The Digital Divide Goes to College

At Youngstown State last week, we held a one-day institute on teaching with technology.  Faculty and staff spent the day talking about innovative ways of using technology to facilitate our students’ learning, and a keynote speaker, Gardner Campbell, challenged us to think creatively about how technology is changing education.  Among other things, he suggested that tools like digital storytelling and blogs can engage students in more active critical thinking and communicating and help extend their learning far beyond the classroom.  While participants expressed enthusiasm and curiosity about how they might expand their uses of technology, a side conversation kept popping up – a conversation about the whether we can fully use new media technologies when we teach so many poor and working-class students, for whom the digital divide remains a real challenge.

In my own divided professional life, with one foot in working-class studies and another in scholarship of teaching and learning, I have often felt frustrated listening to my colleagues touting ever more technologically-grounded pedagogies.  Predictably, many of those who most avidly develop and promote innovative uses of new media work at elite institutions where they have access to the latest equipment and software as well as support for innovative, technology-centered pedagogy.  They’ve heard me complain perhaps too often that I can’t do what they do, because I don’t have enough technical support, and I sometimes can’t even get my classes into computer labs.  Working-class institutions simply can’t afford to provide the quality and quantity of technology available at wealthier schools.

But, of course, the digital divide in higher education isn’t just about faculty access.  Access is an even greater challenge for poor and working-class students.  2009 data from the U.S. Census shows that the lower the household income and the lower the level of education in a family – two key measures of social class — the less likely people are to use the internet.  African-Americans and Hispanics also use the internet less than whites or Asians.  Given those patterns, it’s not surprising that working-class students, especially students of color, often do not have internet access at home.  Those who do are more likely to use dial-up services or to work on older, slower computers.

Colleges and universities try to address this problem by providing open labs and wireless internet access in college buildings.  But even with reasonably good technology available on campus, many of our students struggle to complete online assignments, access readings and other course materials online, or do projects using new media.  Why?

The obvious answer is time.  At YSU and many other urban working-class institutions, most of our students live off-campus, sometimes as much as an hour away, and most work, often 40 hours a week or more.  They come to campus for classes, and they have difficulty finding time to stay or to come back to access computers.  Often, the time they have to do schoolwork is the middle of the night, when campus labs are closed.

But even when they can find time to work on campus computers, these students come into the lab with limited experience, so doing internet-based assignments is harder.  They may not be familiar with the software or have enough experience to confidently figure it out on their own.  At YSU, the Writing Center is trying to address that aspect of the technology gap by offering workshops on the basics of word processing as well as how to use a flash drive and e-mail.  But for many, catching up digitally is a slow and daunting process.

Yet, as educational researcher Joanna Goode has argued, the problem goes beyond computer access and skills.  She suggests that by the time they reach college, students have developed a “technological identity,” a set of ideas and expectations about their own relationship with technology.  Students who have had limited access to technology before college may well come into the classroom, and even more important into the computer lab, worried about their own lack of knowledge and unsure about whether they can ever catch up.  Goode argues that such students need training and support, not just better technical access.

Even as some of our students struggle to work well with emerging technologies, others come with years of experience, expertise, and digital flexibility.  In a chapter in Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors, Linda B. Nielson identifies some of the characteristics of the “millennial generation.” It’s just one of many articles from the last decade telling us that today’s college students think differently and have different expectations of college, in part because they are – supposedly – so immersed in new media technology.  For faculty at working-class institutions, especially, that creates an even greater challenge: while some of our students are struggling with technology, others are much more tech-savvy than we are, and they want us to use technology more fully and more creatively. Finding the balance between the two sides of the digital divide – two sides that are growing further apart – remains a challenge, one with which we must wrestle even as we develop new ways of teaching with technology.

How are we to bridge this gap?  We begin, of course, with awareness.  Those of us who teach poor and working-class students must be mindful of the challenges some of our students will face in using technology.  And we must be prepared to offer alternatives.  That might mean accepting a hand-written journal in lieu of online discussion postings from a few students or providing hard copies of online resources.  It might also mean being a bit lenient on deadlines.  Our institutions could go beyond providing access to hardware and software on campus.  Some internet providers offer discounted internet access through educational institutions, and schools could rent equipment.

But as Goode suggests, we must also be prepared to teach not just the content but also the tools, including technology.  That can happen on the institutional level, through workshops to help students develop their computer skills, but some of the work will fall on the shoulders of individual faculty. If we want to use technology in the classroom, and if we know that some of our students are not fully prepared, then it’s in our interest as well as that of our students to help them.

Technology provides opportunities for more active, inquiry-based learning, and many faculty are excited by the possibilities.  We see how new media can expand our students’ learning opportunities, engage them in significant questions, connect them with authentic audiences, and help them develop skills for both professional and personal life.  If we want to embrace those possibilities, we must accept responsibility not only for preparing ourselves but also for preparing our students.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

Disconnected, Disenfranchised, and Poor: Addressing Digital Inequality in America

Reports that 79% of Americans now use the internet should not obscure the needs and problems of those lacking internet access or computer literacy.  In today’s information-based economy, internet access and computer literacy are crucial to economic growth at all levels, including global.  Businesses are attracted to computer-literate communities and hesitate to do business with those that are not, and that can limit economic opportunities for everyone in the community. This is why we should all care about low levels of internet access and computer literacy within our communities.

Research conducted by the Pew Research Center indicates that those with limited income and education are most likely to not use the internet or even understand how to use a computer. Internet use is clearly tied to economic status and education.  While 95% of upper- income households use the Internet, 37% of lower-income households do not.  And while 4 % of college graduates do not use the internet, 48 % of those without a high school diploma do not. About half of non-users identify cost and lack of computer skills as the primary barriers.

