In their article, Dividing at an Early Age, Lawrence Wood and Aimee Howley discuss the need for not only access but also the quality of equipment and the training of users on that equipment. They assert that while much focus in the past has been on programs which equip schools or homes with internet service or computer hardware, there has been less focus on integrating computer skills into the classroom or creating affordable (or free) community digital literacy courses; there has also been less focus on making sure that the level of the equipment and internet services are meeting the same standards for speed, reliability, and sophistication in all communities. (Wood & Howley, 2011) Therefore, though the access to equipment may, on paper, appear to be equitable across school districts or communities, the actual level of skills and benefit from the equipment is vastly different from one place to the next.
Wood and Howley further point out that: “a critical element of scholarly digital divide research now involves examining more than simply access, but issues such as frequency of access and sophistication of computer use as well.” The question of “frequency of access” is something that comes up in a number of other studies in fact. Some studies emphasize the need for access not just at work or at school but also at home or in some other type of private or semi-private setting. In order to deepen digital skills and literacy, people need to be able to expand on the types of digital practices they engage in. In other words, while at work or school the focus may be primarily on research or practical applications like word processing or spreadsheet creation; at home or during leisure time, people may expand their digital skills through gaming activities, online shopping, social media use, etc. (Zhong, 2011) In their article, If We Build It, Will They Come?, C. L. Brown and L. Czerniewicz discuss the findings of their study which indicate that more frequent access and more varied access (i.e. at home, at school, in public places) leads to more varied types of digital use. (Brown & Czerniewicz, 2007)
So, while providing basic access to computers and internet service is an important first step on the road to closing the digital divide, we also have to think carefully about the quality and reliability of the equipment, the availability of the equipment for a variety of uses, and the practices of training and supporting digital skills building. (Brown & Czerniewicz, 2007) As the statement from the NYS Broadband Program Office says: “[R]esidents cannot fully participate in the digital economy without access to affordable broadband and the ability to use it.” (Retrieved July 10, 2014, from: http://www.nysbroadband.ny.gov/) Training opportunities and social support are important when it comes to building digital skills. It’s important to create not just access points but also opportunities for collaborative learning whether through formal training sessions or simply through a cultivation of a community of digitally competent individuals who are able to share skills and knowledge and learn from one another’s practices. Creating opportunities for citizens to learn and share a variety of digital skills and competencies in a variety of settings (school, work, home, public spaces) is an important component in creating a digitally equitable world.
Brown, C. L. & Czerniewicz, L. (2007). If We Build it, Will They Come? Investigating the relationship between students’ access to and use of ICTs for learning. University of Capetown : Rondebosch, South Africa.
Wood, L. & Howley, A. (2011). Dividing at an Early Age: The hidden digital divide in Ohio elementary schools. Learning, Media, and Technology. 37(1), 20-39.
Zhong, Z. (2011). From Access to Usage: The divide of self-reported digital skills among adolescents. Computers and Education. 56 (2011), 736-746.