Monday, February 22, 2010

Digital Divide...Simple to Spell...Complex to Fix?

If you live in North America, it is hard to escape the existence of and the growing reliance on digital technologies. For many, being digitally connected is a given, an expectation, a right. Even our cars have gone from being modes of transportation to being highly mobile digital communication devices:

This technological shift appears to be creating a divide nationally and globally. These digital divides are "the imbalances in physical access to technology as well as the imbalances in resources and skills needed to effectively participate as a digital citizen. In other words, it is the unequal access by some members of society to information and communication technology, and the unequal acquisition of related skills. (Wikipedia)

In the above quote this divide is caused or manifested in people's lack of access to technology and their lack of skill to use the technology in complex manners. Notice it also frames this divide in terms of people being digital citizens (we will come back to that one).

At first glance it seems easy to address this divide or technological imbalance. Pump money into infrastructure, ship computers nationally/globally, and hire trained digital citizens to make sure everyone is up to speed.

The divide has more components than skills and access. This is where it gets really complicated. The digital divide actually mirrors other divides in our societies along racial, gender, socioeconomic, cultural, religious, and political lines:

(Thanks Dawn for finding this)

The American Association of School Librarians suggest that policies that dictate institutional purchasing of technology and filtering content influence this divide. They also suggest "motivation, cannot be overlooked. That is, we’re seeing children, teachers, media specialists, and administrators all having different motivations to either adopt, ignore, or actively thwart learning innovation with Web 2.0 tools" (AASL October 2008).

I fully admit that the last two semesters of learning about Web 2.0 has whipped me into a bit of a panic. I live in a remote, fly-in community. We are progressing with our technology. As teachers we see the value of this advancement but a true sense of urgency and panic hit me when I came back to Alberta. I gained the impression that the world has changed almost over night in a way never imagined before. George Sciadas' research calmed my nerves by putting this present digital divide into perspective:

Despite perceptions about the meteoric rise of the Internet, fast as it
may have been, the penetration of television in people’s lives was
faster1. The penetration of the VCR was also very fast, particularly
during its first decade. While the speed of adoption among commodities
differs, their penetration is generally characterized by accelerating
growth in the initial periods, which eventually gives way to decelerating
growth. (p. 2)

In short, technological divides have happened before and to some degree these divides shrink with time. His research did support, however, that our present digital divide is expanding in Canada between the poor and the rich...which obviously is an issue of concern.

Major Question Leaders Need to Answer:

Is the digital divide a cultural/political construct based on the assumption that there is one right way of being?

In the YouTube video above, digital technologies and related skills were defined by their ability to allow America/Americans to compete in the global economy. Wikipedia's definition of digital citizens describes them as being able to complete duties such as filing taxes, child registration, and other commercial endeavors online. These examples and countless others support Sonia Liff's assertion that the existence of and the plans to eliminate the digital divide have agendas behind them. For instance, research has shown that boys and girls use digital technologies differently (Looker & Thiessen, 2003). Sonia Liff picked up on this and shared the risk of defining women as poor users and men as good users. This would lead to policies and programs to improve women. This approach ignores the key question...what do women want to use technology for? Other presenters besides Sonia Liff emphasized that one set of policies/projects to eliminate the divide doesn't fit all as different nations/cultures perceive technology differently and therefore would use it differently. These thoughts came from the video below (thanks Natasha) and is well worth a watch.

Implications for Educators/Leaders:

1) Be aware - We need to be aware of how we define success. We have an agenda in schools. Educational gurus that are pushing the educational envelope have complex and unique skills in mind for digital citizens (ShirJorg, Jackie, Joyce Valenza). Even though many students are using web 2.0 tools they would still be considered on the bottom of the divide as they may not be using them in the way we define they should be.

2) Avoid simplistic responses - Our gut reaction is to buy, buy, buy. "If students and teachers have access then we are okay." Focusing on hardware while ignoring policy, the skills your teachers have/lack, the infinite ways users perceive and interpret experiences with technology is short sighted. Add the existing socioeconomic, cultural, gender, political barriers in your school/community = limited success or complete disaster. Danah Boyd does an excellent job of exploring these elements in the digital world (Click here. Make sure you read her papers)

3) Think context - Solutions do exist but they likely will be unique to your area. You can learn from others though. Thanks Dawn for examples of contextual solutions.

4) Respect play - My peers and I discussed at length the importance of teachers being competent technology. If teachers value and have the skills then they can help battle your local digital divide. Administrators...please get creative with scheduling and create space for your staff to play with technology. I guarantee you will see results :)

For further ideas check out Dawnelai's blog.

Non-hyperlinked resources:

George Sciadas completed a report entitled "The Digital Divide in Canada" for Statistics Canada. This report can be accessed here.

Looker and Thiessen (2003) compiled research for Statistics Canada. I referenced their report that you can access here.