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Digital Divide 2.0: a few facts and figures

Welcome to K-20 Blog 2018! This year you can look forward to ever-more interesting news and views on the hot ed-tech and e-learning topics currently doing the rounds of academics, pedagogic experts and teachers across the globe.

Today we launch right in with a topic that is on the minds and hearts of many teachers - the “digital divide”; that silent, pernicious socioeconomic gap between students that have and students that do not have access to technology. Today I’d like to air some current facts around the debate, and create perhaps a platform from which we can explore the topic further in future blog posts.

Technology is transforming education, the change is as inevitable as that which the printing press brought to education. This blog is dedicated to highlighting the myriad of ways that technology enhances, and in many cases primarily provides, opportunities for a more constructive, learner-centered, skills-based teaching model. I personally believe that technology-enhanced education is and should be an organic process, where students themselves are the driving force in the adoption, development, deployment and design of ed-tech. We have seen elsewhere in the development of revolutionary technologies that administrators, government, NGOs and policy-makers lag behind the avant-garde of tech development and adoption; (reference cell phones, e-commerce, self-driving cars, the sharing economy, crypto currencies etc.) playing a slow game of catch-up to manage and align legal and policy frameworks around new tech, often with controversial results (reference net neutrality here).

However up to this point most Internet driven technology and hardware development has been a function of pure commerce, in other words it was an economic imperative - I produce an awesome piece of tech, and take it to market to try and sell it for the highest price possible. By creating greater demand for the tech, I can command a higher price. And government policy-makers for the most part have stayed out of the economy’s way; it was not a civic issue whether or not you had the money to buy the latest PlayStation, or could afford to advertise your business on Google Ads.

Now, however, access to technology is becoming a rights issue. In the same way access to basic healthcare is a right, and in the same way defibrillation machines, heart monitors and pathology labs can be considered high tech, and yet also a function of the basic healthcare every citizen has a right to, education and the right to education is fast becoming an issue of access to technology.

Digital Divide 2.0_Pin

Digital divide: facts and figures

The International Telecommunication Union is funded by the UN, and is considered one of the best sources for Internet and communication technology adoption statistics. I mined their 2017 report for some details to guide our thinking on the digital divide with regard to education.

  • It should not come as a surprise that the proportion of young people (ages 15-24) using the Internet (71%) is significantly higher than the proportion of the total population using the Internet (48%).
  • Zeroing in on the developed world this ratio jumps to a whopping 94.3% of young people using the Internet compared to 81% of the general population.
  • The US is one of the very few countries where females have a higher Internet penetration than males. The Americas in total show a 2.6% gender gap in favor of females with regard to Internet usage, compared with a global average of a 12% gap in favor of males.
  • Interestingly the study also found that similar gender bias ratios can be found in the uptake of tertiary education across the countries studied.
  • Unless you’ve been living on the moon for the last decade you will also know that mobile is booming: the statistics bare this out with a 20% year-on-year increase in the uptake of mobile broadband (data) subscriptions. While developed countries are stagnating as the market gets saturated, developing countries continue to leapfrog the use of fixed line broadband in favor of mobile broadband with 23 in 100 people in LDCs (Least Developed Countries) having mobile broadband compared to 1 in 100 who access the Internet through fixed line broadband.

Income vs. Access: The Digital Divide in the US

digital divide

(Source: LEE RAINIE)

Looking through some of the Pew Center's research on this makes for some interesting reading particularly with regard to trends around mobile usage compared with fixed broadband. The above graph details:

  • Between 2010 and 2015, across every segment of American society, fixed broadband at home has decreased, with the most dramatic decrease among African Americans.
  • As a corollary, African Americans have had the highest increase in the use of mobile technology as their only source of Internet access.
  • The Pew Center's research went on to reveal that the sector with the highest dependence on mobile technology for Internet access is among poor households (less than $20 000 h/hold income p/year) at 21%.

Digital Divide 2.0

As of 2008, 100% of U.S. public schools had one or more instructional computers with an Internet connection, and 58% had carts with laptops. This means that in theory all students have access to the Internet via their school. The discussions of the digital divide are therefore becoming nuanced in the following ways:

  • Disparities between how students use technology at school, and how they use technology outside of school i.e. social and mobile usage.
  • The quality and speed of broadband access, in addition to the provision of WiFi at schools is further delineating what is meant by “access”.
  • Schools with a higher socioeconomic status can afford to appoint full-time IT support and training for teachers that schools with low socioeconomic status cannot, creating granular differences in the quality of tech-enabled learning opportunities.
  • BYOD programs tend to favor students that can afford better devices, and in turn can take better images, process projects faster, have more memory and in general perform tasks better.
  • Find out more about the particular nuances of your state’s digital divide with the Children’s Partnership very useful Fact Sheets.

The challenges of the “new” digital divide are brilliantly and clearly explained in this journal article. In my next blog we will continue exploring the digital divide, but will take a more practical approach and describe some of the tools and techniques that the individual teacher can use to bridge the gaps in their own classrooms.

So keep an eye on the K-20 Blog!