Delving into the Digital Divide

“Hands across the Divide” © Copyright zoocreative and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Van Dijk, Jan. (2006).  Digital divide research, achievements and shortcomingsPoetics. 34. The Netherlands: University of Twente, 221-235.

For this week’s assignment, I did a little research into the so-called digital divide.  I came up with  the above referenced article by Jan van Dijk from 2006.  In the article, Van Dijk inventories the digital divide research from 2000-2005.  While somewhat dated, much of the content resonates with me and is still clearly applicable today.

The point is made in the article that the term “digital divide”, first coined in mid-1990s, has gained in popularity, but also in ambiguity.  It is commonly used to refer to a gap between those who have and those who do not have physical access to technology.  However, over time the term has grown to include many other types of technological inequalities.  This has complicated any attempt to draw conclusions about the research into the “digital divide”.

Van Dijk asks three fundamental questions:

  • What inequality does the digital divide concept refer to?
  • What is exactly new about the inequality of access to and use of information and communication technology as compared to other scarce material and immaterial resources in society?
  • Do new types of inequality rise or exist in the information and network society?

While typically used to identify a gap in physical access, Van Dijk has identified four types of inequality that constitute the digital divide.

  1. Material Access: Most of the research has dealt with this aspect of the digital divide.  In almost all cases, the divide between those who have and those who do not have physical access to technology is shrinking.
  2. Motivational Access: This type of access precedes Material Access, as typically one must want to have access to technology before one actually gets the technology.  Therefore there are not only ‘have-nots’ but also ‘want-nots’.  Many reasons are given for a refusal to use computers and the Internet, etc., however, ultimately, one’s motivation can play a significant role in where you end up on the digital divide.
  3. Skills Access: Clearly, just owning technology is not enough, being able to use it, is also important.  What is interesting here is that while material access gaps are more or less closing in the developed world, the skills gap tends to be growing.
  4. Usage Access: The pinnacle of access is actual usage: having sufficient motivation, material access, and skills to apply technology to enrich one’s life.  There continues to be a significant usage gap between those at the upper end of the socio-economic spectrum who use many applications in advanced and creative ways compared to those at the lower end of the  spectrum who tend to use simpler applications for a narrower range of activities.

Van Dijk also talks a fair bit about technological determinism, a term that has come up previously in this class.  This is a theory that proposes that a society’s technology is the driving force behind the development of social structures and cultural values, that technology is the key force behind historical change.  For example, the invention of the stirrup is seen by those ascribing to technological determinism as being a significant factor in the creation of feudalism in Europe in the late 700s.  Van Dijk makes the point that early research into the digital divide was influenced fairly heavily by technological determinism.  Furthermore, the term itself, even to this day, seems to “echo” with this theory.  This begs the question: is technology driving social change or is social change driving technology?  Clearly, if we believe that technology is driving social change, the digital divide has an even deeper significance.

In the end, I took away two messages from this article.  First, the term digital divide is problematic and I need to be specific about which type of divide I’m talking about.  Second, this digital divide in all its forms, tends to mirror and also amplify pre-existing social inequalities.  The parable of Mark 4:25 is apt here: For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.

As a teacher, this has significant implications.  I believe this throws Prensky’s Digital Native theory out the window.  Just because our students were born into an age of email and Wifi, does not mean that they have innately more motivation, material access, skills and usage access than a Baby Boomer.  Just because my students may be spending hours upon hours a day staring at a computer or tablet screen, does not mean that they know how to do anything of value that will enrich their lives.

It is my job, as a teacher, to work against the digital divide’s amplification of pre-existing societal inequalities, by, at the very least, providing motivation and skills to my students.  In Rochelle Rugg’s blog post, she touches on  Doug Belshaw’s eight components of digital literacy.  She quotes Belshaw: “every time you’re given a new tool it gives you a different way of impacting the world” which seems very deterministic but also kind of hopeful and cool.  Nonetheless, digital literacy tools are a key component of the skills we need to be working on in the classroom.



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