Digital Divide revisited

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This week I am revisiting the very complex and important issue of digital divide. I recall an early assignment in EdTech 501 in which we played the role of a pseudo-task force to determine how to use $50million to reduce statewide digital inequality. I realized through researching that assignment the distinct differences between digital divide (the have’s and the have-not’s of computer access) and digital inequality (the level to which a user can implement and utilize available tools). Both are critically important.

This week’s article “Bridging the Digital Divide” addresses mostly the digital divide and the importance of schools providing sufficient technologies to “close or at least narrow the digital divide.” It states that schools must “provide full access for special student populations – especially those with disabilities – to the Internet, distance learning, and multimedia materials.” I loved that it points out a need to have a technology specialist on staff to “stay informed and up-to-date on technologies” and help train teachers and facilitate student learning. That’s my current role and I feel like it critical to our school accomplishing our technology vision.

While I don’t question the importance of universal access, I do have a slightly different perspective since I currently live in a developing country. Few have computers at home. The Internet is costly and sporadic. Everyone fends for themselves in this regard by going to their local “cyber” to use the Internet when needed. It may not be easy nor convenient, but they make it work. They find a way. Sometimes I wonder in the U.S. if we mistakenly call it a digital divide if a student doesn’t have all the bells and whistles on all the latest gadgets at home with a high-speed Internet connection, when there are many other ways to get online (school being just one of them.)

The digital divide is certainly a complex problem and one that schools need to address – but schools are only one piece of a very large puzzle. Individuals (regardless of their circumstances), communities, and Internet Service Providers are key players as well.

An article called “Can E-learning Break the Digital Divide?” looks at whether the convenience and availability of global e-Learning narrows the digital divide with students from developing countries. The author, who is a virtual education professor from the University of Liverpool, believes that the Divide is only widening. The reasons for this are complicated, but they resonate with me because I live in a developing country and work with students similar to the ones he describes. I see these problems and know they are real.

He claims that while the potential is there, e-Learning doesn’t provide equal education to everyone because of four main reasons: 1) the language barrier, which includes cultural specifics; 2) the lack of prerequisites which leads many students to struggle; 3) technology hurdles such as slow Internet or old equipment; and 4) lack of course translation. E-Learning courses also require a certain level of maturity and self-motivation for students to contribute to discussion boards and assignments, and many students are not familiar with this type of intense learning. He cites statistics about how many students are studying from outside their developing home country due to lack of opportunity and sufficient Internet access.

Ultimately, the author makes a strong claim that “crossing the Digital Divide is equal to crossing an economic barrier.”

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