Magazine article Information Today

The Digital Divide Evolves

Magazine article Information Today

The Digital Divide Evolves

Article excerpt

For many years concerns about 'digital divides' centered primarily on whether people had access to digital technologies. Now, those worried about these issues also focus on the degree to which people succeed or struggle when they use technology to try to navigate their environments, solve problems, and make decisions.

--John B. Horrigan, writer of "Digital Readiness Gaps," a report from Pew Research Center's Internet, Science & Tech division

The abovementioned Pew Research Center report, which was released in September 2016, highlights an issue that, while not shiny and new, seems to be getting an increasing amount of attention. Whether or not someone has access to the internet and related technologies is just one aspect of the digital divide, and a lot of time, money, and concerted effort has gone into addressing this over the years.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's latest data:

* In 2013, 83.8 percent of U.S. households reported computer ownership, with 78.5% of all households having a desktop or laptop computer, and 63.6% having a handheld computer.

* In 2013, 74.4% of all households reported Internet use, with 73.4% reporting a high-speed connection.

By way of comparison, in 2003, 54.7% of U.S. households had internet access. And in 1997, just 18% did (and many of those, likely, were home to IT readers).

Way back in 1997, I'd already been on the internet for 8 years. Along with many of you, I was out there on the bleeding edge and loving it. I didn't mind tinkering endlessly with technology to get stuff to work right; as a matter of fact, it was a point of pride. Fossicking around ur-cyberspace in search of information was what we did. Poorly designed, dysfunctional web sites ? They were part and parcel of the early online experience.

Not Caught Up

But this is not 1997. There is no excuse for bad design that frustrates users. Ain't nobody got time to fight with your balky ecommerce site--or struggle to get through an online course that was slapped together by someone completely clueless about educational design.

The Pew report is basically an exercise in grouping American adults based on the following:

* Their confidence in using computers

* Their facility with getting new technology to work

* Their use of digital tools for learning

* Their ability to determine the trustworthiness of online information

* Their familiarity with contemporary "education tech" terms

There are no real surprises in this report--including the findings that "library users and the highly wired" are much more likely to use the internet for "personal learning."

While it's one thing to assess "digital readiness" for online learning, it's quite another kettle of fish to look at how the quality (or lack thereof) of internet-based education affects learner outcome. Problems with online courses, at the most basic level, involve one of two things--inadequate technology or poor instructional design.

As far as technology goes, one of the most ironic meltdowns occurred in 2013, when a massive open online course (MOOC) that attracted 41,000 would-be learners had to be suspended because, among other glitches, "the group forums ... vital to the course were crashing, with some information entered by some students accidentally erased by others, and some students unable to enter the forums at all" (insidehighered. …

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