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October 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 2

Research Link / The Digital Divide

      Although information technology promises to uncover new worlds of knowledge and opportunities, this same technological promise threatens to drive a wedge into efforts to bring equity to our schools.
      According to W. Curtiss Priest (1995), in the information age, knowledge is wealth. Although the wealth keeps growing, Priest believes that access to this source of wealth is not available to all.
      The disparity may not seem apparent at first. In a recent survey of Internet access, the National Center for Education Statistics (2000) found that public schools in the United States have nearly reached the goal of connecting every school to the Internet. The percentage of public schools connected to the Internet has increased each year, from 35 percent in 1994 to 95 percent in 1999. Further, in 1999, all schools, regardless of grade levels, wealth, or location, were equally likely to have Internet access.
      This survey shows dramatic differences in levels of Internet access in classrooms. For example, in schools with high concentrations of poverty (71 percent or more students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches), 39 percent of instructional rooms had Internet access compared with 74 percent of instructional rooms in schools with lower concentrations of poverty. The percentage of instructional rooms with Internet access in public schools with high concentrations of poverty did not increase between 1998 and 1999, although the percentage of connected instructional rooms in schools with lower concentrations of poverty did increase.
      This inequity of access is even more pronounced outside the school. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce (1999), Internet usage is directly related to income levels. For those at the lower end of the income scale ($5,000–$9,999 per year), 12.1 percent use the Internet either at home or an outside location. In contrast, 58.9 percent of those in the highest bracket ($75,000+) have access to the Internet at any location. The report also shows that race plays a significant role in access. Whites and Asians/Pacific Islanders who use the Internet (37.7 percent and 35.9 percent) far outnumber African Americans and Hispanics who use the Internet (19 percent and 16.6 percent).
      Research conducted by Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak (1998) showed that race and ethnicity play a significant role in access to technology. They found that whites were more likely to own a home computer than were African Americans. These differences persisted even after statistical adjustments for education levels.
      The most dramatic difference between the home-computer ownership of whites and that of African Americans occurred among current high school and college students. Whereas 73 percent of white students owned a home computer, only 32 percent of African American students owned one. This difference persisted even when the researchers statistically adjusted for students' reported household income. Even without a computer in the home, white students were more than twice as likely as similar African American students to have used the Web in the past six months and more than three times as likely to have used the Web in the past week. Hoffman and Novak's study showed that white students who lacked a home computer gained access to the Internet at such locations as homes of friends and relatives, libraries, and community centers, whereas African American students did not.
      • Make computers available to the public through schools, libraries, and community centers.
      • Give students access to school computers by extending school hours.
      • Lend laptop computers to students, much as band students receive musical instruments.
      • Be sensitive to cultural, ethnic, and racial diversity when developing educational software and digital content.
      • Provide funds for training, support, and instruction.
      • Develop funding formulas that equalize technology spending across rich and poor districts.
      As Hoffman and Novak (1998) state, "The Internet may provide equal opportunity and democratic communication, but only for those with access" (p. 4). The consequences of the technological divide may be severe. If a significant segment of our society is denied equal access to information technology, then that segment will suffer educationally, economically, and culturally. Ultimately, this inequity will have a negative impact on the competitive strength of U.S. businesses and industries.

      Education Commission of the States. (2000). Technology: Equitable access in schools. Denver, CO: Author.

      Hoffman, D., & Novak, T. (1998, April). Bridging the racial divide on the Internet. Science, 280, 390.

      National Center for Educational Statistics. (2000). Internet access in U. S. public schools and classrooms: 1994–99. Washington, DC: United States Department of Education.

      Priest, W. C. (1995, April). Equity and the public hand: Presentation to the Harvard Computer Society. Paper presented at the meeting of the Harvard Computer Society, Cambridge, MA.

      United States Department of Commerce. (1999). Falling through the Net: Defining the digital divide [Online]. Available: www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fttn99/contents.html

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