As an exercise in my EDTECH 501 class, I wrote a fictional letter to my city’s mayor about the issue of digital inequality. My proposals might be a little overly ambitious, but this was a good exercise nonetheless.

I did actually have a minor familiarity with the digital divide and digital inequality. Digital inequality is a problem with many of our district’s students, since our district almost exclusively covers suburban and rural areas. In many of the outer areas, high-speed Internet access isn’t even available, and households are still limited to dial-up.

I believe it’s important for teachers to be aware of this issue, and be able to adapt their lessons and homework to the students who may not be able to access computer-based content at home. In our district, many of our teachers make use of online classrooms, blogs, videos through our media sharing site, and more. Our state, like many others, requires that up-to-date records of student grades and attendance be provided to parents via the web. We invest a lot of effort in making sure parents have ready access to their students’ information, even though many of them simply will never log in because they don’t have the means to.

On the other hand, there are people who insist that digital inequality isn’t really much of an issue anymore (see, e.g. http://www.edweek.org/dd/articles/2007/09/12/02divide.h01.html). Internet coverage is expanding, ISP prices are dropping, smart phones are becoming more and more advanced and connecting to the Internet faster, open wi-fi hotspots are popping up all over the place, and many businesses and fast food restaurants provide free wireless access. Some schools (not Weber yet) are even providing 1:1 programs which allow students to take laptops home. Is it possible that one day digital inequality will be a complete nonissue, much like the digital divide is now? I certainly think so.

To Mayor Ritchie,

I’m the web manager of Weber School District, and I’m writing in regards to a problem in the community, and asking for your assistance in endorsing three measures to address it. In our schools we work hard to provide Internet access to students regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, or family social status. Every student in the school has equal access to a safely-filtered Internet in our media centers, computer labs, and in many of our classrooms. At one point, the “digital divide” or a disparity of Internet access in different schools was a concern, but now, every school in our district has high-speed Internet access. However, the instant they return to their homes, the situation changes.

A “digital inequality” still exists in our community’s homes. In a nationwide study, it was found that while 78% of white students have Internet access at home, only 46% of African-American and 48% of Latinos had the same benefit. 68% of non-disabled students had Internet access at home, compared to 55% of disabled students. Since the only option for many disabled students to participate in education is through home schooling or virtual schools, the importance of having a computer at home is becoming increasingly necessary.

For Spanish-only speaking families, only 32% of kids had home Internet access, compared with 69% of kids with English-speaking parents. Parental income plays a part, too. 88% of kids with parents who earned more than $75,000 a year had Internet access at home, compared to 37% of kids with parents earning under $20,000 a year.

The majority of our city’s children attend schools within Weber School District, and the district places a heavy focus on Internet technologies. Our online course system, which supplements in-class learning, is growing by leaps and bounds. Many of our district’s teachers now expect their students to access online course material from home. Teachers also share assignments, classroom updates, and news on their blogs, which is invaluable for parents. However, this is all useless if the family has no computer at home. This creates a significant educational disadvantage for students in underprivileged families.

Fortunately, there are other means to obtain computer access, such as the local library. This is a great service to the community. However, every time I visit the library, the computer lab is always full. It doesn’t seem to matter what time of day, either. There are sometimes even people waiting in line to use a computer.

I am suggesting the following measures be implemented:

  1. I strongly encourage that a second computer lab be built in the Weber County Library, Roy Branch. Library hours should also be extended, if possible, so members of the community have a larger time window in which to access a computer and the Internet.
  2. The city should implement a volunteer-based computer recovery program to obtain discarded, unused, and broken computers and repair them for reuse. I’m familiar with a great many technology professionals in the area who have expressed their interest to me in donating their spare time to this type of project. Hundreds of computers are thrown away every day, when they could be salvaged and refurbished. An assortment of free, open source software would then be installed on the machines, including a Linux operating system, the OpenOffice word processing suite (which is comparable to Microsoft Office), a web browser, an email client, and free educational games for kids. All this software is available at absolutely zero cost. These recycled computers would then be donated to underprivileged families in our community. We would also provide free classes at the local library once a month. The classes would train people on how to use the donated computer systems’ software, since I believe training should accompany any technological deployment.
  3. Providing computers is only one step in addressing digital inequality, and does not necessarily guarantee Internet access will be available to low-income or underprivileged families. For this reason, I propose a feasibility study be conducted investigating the possibility of providing Roy with a free, open wireless Internet service. This has been accomplished in large cities such as Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, and St. Louis, and in numerous smaller cities and towns across the U.S.

I believe these measures will help narrow the gap caused by Digital Inequality in our community, and help ensure that our city’s population will be afforded equal access to both computers and the Internet. I appreciate your consideration in this matter.

Sincerely,

Justin K. Reeve

References

Barzilai-Nahon, K. (2006). Gaps and bits: Conceptualizing measurements for digital divide/s. The Information Society, 22(5), 269-278. (PDF file)

Computer and Internet Use by Students in 2003. (2006, September 5). Retrieved September 21, 2008, from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2006065.

Cooper, M. (2004). Expanding the digital divide and falling behind in broadband. Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union, October. Retrieved from http://www.consumerfed.org/pdfs/digitaldivide.pdf.

DiMaggio, P., & Hargittai, E. (2001). From the ‘digital divide’ to ‘digital inequality’: Studying Internet use as penetration increases. Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, Working Paper Series, number 15. Retrieved from http://www.princeton.edu/~artspol/workpap/WP15%20-%20DiMaggio+Hargittai.pdf.

DiMaggio, P., Hargittai, E., Celeste, C., & Shafer, S. (2004). From unequal access to differentiated use: A literature review and agenda for research on digital inequality. Social Inequality, 355-400. Retrieved from http://www.eszter.com/research/pubs/dimaggio-etal-digitalinequality.pdf.

Hargittai, E. (2003). The digital divide and what to do about it. New Economy Handbook, 821-839. Retrieved from http://www.eszter.com/research/pubs/hargittai-digitaldivide.pdf.

McConnaughey, J., Nila, C. A., & Sloan, T. (1995). Falling through the net: A survey of the “have nots” in rural and urban America. National Telecommunications and Information Administration. July. Retrieved from http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fallingthru.html.

Trotter, A. (2007, September 12). Digital Divide 2.0: Ed. tech. experts tackle the question: Is there still a technological divide between the haves and have-nots? Digital Directions, September 2007. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/dd/articles/2007/09/12/02divide.h01.html.