When considering higher education and distance and online learning, the topic of the digital divide continues to be both important and vexing. While there has certainly been some progress made in bridging the divide, many students, particularly those in lower income brackets, continue to encounter problems in terms of access to both high-speed connections and software. As these students increase in numbers on our campuses, and as higher education continues to move aggressively towards providing more instruction online, educators must assess how these issues have been and are being addressed.
A variety of solutions have been proposed and are currently being implemented across the nation. One of these is Community Technology Centers (CTCs), a US Department of Education grant-funded project dedicated to creating community centers with Internet-connected publicly available computers in poor and rural areas (U.S. Department of Education, 2005). While the department has funded other projects, these often tend to focus on instruction and innovative uses of technology in education (U.S. Department of Education, 2003) rather than access and availability to computers and the Internet.
A key public institution striving to serve the technological needs of lower income citizens is the public library system. A recent study reports that “99 percent of all U.S. public libraries provide free public access to computers wired to the Internet, compared to 25 percent 10 years ago. Librarians overwhelmingly (71 percent) report that the most important impact of this service is providing Internet access to those who otherwise would not have it” (American Library Association, 2006). The study goes on to state, however, that despite increased demand for library computers there has not been a corresponding increase in their budgets, leaving libraries unable to provide enough workstations and sufficient bandwidth for their users, particularly in poor and rural areas, findings supported by a more recent survey also conducted by the ALA which found that only 1 in 5 libraries reports having enough computers to meet demand and that connections speeds are too slow (Jesdanun, 2007).
Other strategies include grant funding to furnish computers directly to lower income individuals. An example of this may be seen in the T.E.C.H. (Teaching Educational Computers for the Home) project, a state of Florida grant being administered by Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida (T.E.C.H. Initiative, 2006). Through this grant 200 low-income students and their families in Alachua and Bradford counties were furnished with a computer, printer, modem, and paid Internet access for a year; software included on these systems includes MS Works 2006. The program requires attendance at a minimum number of training workshops and that a journal be kept regarding the use of the computers for educational purposes.