Digital Divide

Digital Divide

Christiane Reilly (Bemidji State University, USA)
Copyright: © 2009 |Pages: 4
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-198-8.ch090
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Abstract

Distance education (DE) is a reality. Pop-up advertisements of online master’s degree programs appear with regularity on the Internet, and distance education courses are marketed via television, radio, and the printed media. It seems as though the options of receiving an education are expanding all around us. While DE indeed appears to reform education at a rapid speed, it is important to slow down and take a careful look at the issues DE presents to learners, to the market of education, and to society at large. Looking at DE from an educator’s perspective alone is not sufficient, as the effects of technology are interwoven with our economic, political, and sociological dimensions. While in today’s world the trend is toward specialization, it is a generalist’s view or multiple perspectives that are necessary in order to evaluate the effects of the digital divide. So from a sociological perspective, the question looms: Does distance education promise to widen or narrow the digital divide?
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Introduction

Distance education (DE) is a reality. Pop-up advertisements of online master’s degree programs appear with regularity on the Internet, and distance education courses are marketed via television, radio, and the printed media. It seems as though the options of receiving an education are expanding all around us. While DE indeed appears to reform education at a rapid speed, it is important to slow down and take a careful look at the issues DE presents to learners, to the market of education, and to society at large. Looking at DE from an educator’s perspective alone is not sufficient, as the effects of technology are interwoven with our economic, political, and sociological dimensions. While in today’s world the trend is toward specialization, it is a generalist’s view or multiple perspectives that are necessary in order to evaluate the effects of the digital divide. So from a sociological perspective, the question looms: Does distance education promise to widen or narrow the digital divide?

In order to understand the magnitude of the development of distance education, it is important to understand the explosive growth and expansion the Internet has enjoyed over the past decade. Robert Hobbes’s (2003) timeline of the history and development of technology records the growth of worldwide Internet users from less than 100,000 in 1993 to nearly 50 million users in 2003. Mathematically this is a trend of exponential growth. If this trend were to continue, one could argue that Internet access could potentially reach the majority of households in another decade. This assumption would lead one to conclude that distance education via the Internet could nationally, if not globally, improve the way education is delivered, and could reach those who up until now have either been failing or falling through the net of education.

The promise that distance education offers is real but has to be examined in light of other data. The National Telecommunications & Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce (NTIA) has gathered data over the past five years to evaluate how the United States, the richest and most powerful nation on earth, fares in providing connectivity or access to the media systems that deliver distance education. The data is sobering:

  • Those with a college degree are more than eight times as likely to have a computer at home, and nearly sixteen times as likely to have home Internet access, as those with an elementary school education.

  • A high-income household in an urban area is more than twenty times as likely as a rural, low-income household to have Internet access.

  • A child in a low-income White family is three times as likely to have Internet access as a child in a comparable Black family, and four times as likely to have Internet access as a child in a comparable Hispanic household.

  • A wealthy household of Asian/Pacific Islander descent is nearly thirteen times as likely to own a computer as a poor Black household, and nearly thirty-four times as likely to have Internet access.

  • Finally, a child in a dual-parent White household is nearly twice as likely to have Internet access as a child in a single-parent household, while a child in a dual-parent Black family is almost four times as likely to have access as a child in a single-parent Black household (NTIAa, n.d.)

For further information on technology penetration in American households, visit http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fftn99/part1.html.

From this data one can easily gather that the population that most benefits from distance education at this time is the White, two-parent household with middle to upper middle class income levels. In time, one can argue this gap is going to narrow as it has with the penetration of telephones into 94% of American households today. There indeed has been a narrowing of gaps between White and Black households in telephone ownership. This gap decreased by 25.5% in the four years from 1994 to 1998, leaving a disparity of 7.9% between Black and White households.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Gap/Racial Gap: Inequality of access to media and technology based on ethnicity.

Social Inclusion: Providing connectivity, access, and education to those who are without knowledge and use of technology.

Theories: Theories of educational psychology.

Distance Education: Education in which learners are separated from their teachers and/or from the material they are studying, and are using media and technology to communicate and learn.

Connectivity: The ability to access various media via the necessary equipment and channels.

Disparity: The inequality or difference in access to media and technology.

Virtual Classroom: A classroom without physical space; a classroom defined by its participants, content, and affiliation.

Access: The ability, the opportunity, or the right to enter or use technology and all that it has to offer in today’s society.

Literacy: Traditional literacy, that is, being able to read and write.

Issues: Problems in connection with distance education.

Digital Divide: Dividing members of society into two groups—those who have access and media literacy, and those who have no access and/or media literacy.

Media Literacy: Understanding how to use today’s technology, that is, how to operate equipment, use various software, navigate the Internet, discriminate sources, and so forth.

Automation: The technique, method, or system of operating or controlling a process by highly automatic means, as by electronic devices, reducing human intervention to a minimum. When applied to education, automation means increasing teacher/student ratio, reducing teacher/student contact, and reducing qualified staff with automated teaching methods and tutorials.

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