Image by Sheila Steele via FlickrI live in the "City of Bridges" on the Canadian prairies. The city of Saskatoon currently has four traffic bridges and two railway bridges allowing trains and vehicles to cross over the South Saskatchewan River. In the early days of this city, there were no bridges. Since the settlement was established on both sides of the river, people used a ferry boat in the summer and crossed the ice in the winter. However, in the spring and fall, there was no way to cross the river. There was great rejoicing when first a train bridge and later a traffic bridge were built across the river.
As I think about the geographical divide in my city of Saskatoon, I apply the thoughts of divisions and bridges to the digital divide in the educational technology world. In an era in which students and teachers are encouraged to use the resources of the internet, both within and outside of school, many divides can prevent this ideal digital world. In a blog post, mmardis (2008) suggests that there are four dimensions of digital divides--access, skill, motivation, and policy.
Access: A group in the United States called Internet for Everyone (website) posits that lack of internet access is related to social class, geographical location, and race. In Canada, a Stats Canada study found that in 2003, within the lowest income quartile, only 22.6% had internet access at home. For the highest income quartile, 75.8% had internet access at home. (Hick, Graham, & Jones, 2008) It costs money to purchase high-speed internet access at home.
The Speech from the Throne in 1997 promised to make Canada the most connected country in the world. (Dowding, 2008) Many cities and university campuses have free wireless internet. However, in rural settings, high-speed internet is often unavailable.In some geographical locations, the only option is dial-up access. My sister lives in rural Saskatchewan and refuses to open any digital photographs (sent as email attachments) because it takes so long using dial-up access. Internet for Everyone would call this the "digital dirt road". They documented people's stories of living far from ideal internet access in rural America. (website)
In the end, this lack of access to high speed internet results in a limited experience of the value of connectivity. "What a person can accomplish with an outdated [computer] in a public library with mandatory filtering software and no opportunity for storage or transmission pales in comparison to what [a] person can accomplish with a home computer with unfettered Internet access, high band-width, and continuous connectivity. (Jenkins, n.d., p. 15)
Another issue with access is the hardware and software needed to use technology. I recently visited a school library which had nine computer terminals. However, when I sat down to search for a book for a student, I was shocked to discover that the mouse had NO SCROLL WHEEL. I have become so accustomed to a scroll wheel that I did not know what to do for a moment. At this particular school, the computers in the library and in their computer lab are receiving only minimal upgrades because their technology budget is going to purchase pods of laptops that can travel from classroom to classroom.
Some schools have outdated computer equipment and many students have no computers at home. Last year in my classroom, only half of the students had computers at home. These six and seven year old students did not even know how to manipulate a computer mouse. If students with no computers at home do not learn how to use computers at school, the gap between the rich and the poor will grow even wider.
In Canada, the government recognized that it needed to provide computers for the community. In 1994, the Community Access Program (CAP) was created under the auspices of Industry Canada. It aimed to "provide Canadians with affordable public access to the Internet and the skills they need to use it effectively. Public locations like schools, libraries and community centres [acted] as 'on-ramps' to the Information Highway, and [provided] computer support and training" (Dowding, 2008, p. 100). The CAP program continues to provide some funding for CAP sites across Canada. (website)
Some organizations (Geekcorps, EduVision, Inveneo) are working to provide lower cost technology options such as laptops, notebooks, handhelds, tablet PCs and low-cost wireless internet options. (Wikipedia)
Skill: Another type of divide is in the skill level that people bring to technology. Some may be very talented with texting using a cell phone but clueless about how to create an Animoto video. Some may be an expert in Web 1.0 innovations but unfamiliar with some of the new Web 2.0 tools. I recently attended a computer in-service regarding setting up a wiki. One of the Information Technology managers who co-lead the workshop talked about his unfamiliarity with Twitter. He was unwilling to develop a skill in this new direction.
Motivation: The above example also extends to motivation. People need to see a reason for learning about new technology. That IT manager did not see any value in Twitter and was unmotivated to push himself to learn about it. There is also a divide between those who love technology and those who are tech-averse. I think that it is helpful to tell these people that they are on the "digital continuum" as they learn and develop technology skills.
There are people who are motivated to be early innovators and adopt each new technology innovation that comes along. These people will be the ones learning about ChatRoulette (see blog post) and figuring out what to tell the rest of us. Then there are other people who are afraid of using a computer mouse because they might break the computer.
Policy: I recently visited a local school where the administrative assistant showed me the school portal online. She said that parents could give the school an email address and be permitted to access private information on the school website. They may check the school attendance and learn about assignments and read classroom newsletters. This is a new policy for the school division. What about those parents who do not have a computer, internet access at home, or an email account? They will be left on the other side of the digital divide for home to school communication.
When the city of Saskatoon was divided by a river, the citizens built six bridges to help vehicles and trains to cross that river. As educators, we can do a lot to help people overcome their digital divides as well. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Advocate for wireless internet access in schools and public settings so that laptops, phones with internet access and handheld devices can get online.
2. Support programs for recycling computer equipment that can be refurbished and given to low-income families.
3. Apply for CAP grants to support technology purchases and classes in your school.
4. Consider training adult volunteers (possibly even senior citizens) to assist young students in computer use. This will develop technology skills for both age groups.
5. Encourage school systems to invest in more hardware (desktop computers, laptops) and less software. Educate them about cloud computing and programs such as Google Docs and Slideshare so that costly site licenses are not necessary for software such as Microsoft Office.
6. If your school is one of the more well-to-do in your area, develop a program for sharing computers with schools in more socio-economically needy areas. In schools with wealthy parents, more funds are raised for computer purchases. Just as some schools have "book drives" for less-advantaged schools, your school could have a "computer drive" for less-advantaged schools.
Here are two videos that give a few more ideas for how to overcome the Digital Divide. Good luck with your bridge building.
Video from India about Bridging the Digital Divide
Project regarding bridging the digital divide in a rural area (video)
Dowding, M. (2008). The digital divide: Canada's access as a neo-liberal commodity. Rivista Mexicana de Estudios Canadienses, 97-110. http://220.127.116.11/scholar?q=cache:rVpz7n2ucWgJ:scholar.google.com/&hl=en&as_sdt=2000
Hick, S., Graham, J., & Jones, M. (2008). Navigating the digital divide. Currents: New Scholarship in the Human Services, 7, 2. http://currents.synergiesprairies.ca/currents/index.php/currents/article/view/19
Jenkins, H. (n.d.). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. http://digitallearning.macfound.org/atf/cf/%7B7E45C7E0-A3E0-4B89-AC9C-E807E1B0AE4E%7D/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF
mmardis. (October 30, 2008). Web 2.0 in schools: Our digital divides are showing! AASL Blog. http://www.aasl.ala.org/aaslblog/?p=321
Wikipedia. Digital Divide entry. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_divide