The Digital Divide

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The “digital divide”—the gap between those with the access and capability to use new technologies and those without—has gained considerable public attention over the past few years. The issue has sparked an in-depth report from the Department of Commerce, Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide, as well as numerous programs and advocates dedicated to bridging the divide. The www.digitaldivide.org website is probably the single best source for finding research and actions related to this issue. Despite the growing concern, the report found the technology gap continues to be a social equity problem and is actually widening in some cases. Those groups at the “falling” end tend to be “minorities, low-income persons, the less educated, and children of single parent households,” notably those living in rural areas and urban centers.1 The Benton Foundation—facilitator in stimulating conversation and providing analysis about the divide—reports households with incomes of $75,000 and higher are 20 times more likely to have access to the Internet than those at the lowest income levels, and 9 times as likely to have a computer at home. Furthermore, the technology gaps between white and Hispanic households, and between white and black households are now approximately 5 percentage points larger than they were in 1997. Unfortunately, these social and economic “gaps” are not new and have in fact been heightened by the technology boom.

Bridging the digital divide is about building power in low-income communities as well as facilitating learning. “The digital divide is not just about training for jobs. Although important, we are not just preparing people to go to work,” emphasizes Marc Osten, an Internet and technology-use strategist. It is about providing the means for parents to voice their concerns to the PTA through an interactive listserv, or giving a victim of domestic abuse the ability to file court documents online, or enabling a neighborhood group to organize a campaign for affordable housing using e-mail. As Peter Miller primary consultant with Community Technology Associates in Massachusetts and formerly the network director of Community Technology Centers’ Network elaborates, “Integrating technology into nonprofit programs and setting up community technology centers is a means of community building and democratic revitalization.” Understanding this element of empowerment is essential in comprehending the social and economic movement surrounding the technology gap.

In developing our conversation on the digital divide, I was referred to three individuals actively engaged in nonprofit technology programs: Peter Miller, Dirk Slater, circuit rider with the Welfare Law Center in New York City and Candy Taaffe, learning program specialist with the Morino Institute in Washington, D.C. Each of these individuals strives to create and maintain programs and policies that encourage increased knowledge and understanding of technology in low-income communities.

Three central issues continually surfaced in each of the discussions:

Access: While the issue of access is still a problem, it is actually becoming less of a compelling issue. Slater comments, “Access is not really as large a concern. People are accessing the web through community technology centers, universities, and community libraries. If they have computers at home, Internet access is provided by many vendors for free.” The problem of access appears to be more of a challenge in rural areas where communication lines may not be capable of running Internet connections or people lack the resources to pay for the added expense of phone lines or, in some cases, electricity. No one discounts the problems that surround accessing technology; however, as Taaffe explains, “Simply having information and equipment present doesn’t alleviate the deeper social issues surrounding the divide.”

Training: A computer can be unapproachable if you are not equipped with the training on how to use it for accessing the Internet and other practical uses such as word processing. There has been an explosion of technology programs being integrated in schools and after-school centers, acting as a preventive means of addressing the digital divide. “Providing programming for youth is all a part of a continuum,” Taaffe comments. “Eventually, problems concerning the digital divide trickle down to the children.”

On the other side of the coin are adult learners who have been left behind in receiving training. “Low-income adults are suffering when a great deal of the programs are being aimed at technology in the schools,” comments Slater. “Technology in the schools is important, but we are ignoring a whole segment of the population.” Despite this imbalance, as more functions of social and economic life are performed online, training can provide low-income people of all ages the knowledge and understanding of emerging technology.

Content: The issue of content has been largely overlooked in discussions on the digital divide. “When people finally do obtain training and access to the web, it doesn’t meet their needs,” exclaims Miller. A recent report by The Children’s Partnership presents the importance of creating useful content on the Internet—material and applications that meet the needs and interests of low-income Internet users. The report found the Internet fell short in providing: local information about low-income communities; content that can be understood in various languages and literacy levels; and the cultural diversity reflective of a vast number of users. “One of the crucial elements in the digital divide is giving low-income people reasons to get online,” explains Slater. “Why should they get online; what is on there for them?” When the majority of the information on the Internet is not relevant to low-income communities, reads at an average or advanced literacy level, and an estimated 87 percent of the material is written in English,2 there is obviously a substantial population that is not being provided for.

With the technology issue in the limelight, it is vitally important that as a sector we ask ourselves how we can help to integrate technology into our programs and make it more approachable for our constituents. There are organizations and advocates throughout the nonprofit sector implementing strategies to help technologically empower those they serve. It can be as simple as offering access to computers or providing useful information and links to your website. Our advisors briefly outline below a snapshot of strategies being used to bridge the divide.

Putting Information on the Web: “My advice for nonprofits is to get online,” says Slater. “Access is getting easier and will become even easier. The type of person who uses the Internet is changing and you need to take notice—post-welfare requirements, food pantry locations, or affordable housing options. Low-income people need to be engaged and given relevant content online.”

Community Technology Centers: Community technology centers provide open-access to computers and computer-based programs, such as the Internet. Centers are housed within community-based organizations, social service agencies, public- and subsidized-housing developments, community centers, and churches. “Technology centers are popping up all over the country,” explains Taaffe. “There are close to 1,000 community technology centers in the United States and more networks are emerging daily. Having these points of access for communities is crucial and this constant dissemination of information is important.”

Computer Training Programs: “When using the Internet for job searching, the first part is learning how to use this sort of technology,” comments Slater. “People need to get over the knowledge hump.” Miller adds, “It is important that we teach low-income individuals real skills that are applicable in the technology workforce as opposed to simply teaching skills needed to work a digital cash register at McDonalds.”

Youth Development/After-School Programs: “Youth programs that incorporate technology are an investment in the future of our children and youth,” explains Taaffe. “More recently, we have been supporting the integration of technology into after-school programs and have witnessed the dramatic emergence of technology learning centers for children outside of the schools.” For example, the Connecticut-based Leadership, Education, and Athletic Partnership (LEAP) program is providing technology-access to children between 7 and 14 years old who live in marginalized, urban communities in New Haven, Hartford, New London, Bridgeport and Waterbury.”

A Critical Look at the Future: While these strategies are promising, we still need to be critically aware of what future issues may surface around the digital divide. Furthermore, we must fully understand the impact of integrating technology into nonprofit organizations. “Social-service programs are having a problem with their regular programs, let alone trying to start new ones that incorporate technology,” says Miller. Nonprofit staff must be trained in how to engage low-income constituents to use technology effectively both in their jobs and in other facets of their lives. Taaffe summarizes, “Staff development is key to the success of these programs.”

Finally, the digital divide must be examined through a wider lens than simply accessing technology. “These problems are inherent in our society,” Taaffe emphasizes. “Our social and economic problems have not vanished, the technology issue has just brought them to the surface.” The social and economic disparities that exclude low-income individuals, people of color, and the less educated are problems that our society has struggled with since long before the technology age. In an ever-expanding technical world, it will be increasingly hard to keep pace without the knowledge and expertise to use technology. Arming people with the knowledge and access to technology is a step in the right direction; however, we must also empower them with the skills to advocate for greater social and economic change. We simply cannot accept the continued “falling through the ‘Net.”

1. National Telecommunications and Information Administration.1999. Falling through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide. Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of Commerce. (July). (www.ntia.doc.gov)
2. Wendy Lazarus and Francisco Mora. 2000. Online Content for Low-Income and Underserved Americans: The Digital Divide. Santa Monica, CA.: The Children’s Partnership.

Tania Dobrowolski just joined the City of Newton’s Department of Community Development. Previously she was the Nonprofit Quarterly’s editorial intern.

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