Redefining the Digital Divide: Beyond Access to Computers and the Internet

Article excerpt

This study critiqued the notion that a binary "digital divide" between high and low resource schools describes accurately the technology disparity in U.S society. In this study, we surveyed teachers from six southern California schools. Five of the schools were low resource schools and one school, chosen for comparative purposes, was characterized as a high resource school. We found that high resource school teachers had significantly more physical access to computers and the Internet (C&I), more frequent use of C&I, more creative uses of C&I for instruction, communicated by email more often with students, and engaged more frequently in professional activities such on on-fine communication with other teachers. The study lent modest support to previous researchers (Natriello, 2001; Warschauer, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c; Wenglinksy, 1998) who claimed that high resource students are more likely to use C&I for more experimental and creative uses than students from low resource schools. In addition the findings contribute to a broader definition of the "digital divide" that includes social consequences including the impact of social networks and wider use of technology to improve instruction.

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While the total number of U.S. residents purchasing computers and connecting to the Internet increases daily, large segments of the population are being passed over in the Information Age. In a recent study NTIA (2002) showed that Whites and Asian Americans have higher rates of both computer and Internet use than Blacks and Latinos. NTIA found computer use to be highest for Asian Americans (71.2 percent) and Whites (70.0 percent), followed by Blacks, (55.7) and Latinos (48.8). Regarding Internet use, 60% of Whites and Asian Americans use the Internet compared to Blacks (39.8 percent) and Latinos (31.6 percent) who use the Internet at much lower rates (NTIA, 2002).

U.S. schools mirror the nation's trends in computer ownership and Internet connectivity. By 2002 over 99% of U.S. schools owned computers and had Internet connections (NCES, 2004).

Despite these findings, there is still evidence of an economic and racial divide among school children and their use of computers and the Internet (C&I). To illustrate, the ratio of students to computers in high poverty schools (1) is much higher than it is in more affluent schools. NCES (2003) estimated that in high poverty schools, the student to computer ratio was 5.5 students per instructional computer compared to 4.6 students to a computer in more affluent schools. In addition, use of the Internet by children from the varying social strata differs markedly. Overall Internet use at home and school for Latino and Black children is 47.8% and 52.3% respectively, compared to Asian American (79.4%) and White children (79.7%) who are far more likely to use the Internet (NTIA, 2002).

Becker and his colleagues (1999) pointed out that teachers are more likely to assign C&I work when their students have ready access to computers. They showed that teachers with ratios of four or fewer students to a computer were three times more likely to assign computer work to students than those teachers with less favorable ratios of six or more students to a computer. Given that higher socioeconomic status (SES) schools are more likely to have low student to computer ratios, they provide a distinct advantage over low SES schools in gaining the experience and practice necessary for using the Internet as an educational resource.

It is evident that computer availability and Internet access have improved over the last several years, however the studies cited above concur that the poor and racial minorities are lagging behind society's dominant groups in terms of computer ownership and Internet connectivity. Rapid advancement in computer availability however, has spurred some commentators to proclaim the closing of the "digital divide" (Simons, 2000; Thierer, 2002). …