The Digital Divide is a social issue. It refers to the differing amount of information between those who have broadband access and those who do not have access. Although technology has been growing rapidly for the past 30 years the digital lives of lower and higher income families remain markedly different. Other demographics include older adults, and the digital divide in education.
The trend in internet usage has shifted the way in which people gather information, connect with each other and perform their daily activities. When low income families must make hard choices between necessities like paying the light bill or putting food on the table for example, then home broadband in many cases is not a priority. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey, 84 percent of American households’ report computer ownership, with 74 percent having internet access in their homes. However, for low income families those numbers drop significantly. Computer ownership declines to 71 percent with internet access at 54 percent for households earning less than 50 percent of the median income. Internet access and usage is at 98 percent from high-income households of $75,000+, according to the Pew Research Center 2016.
Another category to examine are adults 65 and older. There are two groups within this senior community. The first are on the younger side of the spectrum, more highly educated and/or more affluent seniors. They have significant technology assets and can see the benefits of the use of online platforms. The other group of seniors tend to be older, less affluent and are at times faced with health issues or living with a disability. They are disconnected from the digital world, unable to take advantage of digital services due to psychological and physical challenges. Using the internet can become very difficult. Priorities lie elsewhere.
Let’s examine the divide in education. Educators have been in support of incorporating technology in the classroom for years. This works for school districts in more affluent areas because access to the internet is usually available at home. However, the digital divide in education is one of the biggest disappointments especially for low or under performing school districts in low income areas. Inequities persist in communities across the country. As more teachers move towards digital learning the divide expands rather than bridging the gap. Something to take into consideration is the “homework gap.” This is the barrier that students face when working on homework assignments without a reliable internet source at home. As schools incorporate Internet-based learning into daily curriculum this gap has widened and there is no school access broadband support. In 2009, the Federal Communication Commission’s Broadband Task Force reported that about 70 percent of teachers assign homework that requires access to the internet. Only 65 percent of students had the ability to access the internet at home to complete their homework. This also includes the inability to submit assignments, connect with teachers, participate in group forums and projects, and conduct research. Parents also rely on the internet to track their child’s academic performance as schools across the nation have turned to online grading systems. How does this effect the households with school age kids that do not have internet service at home? Students often go to the public library, a friend’s house, a commercial location that offers free wi-fi like Starbucks to complete and submit their assignments. It is not uncommon for students to receive a lower grade because they lack accessibility to complete the work. In some cases, they just give up. The chart below shows the divide between ethnic groups and annual income.
What can be done to close this gap? As an individual, my contribution is my non-profit learning center. The demographic I work with most are Latino. They attend low performing schools and are entitled to additional academic support through federal and state funded programs. The learning center offers tutoring with free wi-fi and online homework support. Parents of these students can also take advantage of free computer training which will give them the ability to assist their kids and track their academic progress. A solution from a local school district decided that the additional support should be a low-cost tablet on a monthly payment plan of $20.00 for three years. The average price for tablet, not an iPad is about $200.00 on the high end. Do the math. Many students come from low income earning families and most of them do not have internet access. Elementary school principal Shannon Yorke says, “68 percent of her students do not have a computer in the home.” So, how does a tablet at three times the cost with no access to wi-fi help? It doesn’t. Individually on a larger scale TED Talk speaker from Mexico Aleph Molinari, Let’s bridge the digital divide!, describes the digital divide as an abyss. He separates the divides regionally diagramming that North America and Europe have the most connections leaving out almost five billion people worldwide “unplugged.”
As Aleph Molinari explains, the effect on people who do not have access will not be able to compete for jobs, because they do not have ICT’s nor do they tend to be motivated and responsible. His idea to minimize the digital divide is to create digital citizens within 72 hours using community centers. I agree, in theory that everyone should have access to the internet should not be a luxury. It should be a right. But, what I like most about his model is that it is sustainable and speaks to the need in his country.
In the United States 61 percent of all households currently have Wi-Fi at home. According to Strategy Analytics, this means the United States is ahead of countries like Spain (57.1%), Mexico (31.5%) and India (2.5%). The largest population of immigrants to the United States is from Mexico. Once they come to the United States the opportunity to “connect” may improve however reciprocity is not guaranteed. The digital divide in Mexico is a problem of inequality. It reflects the poverty of certain groups, cities, and areas. Despite these statistics American minority groups such as African American and Latino are still in the lower 40 percent of people who do not have access to home broadband. In March 2016 Former President Obama set a goal. That goal was to give 20 million more Americans broadband access by 2020. His belief is the same as Aleph Molinari, the internet is not a luxury but a necessity. Mr. Obama understands the importance of being connected. One of the initiatives he supported will create a $9.25 monthly subsidy for broadband Internet access. While it is just as important to have a phone to find work so is the internet. In the previous administration, The Commerce Department was supposed to create a comprehensive online assessment tool to help community leaders identify critical broadband needs and connect them with expertise, tools, and resources for overcoming the challenges to expand broadband deployment and adoption. Also, with the support of the FCC there were to be several new programs aimed at bridging the digital divide. One of the programs is called Digital Literacy Pilot Project. It partners with libraries and museums to recycle old technology to update and overhaul the Computers for Learning Program. It was evolved as a guide for implementing Executive Order 12999.
However, the current administration wants to eliminate these types of programs. According to educationsuperhighway.org, 19,000 schools do not have the bandwidth they need. Our schools are now ranked 27th in math, 20th in science, 17th in reading and 16th in technological readiness compared to other developed nations. It is unbelievable to think that the government of the United States, one of the most powerful countries in the world is not addressing this digital divide with a sense of urgency. There are however state, county, and city governments including non-profit organizations that are taking matters into their own hands by providing refurbished computers to low income families, seniors, children and people with disabilities. There are also cities all over the nation that offer citywide internet wi-fi services for free or at a very low cost. They have multi-tiered service plans based on the needs of each family. Many utility companies for example, prefer payments online therefore, creating the only way to engage with them. If you don’t have access to their website to pay then you are penalized with extra fees, i.e. making a payment over the phone. Being connected and having access is part of our everyday lives. It is important that children learn from an early age that the access to broadband is essential and it should be a right not a privilege.
I think that if state and local governments were to provide adequate broadband access it would be more equitable for all minority groups. This chasm exists and will only widen unless we take an approach like Aleph Molinari sustainable model.
“Broadband.” Federal Communications Commission. N.p., 08 Dec. 2015. Web. 11 June 2017. <https://www.fcc.gov/general/broadband>.
Bureau, US Census. “Search Results.” Results. N.p., 18 Apr. 2015. Web. 11 June 2017. <https://www.census.gov/search-results.html?q=low%2Bincome%2Bfamilies%2Bdigital%2Bdivide&page=1&stateGeo=none&searchtype=web&cssp=SERP&%3Acq_csrf_token=undefined>.
“EducationSuperHighway.” EducationSuperHighway. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 June 2017. <http://www.educationsuperhighway.org/>.
“Internet/Broadband Fact Sheet.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. N.p., 12 Jan. 2017. Web. 11 June 2017. <http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/internet-broadband/>.
Molinari, Aleph. “Let’s Bridge the Digital Divide!” Aleph Molinari: Let’s Bridge the Digital Divide! | TED Talk | TED.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 June 2017. <https://www.ted.com/talks/aleph_molinari_let_s_bridge_the_digital