Parents and Teens Survey, for example, schools had already reached the 99 percent access point in 2003, but only 68 percent of teenagers reported using the Internet at school.
One explanation for this might be the education community's current focus on data-driven decision-making and accountability, which increases the likelihood that computers will be used for data management rather than instructional delivery or other student activities. According to the CoSN survey, the four most important benefits of technology cited by school leaders (timely data for decision-making, staff efficiency, administrator productivity, and improved communications) were administrative.
While the majority of administrators also saw benefits to student access — including motivation and the development of important life skills — these ranked lower than the administrative uses. Most revealing, perhaps, is that only 41 percent of the respondents believed that technology helped raise student test scores. With student achievement being measured these days almost exclusively through test results, it is understandable that there is ambivalence on the part of many districts about how much emphasis to place on student access.
Where school communities and district leaders come down on these and other technology-related issues appears to be leading to a new digital divide based less on economics than on leadership and community support. According to the CoSN research, while 38 percent of school leaders report increases in their technology funding, 33 percent are experiencing funding decreases with more than half of these decreases described as "significant." And the funding gap is likely to widen, says the report, because "school leaders whose budgets have increased over the past three years are the most optimistic that their budgets will continue to increase."
Although CoSN reports that very poor schools (with 75 percent or more of students receiving free or reduced price lunch) are less likely to have resources like broadband connections, a number of other factors seem to be having an impact as well. These include geography (with the South particularly committed to technology investments and the western part of the country lagging behind); the type of community (rural communities now tend to have better access than urban ones); and district size (with large districts having lower student-to-computer ratios than small districts with comparable socioeconomic makeup).
The Achievement Divide
Recent years have witnessed a shift from a focus on the digital equity problem to concerns about a different divide: the achievement gap. In 2002, the first of a series of reports created by Learning Point Associates for the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL) stated, "One of the most disheartening situations in the U.S. educational system is the gap in standardized test scores between African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and low-income students and their white, Asian, and economically advantaged peers. This gap is called the achievement gap, but there are actually many gaps. These gaps exist not only in terms of standardized test scores but also in areas such as Advanced Placement course participation, high school graduation rates, and college entrance and graduation rates."
In analyzing data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and other sources, experts report that the achievement gap narrowed during the 1970s and 1980s, reaching its lowest around 1990, then began to widen again. With No Child Left Behind, and the years of equity-minded programs and standards-based reform that led up to it, it is possible that the tide might be turning once again. According to the 2004 NAEP Report Card, the gap in test scores for white and minority students narrowed in several areas-including the math and reading scores for nine year olds and math scores for 13 year olds-between 1999 and 2004.
But few would say that the problem is solved. It clearly takes a concerted and ongoing effort to reverse these gaps and ensure that all students have access to outstanding schools, inspiring teachers, and 21st-century tools that help them live up to their highest potential.
Judy Salpeter is a contributing editor for Technology & Learning.
Solutions for Bridging the Gaps
Believing that both the E-Rate and the Title II, Part D, Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) programs have had a positive impact on narrowing the digital divide, a broad coalition of education and community leaders have organized to support the continued existence of both programs. Plagued in recent years by doubts about misused funds, the E-Rate appears to be back on course, with new guidelines being established to ensure smooth and continued operation. Averting the elimination of the EETT program — which, according to a recent survey by SEDTA, is the primary or only source of educational technology funding for nearly 75 percent of the states — was viewed by many as a triumph for the 2006 fiscal year, even though the program's budget was cut by $221 million, or 45 percent.
Some of the private grant programs that once focused directly on the digital divide have disappeared from the scene, but there continue to be foundations that focus on this issue as well as on ways of using digital technology to help low-income and minority students eradicate the achievement gap. Organizations like the Beaumont Foundation, the Bell South Foundation, and the Gates Foundation, among others, grant money to schools to help bridge the digital divide.
Although they are not without their critics or challenges, programs that place laptops or other technology in the hands of all students in a school (or across an entire state) for 24/7 access have been embraced by many as a powerful solution for bridging the digital divide and putting technology to work at narrowing the achievement gap. High-profile projects in this area include state initiatives such as Maine's Learning Technology program that involves every 7th and 8th grade student and teacher in the state and Michigan's Freedom to Learn program (wireless.mivu.org), which establishes 1:1 laptop initiatives in selected low-income communities. There are also a number of district-level initiatives in place around the country, ranging from the well-established Digital Learning Environment in Broward County, Florida to a newly announced laptop program in the Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky (see www.techlearning.com/content/ednews/2004-0914.htm). A good jumping-off point for reading more about initiatives involving laptops, handhelds, or other technologies is the Ubiquitous Computing Consortium Web site.
Finally, several initiatives in recent years, such as Computers For Youth have involved extending technology access to low-income families through local community centers and public libraries. —JS
Digital Divide Resources
Foundation Grants to Education
Dell TechKnow program (opens in new tab)
Tech Forum Tie In
Topic: Broadband Access and the Digital Divide
Video Conferencing and High-Bandwith Connectivity
Once only possible with the addition of rare and expensive special-purpose equipment, interactive video conferencing now requires little more than a high-speed Internet connection and an inexpensive camera. As bandwidth increases and schools hook up with initiatives such as Internet2, the possibilities are limitless. Come learn what educators and students are doing when given the opportunity to collaborate and communicate globally, in real time, with help from video.
Visit techlearning.com/events/ and click on Tech Forum NY 2005 to access conference presentation materials on this topic.