Technology Access Gap
A technology access gap — or digital divide — exists between K–12 students from affluent backgrounds in the United States and those students from less advantaged backgrounds. Some believe the technology access gap highlights preexisting racial and socioeconomic disparities in American society. The existence of a technology access gap was first discussed in the 1980s, with the advent of the personal computer, and it became front-page news in the 1990s with the advent of the Internet. Experts continue to be divided over whether the technology access gap among U.S. students is growing narrower or wider. At least some technology watchers at the beginning of the twenty-first century argue that the true technology gap is a digital generation gap that exists between "digital" students and their "analog" parents and teachers. Others argue that issues such as rural broadband and the spread of computer and Internet technology in minority communities should continue to be national priorities in an increasingly competitive global economy where technical skills will be in demand as never before.
Keywords Analog Divide; Digital Divide; Digital Generation Gap; Global Economy; Internet; Personal Computer; Rural Broadband; Technology Access Gap
Technology in Education: Technology Access Gap
Electronic technology has become a part of everyday life for most Americans. Whether at home, at work, or even at the movies, the digital revolution has transformed the way we live, work and even how we spend our leisure time. Becoming skilled in the use of computer- and web-based technologies is no longer an option in the present economy, it is a necessity:
“Technology has been referred to as a 'second language' and those who don't learn this new language are at educational, economic, and social disadvantages. Because technology plays such a large role in modern society, all students need ample opportunities to learn how to use and enjoy it” (Warren-Sams, 1997, p. 2).
With the possible exception of smartphones and similar mobile devices, no technology has been more associated with the digital revolution than personal computers and the Internet. Perhaps not surprisingly, some social observers have seen these breakthroughs as a primary means by which to lower the barriers for the poor and otherwise disadvantaged to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the twenty-first century economy. Others — pointing to previous technological breakthroughs such as the airplane, car, and telephone — charge that technology has either been irrelevant to America's social problems, or worse, has served to perpetuate and deepen them. In the context of access to technology by K–12 students, critics charge that the onset of computers and the Internet has created a severe technology access gap between privileged and underprivileged students. These critics insist that if it is not addressed and corrected, this technology access gap could result in many poor and minority students remaining stuck in the same cycle of poverty and despair that engulfed their parents and grandparents.
This investigation of the technology access gap begins in the 1980s, when computer technology had advanced to the point where more and more Americans were buying personal computers. Popular models such as the Apple IIe, the Apple Macintosh Plus/SE, and various IBM PC clones began to transform how students and their parents lived and worked. Educational software began to proliferate as increasingly powerful computers found their way into public school classrooms. Students put aside their typewriters, an innovation of a previous century, and began to use the new machines for typing school papers.
In the early 1990s, a new phenomenon known as the Internet began to transform education. Using the Internet, students were able to tap into a global community — a "worldwide web" — of teachers and learners to expand their educational horizons. The reach of the worldwide web quickly expanded across the educational landscape: While only 35 percent of public schools were wired in 1994, the number climbed to nearly 100 percent by 2001 (Wells & Lewis, 2006, p. 4). Moreover, the ratio of students to Internet-enabled computers dropped from 12.1 to 1 in 1998 to 3.8 to 1 in 2005, meaning that more and more students had easier access to the Internet at school (Wells & Lewis, 2006, p. 6). Faster broadband connections provided quicker access to web-based information; only 3 percent of wired schools were using slower dial-up technology by 2005 (Wells & Lewis, 2006, p. 6).
These statistics formed the backdrop for an important and ongoing discussion among politicians, educators, and parents about access to technology. In the early 1990s it wasn't entirely clear that technology would quickly become available to virtually all children, regardless of race or socioeconomic status. Some observers at the time were so alarmed at what they perceived to be a widening technology access gap that they petitioned the federal government for a redress of grievances. By the end of the decade, a series of government reports highlighted what researchers saw as a widening technology access gap between upper-class and middle-class students on one hand and the lower socioeconomic status peers on the other. Sanger (1999) summarized a 1999 government report in the New York Times:
“A new Federal survey shows that while minority groups are increasingly gaining access to computers and the Internet, the racial divide remains stark, with blacks and Hispanics less than half as likely as whites to explore the net from home, work or school. The study, the third and most comprehensive to be conducted by the Commerce Department over the past three years, reinforces the fear that minority groups are increasingly at a disadvantage in competing for the hottest entry-level jobs in the country: those that require a knowledge of computers and comfort in navigating the Internet” (Sanger, 1999).
Clausing (1999) cites the director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce, Gregory L. Rohde, as recognizing disturbing trends in technology access that need to be reversed (Clausing, 1999). Critics argued, too, that the digital divide in America was only a subset of a larger global technology access problem that exists between those in the developed world and those in the developing world, particularly Africa.
However, according to Carvin (2006), while the federal government was issuing such dire reports, poorer schools were catching up:
“In 1996, about two-thirds of public schools had Internet access, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2003, virtually every public school could go online. Perhaps even more striking, high-poverty schools, as well as their low-poverty counterparts, could boast near-universal access to the Internet by that point” (Carvin, 2006).
Access in Homes
Private schools and homeschooling families were also taking advantage of the Internet beginning in the 1990s. By 1998, 67 percent of all private schools had Internet access, and among Catholic schools, the number rose to 83 percent (NCES, 2000, p. 2).
According to overall numbers published by the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of American homes with Internet access also kept pace. Access increased from 26.2 percent of homes in 1998 to 54.6 percent in 2003, but in homes with children aged 6 to 17, the 2003 number was 67 percent (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007). These numbers have continued to grow, with 71.7 households reporting Internet access in 2011 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013).
At the end of the twentieth century, Warren-Sams (1997) noted that the digital divide was not inevitable. He shows that researchers and practitioners alike recognize the inequitable distribution and use of computers and other technologies:
- Appear at all educational levels
- Occur among districts as well as within and across schools
- Often result from inattention
- Endure indefinitely without planned interventions
He documents these inequities in research carried out over fifteen years.
“The present system for funding public education presents a formidable barrier to equal educational opportunity in technology. Districts and schools will continue to experience substantial differences in the financial and educational resources available to them. However, educators with a commitment to equity have done and can do much to lessen or overcome financial and other barriers” (Warren-Sams, 1997, p. 2)
Now, after years of such "planned interventions" by educators, politicians, corporate America, and parents, we can see that, by at least some objective measures, the digital divide has shrunk.
Others aren't so confident that the work of closing the digital divide — either at home or abroad — has been finished. Online clearinghouses such as the Digital Divide Network continue to provide a home for those who believe more work needs to be done before children from all races and socioeconomic levels can reap the benefits of the this information age.
Digital Generation Gap
By 2007, Andrew Trotter, a technology reporter at Education...
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