This article is part of our digital equity series, which assesses the complexity, interconnectedness, and diffuse nature of the digital divides that comprise it.
- The Digital Equity Basics: What It Is & Why It Matters
- The Access and Connectivity Divide in Education, the Digital Equity Series
- The Digital Readiness Divide in Education, the Digital Equity Series
- The Digital Use Divide in Education, the Digital Equity Series
- The Representation Divide in Education, the Digital Equity Series
The First Digital Divide: Access and Connectivity
Over the last several decades access to computing devices and internet connectivity in schools has greatly accelerated.
- In 1997, reports found that the ratio of students to computers was 24:1.
- Now, over fifty percent of educators report that their school is 1:1.
- According to a 2018 study by COSN, 43 percent of Technology Directors said they would be 1:1 within three years.
- Only 14 percent of US classrooms had internet access in 1997.
- But in 2019, EdWeek research confirmed that 99 percent of all K-12 districts in the United States have high-speed internet with 100kpbs for students.
Digital inequity persists with ensuring connectivity in family homes, public libraries, and other after school gathering areas.
Access and Connectivity Beyond the School Walls
According to the most recent survey in 2015:
- 78 percent of households had a desktop or laptop.
- 75 percent had a handheld computer.
- 77 percent had a broadband subscription.
Example 1: Computer Ownership and Broadband Subscription Rates by Race
Example 2: Computer Ownership and Broadband Subscription Rates Income
Example 3: Computer Ownership and Broadband Subscription Rates by English Proficiency
Example 4:Computer Ownership and Broadband Subscription Rates by Location
The takeaway is fairly simple: access and connectivity rates are impeded by longstanding inequities in society that affect minorities, low-income families, non-English speaking households, and those residing in rural areas.
The Access and Connectivity Divide & Equity
The persistence of the access and connectivity divide, which runs in parallel with learning that depends upon access to devices and connectivity to the internet, further alienates students who are already underserved and disadvantaged.
The Second Digital Divide: Digital Readiness
A study led by John B. Horrigan, who is a researcher and consultant, quantified this divide among adult Americans:
- 29 percent of adult Americans have low levels of digital readiness.
- 42 percent have moderately good levels of digital skills.
- 29 percent have high levels of digital skills.
- 70 million are not “digitally ready” for robust online use, nearly twice the number (36 million) of people with no online access.
Those ranking with low levels of digital skills tended to:
- be older
- have less education
- have lower incomes compared to their more skilled counterparts
But What About Digital Natives?
In a separate study by Pew, researchers surveyed adult Americans to gauge their Web IQ.
- Age isn’t an accurate predictor of digital readiness.
- Education tends to be an accurate predictor.
Why does this matter? The digital native narrative often overlooks and even perpetuates the digital readiness divide among youth, according to recent research by Paul A. Kirschner and Pedro De Bruyckere.
The Digital Readiness Divide & Equity
Students who lack access and connectivity, whether in school or at home, have less experience using technology and are likely to have families with less experience. The digital readiness divide, in this context, is more likely to impact non-white, impoverished, and rural students, which preys on already existing inequity.
The Third Digital Divide: Digital Use
The digital use concerns the nature of technology integration in student learning.
Technology Use in the Classroom
The Digital Use Divide and Equity
A study by Connected Learning Alliance found that students in higher-income schools experienced technology as a creative and playful medium while those from middle and lower-income schools used it at a far more basic level.
A second report also uncovered that lower-income, non-white children were more likely to use technology for drill and practice compared to their more affluent peers, who used technology in learning for problem solving and higher-order thinking.
The Fourth Digital Divide: Representation
The fourth digital divide, as featured in our digital equity whitepaper, is in reference to representation in the learning content, technology industry, and computer science workforce.
In order to feel a sense of belonging, connection to the curriculum, and empowerment to pursue advanced academics and employment in technology, diversity and representation are necessary.
In an article by Kevin Clark in the Journal of Children and Media, he explains:
“The digital divide will not be truly closed until the content available reflects the full spectrum of our experiences and perspectives, so that fathers and mothers of all hues and demographic categories have access to books, videos, websites, and a whole host of media created by and containing characters who look like their daughters and sons.”
Especially in STEM and computer science contexts, special considerations need to be made to ensure that learning represents all students, even when the fields may lag in this.
A Computer Science Case Study
To illustrate the lack of diversity and representation, the following section will examine the computer science field as an example. In the industry:
This lack of representation impacts us all.
- Half of all new jobs in STEM are in computing.
- Now in 2020, unfilled computer science positions reach over one million.
- Only eight percent of college graduates in STEM elect to major in computer science.
- Speech recognition software with smart speakers is more likely to understand men than women, and the same is true for people with accents.
- Another example is that facial recognition software repeatedly fails to recognize women and people of color, which again is in part due to the gender and race of those designing it.
- Greater equity in the computer science workforce will also help to close gender and racial wealth gaps by enabling these groups to access higher incomes that empowers them, their family, and their community.
In Support of Representation
It’s essential that all students have access to computer science and technology-driven learning experiences.
A study by Computer Science Education Week found that the likelihood women will major in computer science increases tenfold when they are enrolled in AP Computer Science. And black and Latinx students are seven times more likely to major in it.
Beyond reaching younger students, progress will also require that curriculum be inclusive and representative.
In summary of all this data, Michele Knobel and Leeann Stone in the Educational Policy Journal explain:
"There is no single digital divide in education but rather a host of complex factors that shape technology use in ways that serve to exacerbate existing education inequalities."