Friday, January 28, 2011

The Digital Divide of Usage Instead of Access

About two weeks ago, I was working with my English language arts class on a literary analysis essay they were peer editing. One student's partner had to leave class early, so I encouraged the two of them to work together at home electronically via email or some other program; one of the students replied, "Yeah, no problem, we can just do it over Skype."

Right about that same time, this article appeared in the Denver Post in which it reported on the use of the internet by minority populations. Even though the article focused on race, I suspect there is a certain amount of socioeconomics that factors in as well, particularly since it refers to the use of smartphones and the like to access the internet which are much less expensive than a computer, particularly if given the choice between a phone with internet access included or a computer with internet access as a financial add-on. While a smartphone can get you online, you can still do more online with an actual computer, and that seemingly small difference is actually pretty huge.

I think part of the issue is also simply training and awareness of the potential represented by an online presence. The potentialities for the relay of information became incredibly apparent during the recent State of the Union speech by President Obama. As has been the case for many years now, there was a simple television broadcast carried by the various networks. However, for anyone with an online presence and who was interested, the experience became completely and totally different. The White House had a live streaming feed alongside of which was space alloted for graphs, images and so forth (The tag line: "Watch and Engage.") After the speech, various members of the White House staff took questions via Twitter and Facebook.

The Sunlight Foundation not only had a live stream of the speech via C-Span, but also had a live blog going on via Cover It Live with various journalists and others posting comments; questions; links to sites, files, and videos as a means to "fact check" the speech even as it was occurring as well as a live Twitter feed and posting of graphs and the like on the page as well. Anyone without internet access or who was busy watching cute kittens on YouTube was out of the conversation and denied the access to the information that was being shared. Now more than ever, it holds true that those without an online presence are simply not a part of the conversation.

It is not enough to teach our students how to use Power Point or how to use a word processing program. It is not enough to tell them about Facebook or Twitter. We must teach them how to use these (and other) tools to their advantage; we must show them the potentialities of the web beyond entertainment. We must close the new digital divide.

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