Poor people most often go to public libraries when they do not have internet access at home or through a job or school. Nearly 19 million people living in poverty use public library computers to access the internet for health, education, and employment information and to read the news. Unfortunately, state and local cuts in library funding have led many libraries to cut hours, staff, and spending on computers. Reducing some people’s only access to the internet deepens the digital divide—when more and more information is most readily available online. These reductions also make it harder for those with limited access to gain computer literacy, and that contributes to the growing economic gap between the rich and poor.

That gap is not just about job skills.  Lack of computer literacy and internet access also prevent people from fully participating in society.  This disenfranchises some people and, in effect, makes them second-class citizens. People who lack internet access and who are not computer literate cannot obtain, communicate, and use information for their benefit as quickly as those who can use the internet effectively. Consider how reliable internet access helps people apply for jobs quickly or take swift political action. As the Social Science Research Council suggests, lack of computer access and literacy are now mechanisms of social and economic exclusion. When the adverse effects of this exclusion (e.g. poverty) are transferred to subsequent generations, groups may be disadvantaged well into the future.

It’s not just disparity in mere access to the internet or the ability to turn on a computer that characterizes digital inequality. Quality of internet access also matters, as do freedom to use the internet without time  and equipment constraints and opportunities to develop information-seeking skills. In her study of American youth, Laura Robinson found that digital inequality exacted a heavy toll on low-income students who competed to obtain internet access at school or the public library.  Lacking internet access at home, the students recounted the stress of skipping lunch, not going to the bathroom, and waiting in long lines in order to use the internet in these settings. A thirty-minute time limit on terminal use in some libraries also caused the students emotional stress. Limited access led low-income students to spend less time surfing the internet for information than their higher-income counterparts who had internet access at home, and it created stresses that probably made their internet use less effective. Group differences in time spent online led to group disparities in the development of information-seeking skills, which placed lower-income students at a disadvantage in school and the labor market.

No group should be denied internet access and the benefits derived from its use because of low income, place of residence, disability, gender, or race-ethnicity. To bring about true digital equality in America, a holistic approach must be implemented. Under this approach, high-speed internet would be installed in underserved communities. Computers would be designed so that the disabled could affordably use them and go online. Subsidies would be provided to impoverished households that could not afford internet connection. The functionally illiterate would receive the literacy and computer skills they need in order to access the internet. Additional computer technology centers would be built, and existing ones, staffed at higher levels. Internet access at public libraries would be upgraded and increased. Child care assistance would be given to low-income parents to take computer classes so that they might qualify for better jobs. More would be done to help poor inner-city youth attain a high school diploma and post-secondary education. Such changes might help poor people improve their chances to secure jobs with livable wages, so they could afford internet access at home. Under a holistic approach to digital inequality, the goal would be to empower all groups to participate fully in our information society, so that fewer are left behind— now or in the future.

Denise Narcisse, Center for Working-Class Studies

Budget Cuts Threaten the Working Class

Last fall, I drove to Columbus for a one-day unconference with library technologists. We each took turns writing topics on the board about which we wanted to learn or to share. The attendees separated into small groups according to interests: open-source content management systems, blogging and social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.).

It turns out that librarians are passionate about technology, and for good reason. Since card catalogs gave way to searchable online directories, everything about information has become digitized. Government has likewise been turning everything over to the Internet: any and all forms that can be filled out and submitted digitally must be submitted online. From unemployment to workers’ compensation, the process begins with and is fed by virtual forms.

The connection of all this to working-class issues may not be immediately apparent, but think for a moment about the effect of these changes on access to information and to basic services. In order to apply for unemployment benefits, one completes online forms. Not only does this require some level of computer savvy, it also requires Internet access. How many unemployed working-class families can afford Internet access?

The Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that of the 25% of adults who do not use the Internet at home: 13% can’t get access, 7% can’t afford it and 4% don’t have a computer. Pew Internet further cites 43% of Americans in households earning less than $30,000 per year and 23% of Americans in households earning less than $50,000 per year as non-Internet users at home. The most obvious points of access for these and other users are public libraries.

I spoke with Diane Vicarel, Digital Services Manager at the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County. I asked about the popularity of public Internet access and whether she could provide any statistics on how much their computers were used throughout the day. She wasn’t sure such statistics existed, but that’s only because the computers are always in use from when the doors are opened in the morning until the last user leaves. She said the sight of lines of people outside waiting to use the computers is common.

The library also provides a number of databases to support adult education, resources for job searches, audio-visual assets and links to additional information across the Web. Of course, libraries still serve the fundamental purpose for which they began: massive catalogs of books on every topic, for recreation or reference.

Ohio has made news in the last month by proposing to slash hundreds of millions of dollars in library funding from its annual budget. Funding for Ohio’s libraries is determined by a formula that ties a percentage of the state’s general revenues. Revenues have plunged in the current economy, leaving libraries wondering what lies ahead. Compared with 2008 funding levels, 20% of state revenue has been lost since January of 2009. Another 30% cut has been proposed on top of that for this year, with further expected cuts of 47% in 2010 and 45% in 2011. As state revenues fall nationwide, Ohio is certainly not the only state whose libraries are facing crippling cuts at a critical time.

This double whammy is the sad story facing American workers today. Economic decline means lost jobs and fewer state dollars to support libraries where the unemployed can both get temporary assistance through unemployment benefits and access to tools to hopefully get another job.

The success of the stimulus package, as has been discussed several times on this blog, will be determined in part by the foresight to continue providing a safety net of tools and services for those who have fallen. The strain our society will face if those with temporary financial setbacks lack the resources necessary to get back on a road to recovery will be far greater than if we identify and continue to financially support those resources, such as libraries, that are needed as a critical link between workers and the government.

-Tyler Clark

Tyler Clark is a technology and Web marketing consultant who writes about Youngstown .