Current Issues in the Digital Divide Debate

Almost 35% of the world’s population are now online! The most recent World Internet Usage and Population Statistics (shown below) suggest high levels of access to the Internet in, for example, Europe (63.2%), North America (78.6%) and Australia (67.6%). Issues of physical access to technologies remain between the ‘haves and have nots’ (Warschauer, 2003). However, from the figures shown you can see phenomenal growth in access to technologies over the past decade or so in ‘developing’ countries, such as Africa.

World internet stats

The focus in the ‘digital divide’ debate has shifted in recent times from issues related to physical access to digital technologies to issues related to (a) the quality of access to digital technologies to enhance literacy and provide deep learning opportunities for our students; and (b) equality of opportunity in access regardless of socio-economic status (SES) or print-based reading capabilities.

The assumption that most of the ‘digital native’, Google, M2 generation have highly developed technological and information-seeking skills on the Internet lacks credibility within the research-based literature (e.g. Livinstone & Helpser, 2007; Williams & Rowland, 2007). To borrow from Ito and colleagues’ (2010) great title ‘Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out, Kids Living and Learning With New Media’, our students are great at ‘hanging out’ on social networking media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter; great at ‘messing around’ uploading and downloading videos from YouTube; and are great at spending considerable time online (Rideout, Foehr & Roberts, 2010). However, when it comes to ‘geeking out’ it is clear that the M2 Google generation are not a homogeneous population with a uniform digital upbringing, are not sophisticated users of technology, and have not realised the potential of the Internet as a site for deep learning and knowledge construction. If we erroneously assume that our student population have highly developed Internet and technology skills if gives us a free pass as educators and policy makers to disregard the need to explicitly explore and teach new literacies with our students or to fully integrate and embed digital technologies for literacy as essential components of the classroom curriculum.

Research evidence also suggests differences in equality of opportunity in access to technologies depending on SES (e.g. Volman, van Eck, Heemskerk, & Kuiper, 2007). While the Internet and other digital technologies have the potential to motivate and engage struggling readers from low SES communities, the converse is also true. The Internet could further compound the difficulties experienced by these students either through limited access to technologies (it’s too difficult for them) (Karchmer, 2001) or using digital technologies to develop decontextualized, constrained skills. While students from low SES school communities may be engaged in low level skill development using digital technologies, research suggests that their peers from more affluent schools are engaging with higher order, problem solving inquiry based skills and strategies. Those students who have limited home access to Internet technology, those who are struggling with print-based literacy “are precisely those who are being prepared the least” (Coiro, Knoebel, Lankshear, & Leu, 2008) for life in an information age.

So how can we provide improve learning outcomes for all students through the integration of the Internet and digital technologies with subject areas of the curriculum? I leave you today with a non-profit research and development organisation dedicated to building student engagement through the integration of digital technologies with subject matter content and skills. The CAST organisation bases its work on the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) (Rose & Meyer, 2002). We have previously blogged on two free online tools developed by CAST; Book Builder and Science Writer. I would urge you to explore their website and view the brief video embedded below.

References
Coiro, J., Knobel, M., Lankshear, C., & Leu, D. J. (2008). Central issues in new literacies and new literacies research. In J. Coiro, M. Knobel, C. Lankshear, & D. J. Leu (Eds.), Handbook of research on new literacies (pp. 1-21). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Ito, M., Baumer, S., Bittanti, M., Boyd, D., Cody, R., Herr-Stephenson, B et al. Hanging out, messing around and geeking out: Kids living and learning with New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press:
Karchmer, K. A. (2001). The journey ahead: Thirteen teachers report how the Internet influences literacy and literacy instruction in their K-12 classrooms. Reading Research Quarterly, 36, 442-467.
Livingstone, S., & Helsper, E. (2007). Gradations in digital inclusion: Children, young people and the digital divide. New Media and Society, 9(4), 671-696.
Rideout, V.J., Foehr, U.G., & Roberts, D.F. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year olds, Menlo. Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Rose, D. & Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age. ASCD. Available free online: http://www.cast.org/library/books/tes/index.html
Warschauer, M. (2003).Technology and social inclusion: Rethinking the digital divide. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press.
Williams, P., & Rowland, I. (2007). Information behaviour of the researcher of the future. The literature on young people and their information behaviour Work Package 11. A British library JISC study. Retrieved September, 2, 2008 from http://www.ucl.ac.uk/infostudies/research/ciber/downloads/GG%20Work%20Package%20II.pdf.

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