The Digital Literacy Divide

Lately, I’ve been reading some of Dr. Mark Warschauer’s work on the digital divide. Dr. Warschauer is a Professor of Education and Informatics, and the Associate Dean of the School of Education at the University of California-Irvine.

The digital divide has been a topic of research and conversation that dates back to the 1990’s. It was a trendy topic when I was in library school. And as I recall, it was one of the questions on my comp exam.

Traditionally, the digital divide was viewed as a matter of technology and Internet access. There were the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’ Now, it’s generally viewed as a matter of degree of access. Equality of access has become the greater issue.

Dr. Warschauer defines the digital divide as “social stratification due to unequal ability to access, adapt, and create knowledge via use of information and communication technologies (ICT).” He differs in his view of the digital divide through his interest in the social practices that people engage in surrounding technology and Internet access. He argues that access alone is not enough to overcome the digital divide. Literacy plays a key role as well.

Consider this case: In 2008, the Birmingham City Schools (AL) rolled out a one-to-one laptop program in their district for grades 1 to 5. This is a school district that serves a largely low-income, African-American population. The mayor of Birmingham, who initiated the program, was quoted as saying: “If we give them these XOs and get out of their way, they’ll be teaching us about the world.” Fast forward to 2010, and a survey found that the laptops were being used very little in school. And while many students were using the laptops at home, it was for non-educational purposes like chat rooms.

What happened here? Lack of support all around.

The results are entirely different when schools embrace one-to-one device programs that provide adequate support to teachers, students and parents. Teachers learn how to integrate technology into their curriculum (TPACK), students develop digital literacy skills and social conditions improve (read about Project FRESA).

What you see then is not a digital divide alone. There is also a digital literacy divide going on. In order to improve equality of access, digital literacy needs to be factored into the equation.

This impacts all types of libraries.

What can librarians do? Public librarians can develop digital literacy initiatives by partnering with schools, colleges, local businesses and organizations. This creates an across-the-lifespan approach to digital literacy. School and college librarians can advocate for (and support) more digitally rich student assignments. They can also partner with instructional technologists to provide teacher support for technology integration into the classroom.

It’s not just the digital divide. Digital literacy truly is an underlying factor in equality of access, equality of education, and equality of opportunity.





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