Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Computer Literacy and Computer Use among College Students: Differences in Black and White

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Computer Literacy and Computer Use among College Students: Differences in Black and White

Article excerpt

This article examines differences in use of and familiarity with computing technology between Black and White undergraduate college students. It is based on data drawn from a large northeastern private university during academic year 1994-95. The main findings are that (a) Black students enter the university with fewer infotechnology skills and are less familiar with computers than are their White student peers; (b) these differences in computer usage and familiarity are not minimized by collegiate experience and may even be increased; and (c) institutional factors may be responsible for these differences. Additionally, significant differences were found between Black and White students in terms of their computing platform preferences (e.g, Apple/Macintosh versus IBM-based PCs).


A discordant note repeatedly struck as the United States moves into the "Information Age" is the inequity in access to, and use of, computer-based technology facing the economically disadvantaged segments of the society. It is already evident that this imbalance is the consequence of both race and gender stratification. This development, in turn, is expected to increase differences in computer literacy1 among such segmented populations as men and women, European Americans and African Americans, wealthy Americans and poor Americans, and other diverse groups (Bowie, 1985; Brodie, 1996; "To What Extent Will Computer Literacy Stabilize Society in the 1990's?," 1990).

Business leaders and scholars alike predict that computer literacy will be as important in the 21st century as reading, writing, and arithmetic were in the 20th century (Anderson, Bikson, Law, & Mitchell, 1995; Peterson, 1995). As Slater (1994) among others suggests, information "will be the new wealth of the 21st century" (p. 96). However, many are concerned that the well-documented Black-White gap in access to information technology is consigning an entire generation of students to a future of underachievement. Worse, computer illiterates will be economically disenfranchised, with virtually no chance of sustaining a career, accumulating wealth, or controlling capital. To prevent such a future, the tremendous potential of personal or desktop computing to democratize access to educational and economic opportunity for all Americans must be recognized and developed.

Researchers have examined general patterns of computer experience, computer use, and the effectiveness of computer-related instruction for elementary and secondary school age populations (Office of Technology Assessment, 1995; Sutton, 1991; U.S. General Accounting Office, 1995). Recent data reveal disturbing inequities in computer access among students in these populations, and these differences are already manifest in the levels of academic achievement among students attending college (Ferrante, Hayman, Carlson, & Phillips, 1988; McAulay, 1993; Wu & Morgan, 1989). Not only are there different levels of computer knowledge among students entering college, as Dologite (1987) shows, but Malaney and Thurman (1989-90) also report that students with prior access to computers in secondary school tend to enter college with a greater focus, advanced computer skills, positive attitudes toward computers, and an awareness of technology s relevance to their careers.

Some researchers contend that the uneven distribution of computer literacy and skills among entering college students may be partly due to such otherwise personal reasons as individual interest (Dologite, 1987). However, because race is a key element of American social stratification and greatly affects the distribution of social benefits and rewards, we suspect that it operates to give socially privileged students greater access to highly valued benefits over less-advantaged students, even when both groups function in the same social environment. Given the impact of computer skills on careers, occupational prospects, and lifetime earnings, computer literacy counts as one such benefit. …

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