Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Families, Cultural Resources and the Digital Divide: ICTs and Educational (Dis)advantage

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Families, Cultural Resources and the Digital Divide: ICTs and Educational (Dis)advantage

Article excerpt

By concentrating on cases of family engagement with information communication technologies at a very local level, this paper tries to illustrate that issues related to 'access' and social disadvantage require extremely sophisticated and textured accounts of the multiple ways in which interrelated critical elements and various social, economic and cultural dimensions of disadvantage come into play in different contexts. Indeed, to draw a simple dichotomy between the technology haves and have-nots in local settings is not particularly generative. It may be the case that, even when people from disadvantaged backgrounds manage to gain access to technology, they remain relatively disadvantaged.

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In a discussion paper prepared in 2001 for the British Department for Education and Skills by the Evidence Team of the British Educational and Communications Technology agency, the authors commence with the statement:

   'Access' [to ICT (information and communication technologies)] for
   all is thought to be necessary to tackle social exclusion and
   promote equality in the 'new knowledge economy' by ensuring that the
   gap between the 'haves' and 'have nots' does not widen as ICT becomes
   increasingly influential in relation to educational standards,
   economic competitiveness and citizenship.

This statement reflects most contemporary assessments of the increasingly networked society. Because access to the new technologies is unequally distributed, there is said to be a growing divide, the 'digital divide', between the information-rich and information-poor (Castells, 2001). Intrinsic to this notion of digital divide is the cachet that society accords access to the new information and communication technologies--so much so that universal access to ICTs is generally deemed necessary to enable citizens to become players in the 'knowledge economy', and to contribute to the capacity of nations to compete in the global economy.

In this paper, on the basis of a micro case study, we suggest that, as other critical researchers have also come to realise (Carvin, 2000; Dowries, 1999; Facer, Furlong, Furlong, & Suthefiand, 2001), notions of equity in terms of the opportunities and advantages associated with ICT extend beyond issues of physical access to the Internet and new technologies. It may well be the case, as the findings of the small-scale study reported here suggest, that even when people from disadvantaged backgrounds manage to gain access to technology, they remain relatively disadvantaged.

The paper reports part of a research project, conducted in Victoria, entitled 'An investigation of home and school computer-mediated communication practices in low socio-economic communities'. The project became possible in 2000-2001 as a result of an alliance forged in late 1999 between Australia's peak trade union body, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), a computer and software distributor and training company (Virtual Communities), and an Internet provider (Primus), to provide computers and Internet access to workers at relatively affordable prices. The deal, which ACTU officials believe will potentially empower low-income workers, was widely reported in the Australian media (for example, Robinson & Barker, 1999). The arrangement between the ACTU, Virtual Communities, IBM and Primus, which offers computers and Internet access to families at relatively low prices, is couched in a strong, often emotional rhetoric of empowering low-income families and enabling their children to make use of computers at home in order to ensure their educational success (Virtual Communities, 2002).

The focus of our study is on four families and the schools the children in the families attend. Because of limitations of space, and because we want to give as rich a sense as possible of the family dynamics, we concentrate on two strong mothers who display certain similarities and (what we take to be) potentially significant social and cultural differences in their approaches to information technology and education within the family. …

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