During the last years the issue of digital divide has received particular attention from international bodies like the UN, UNESCO, OECD (Bindé, 2005; OECD, 2001; UN, 2006). These organizations acknowledge that our planet is divided into “information haves” and “information have-nots” and that the effort to bridge this global gap is one of the main challenges of society today. Interest in digital divide is also widely present in literature. In these last five years, research and empirical surveys on this subject have notably increased (Baker, 2001; Hargittai, Di Maggio, Neuman, & Robinson, 2001; Ranieri, 2006; Rallet, 2004; Sartori, 2006; van Dijk, 2005). What does digital divide mean? What are the causes of the digital gap? How can education and technological research contribute to facing this challenge? In this chapter, we shall first develop this concept, identifying through literature reviews its dimension and causes. We shall then focus our attention on the possible roles that education and technological research can play in order to overcome the gap, suggesting four main directions to be followed, with the help of concrete examples.
Defining Digital Divide: A Literature Review
The Oxford English Dictionary Online (2004) registered the first occurrence of the term “digital divide” in an article published in 1995 in the Columbus Dispatch (Ohio), giving the following definition: “the gulf between those who have ready access to current digital technology (esp. computers and the Internet) and those who do not; (also) the perceived social or educational inequality resulting from this.”
Still during the mid-1990s, the term recurred in the reports of the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) regarding the inequality of access to telecommunications. NTIA published six reports from 1995 to 2004 in a series entitled Falling through the Net. In the third NTIA report (1999) the profile of the have-nots was introduced and defined, and the following five different levels of inequality in Internet usage were identified: (1) between the minority of connected and the majority of unconnected; (2) between those who use the Internet for a wide range of activities with advantageous effects and profit and those who do not use the Internet; (3) between those who can use paid services and those who use the Internet’s free research engines; (4) between those who use the net for e-commerce and those who do not effect any transactions on the Internet; and (5) between those who benefit from the broadband and those who cope with only slow connections.
In the following years the term became a very commonly used expression in European debates and eventually extended also to the developing countries. Some authors underline the ambiguous character of the term digital divide which is a very wide concept (going from access and non-access to telecommunication infrastructures and educational programs) used in reference to most diverse situations involving nations, regions, organizations, social groups, individuals, and so forth (Rallet & Rochelandet, 2004; Yu, 2002).
In the attempt to clarify it’s meaning, three different accentuations can be identified in debates and in literature.
Initially, the accent was placed on technological equipment, and digital divide was conceived as a form of exclusion of those who did not have access to the information and communication technologies (ICTs).
Key Terms in this Chapter
Open Educational Resources (OER): Refer to “educational materials and resources provided freely and openly for anyone to use and under some licenses re-mix, improve and redistribute.” Open educational resources include learning content (i. e., course materials, learning object, documents etc.), tools (i.e., software for creation, delivery, use and improvement of open learning content) and implementation resources (i.e., intellectual property licenses) (Wikipedia. Retrieved July 30, 2007, from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_educational_resources)
Digital Competence: Digital competence involves the confident and critical use of electronic media for work, leisure and communication. These competencies are related to logical and critical thinking, high-level information management skills, and well-developed communication skills.
Simpute: An acronym for “Simple, In-expensive, Multilingual, People’s Computer”. It is a small hand-computer, designed and implemented for use in developing countries. The device was designed by the non-profit organization, Simputer Trust, founded in 1999.
Open Content: As indicated in Wikipedia, this term “describes any kind of creative work (including articles, pictures, audio, and video) or engineering work (i.e., open machine design) that is published in a format that explicitly allows the copying and the modifying of the information by anyone […]” (Retrieved July 30, 2007, from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_content).
Digital Divide: “The gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard to both their opportunities to access ICTs and their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities” (OECD, 2001, p. 5).
Open-Source Software: A computer software with a source code available under a license that allows users to change and improve the software, and to redistribute it in modified or unmodified form. It is often developed in a public and collaborative way.