Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Understanding the Complex Dimensions of the Digital Divide: Lessons Learned in the Alaskan Arctic

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Understanding the Complex Dimensions of the Digital Divide: Lessons Learned in the Alaskan Arctic

Article excerpt

Using insights from an ethnographic case study conducted in 2003-2004 among Iñupiat Eskimo in the Alaskan Arctic, this article sheds light on the complex nature and ramifications of the sociological issues surrounding equitable access to technology tools and skills that are collectively referred to as the digital divide. While traditional discussions of the Divide have tended to focus inordinately on access to technology tools and the development of "consumer" level skills, this article argues that for minority groups to truly empower themselves and overcome their digital disadvantages they should make the cultural transition from technology consumer to technology "producer, " thus fundamentally changing the nature of their relationship with technology and the culture of the technology itself.

A leading educational technologist, Don Tapscott (2000), eloquently summarized the complex, wide-ranging nature of the phenomenon we call the digital divide when he explained how "the most widely feared prediction surrounding the digital revolution is that it will splinter society into a race of information haves and have-nots, knowers and know-nots, doers and do-nots . . ." (p. 127). Most traditional discussions of the digital divide have tended to initially focus on equitable access to technology tools-on providing low-income communities with greater access to computers, Internet connections, and other technologies (Morino, 2000). Now while access to technological products is certainly the most obvious of the issues encompassed by the digital divide concept, it has quickly become apparent to critical scholars that equitable technological proficiency is, if anything, even more crucial. As Tapscott (2000) clarified, "the issue is not just access to new (technologies), but rather . . . availability of services, technology fluency, motivation, and opportunities to learn . . ." (p. 125). Or, as Morino (2000) purports, the issue revolves around the inequitable engagement and learning opportunities for students of color arising from a lack of meaningful opportunities for these learners to apply technology tools effectively in an empowering and emancipatory manner toward the achievement of meaningful outcomes in terms of education and employment.

This article seeks to provide first-hand evidence to support critical scholars' assertions that improved access to technology products alone does not automatically lead to increased proficiency at all levels of technology use among socioculturally marginalized learners, but rather that the achievement of the latter is contingent on a host of other contextual factors as well, as explicated by Tapscott and Morino. The evidentiary support presented in this article is drawn from an extensive ethnographic case study conducted by this author in 2003-2004 (Subramony, 2005) among educators, learners, and townspeople in the tiny, resource-rich, predominantly Ifiupiat Eskimo community of Borealis (pseudonym) in the Alaskan Arctic. To protect the confidentiality of the study's informants, all names of locations, institutions, and persons within the Alaskan Arctic have been changed.


Data Gathering

The case described here-pertaining to the organization that will be referred to as the Boreal Slope School District or BSSD-was studied via an "intrinsic" case study approach as laid out by noted evaluator Robert Stake (1995), wherein a single case of significant intrinsic interest is explored in depth through site visits involving the application of qualitative inquiry techniques including personal interviews, participant observations, and document analyses. A total of 46 informants were subjected to in-depth interviews that resulted into 30 hours and 49 minutes of digital voice recordings transcribed for analysis. A purposive sampling technique was used to identify informants to ensure both a diversity of voices as well as the input of key functionaries/players. Among the 25 Iñupiat interviewed were educators, students, parents, and community leaders; and the 21 Westerners interviewed included key administrators, teachers, and staff. …

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