December 10, 2009

Reinterpreting the Digital Divide

Category: Equity
art piece of black students learning making

digital divide: the gap between people with effective access to digital and information technology and those with very limited or no access at all.

The digital divide is understood to be the gap between those who use and are familiar with computers and technology and those who aren’t. I’m 17, African-American, live in a considerably urban neighborhood in Chicago, and would seemingly contradict many of the statistics about race and ethnicity and their relationship to the digital divide. I have broadband internet, I use it frequently, I know my way around the computer, and I like using it. These are just basic things, but some statistics suggests that many people of my demographic aren’t fluent in even these simple tasks. Based on what I’ve seen, I have to wonder whether the digital divide isn’t more complicated than it is sometimes described.

I started playing on computers at the age of four using simple typing and word processing softwares, and I was familiar with the keyboard by 5th grade. My parents wanted me to be able to type. I remember them telling me that if I could type and use a computer, then I would be successful. I didn’t believe them at the time, but now, I’ve got a whole new view.

There has definitely been progress in the effort to close the digital divide gap, when it comes to access. It seems like there are computers in a majority of the libraries and schools in our country. Programs like the Digital Youth Network and YouMedia in Chicago have helped, and are continuing to help, bridge the access gap. But many kids and teenagers still seem to lack the basic concepts of what the computer and technology can do for them.

In my experience, it isn’t always true that the people behind these statistics don’t have access; in my opinion, they often don’t have a vision of the purpose. Without knowledge of the importance of something, many kids won’t take the initiative to become familiar with it.

I wonder if there is enough education and energy dedicated to helping kids and teenagers understand technology’s dominance in today’s world, and how being technologically literate can define who will and who will not succeed. The Digital Youth Network works so well in getting young people to use technology because it offers a clear reasoning and purpose for the classes.

This may be a controversial statement, but to me, I think the divide is more than just a question of access. Access is part of it. But I think it’s also about which groups receive a sense of purpose about how important technology can be in life and which groups don’t.

Researchers looking into this need to look at different ways kids use technology, especially kids in the demographic most associated with the concept of the digital divide. I think the digital divide concept sometimes assumes that kids depicted as non-users will have trouble learning how to use technology efficiently. Well, when the 1:1 laptop program was installed in my middle school, I witnessed a surge of natural desire to learn how to use computers. Kids from much less fortunate backgrounds were taking the computer and learning more than I ever did.

Researchers need to stop asking who’s using and start asking why they are using or why they are not. Researchers need to start re-evaluating the “divide.” There’s a lot of access, whether that access is at school or in the community or at home or at a friend’s. Researchers who care so much about the divide need to start investing in new ways to get kids interested in using the computer for something other than just computer games. They need to survey those who don’t use computers as well and ask the simple question of why they don’t feel it’s necessary to learn. Without a push or an initiative, many kids won’t ever make the decision to become fluent in technology. The gap can close when more kids feel the need, the importance, and the possibilities that come with being fluent on the computer and with technology. From what I have seen, when a kid realizes something is a necessity, they will invest. They will find a way.