Blog Post

Access + Digital Literacy Is the New Civil Rights Part 2: It Is What It Is

In my last blog entry I promised to discuss some of my research in Illinois CTCs as well as some personal and professional technological eye-opening experiences that made me realize I needed to go from the Google earth view to a more street level view. As previously mentioned, these events coupled with my 15 years experience at University of Illinois Urbana Champaign has led me to believe that Access + Digital Literacy is the New Civil Rights. I think it is important that I lay a historical foundation of what has been termed the digital divide and the impact that federal government policy has had on the divide. In a nutshell, the Clinton administration began the work on this issue, the Bush administration declared that things had improved and the Obama administration revived it as an urgent issue that needs to be addressed by delivering broadband to the home.


It is what it is.


My background is in Media and Information Studies and thus has shaped my research lens, so to speak. The Internet has evolved into a mass communication medium similar to print and traditional broadcast . Past research and current research indicates that the gap continues to widen.


Like I said, it is what it is.


The Internet has been around 40 years [btw go check out Cathy Davidsons fantastic blog on this: So here we go with a quick history lesson on how U.S. government practice and policy have impacted the access + digital literacy of our citizens.


According to the National Telecommunications and Information Association (NTIA), the term digital divide refers to the gap between those Americans who have access to and effectively use information technologies and those who have not. Two Department of Commerce surveys, Falling Through the Net 13 and Falling Through the Net: Toward Digital Inclusion, investigated this phenomenon. Although the Department of Commerce-commissioned studies on the digital divide (NTIA, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2000) indicated that African Americans had increased their access to the Internet, they still lagged behind in Internet access as compared to white Americans (NTIA, 2000). From December 1998 to August 2000, the numbers increased for white non-Hispanic Americans from 29.8% to 46.1%, an expansion rate of 58.5% (NTIA, 2000). Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders lead in access with a gain from 36.0% to 56.8%. During this same time period, African American access rose from 11.2% to 23.5%, an expansion rate of 109.8%.


According to the 2001 Pew Research Centers report, African-Americans and the Internet, during the year 2001, 48% of the 7.5 million African American computer users logged on to the Web for the first time. The majority of online users of this community at this time were African American women at 56% of the total number of Black users. In the African American online community, 61% of first-time users were Black women.


The Pew Report was the first report to survey what African Americans were actually doing online once they gained access to the Internet; this was a step in the right direction, however more of this type of research is still needed in this particular area. The report noted, despite this substantial growth, African Americans still lag behind their white counterparts in Internet access and computer use (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2001, p.6). Here we are in 2009 and this still is the case.


Now let's fast-forward to more recent research conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.


The data gathered by the Pew Project in 2008 reinforce that these gaps continue to exist.  For example, while 75% of White American adults are online, only 59% of African-American adults report using the Internet (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2008a).  Further, 2003 US Census data indicates that, in comparison to an average of 54.7% American households with a computer, 35% of households with householders aged 65 and older, about 45% of households with Black or Hispanic household­ers, and 28% of households with householders who had less than a high school education had a computer (US Department of Commerce, 2005, p. 3).  Although these basic measurements of ICT and Internet access indicate increased usage in the US, they also indicate that differences along socio-economic lines remain, and the policy goal of universal access remains elusive. ICT statistics support that unconnected Americans disproportionately are poor, residents of our rural communities or urban centers, disabled, black, Hispanic, Native American or senior citizens (Irving, 2001).


The most recent statistics continue along this trend in the recent April 2009, Pew survey and their Home Broadband 2009 report: African Americans still to continue to trail the national average in broadband access at home. At home is the key here. The Pew April 2009 survey indicates that 46% African Americans reported having broadband at home. It also states that this is slightly up from 43% in 2008 and 40% in 2007. From this data the report concludes that African Americans have experienced below average broadband adoption in the past two years. Sigh.


The report did find that African Americans are the most active users of the mobile Internet; I think it is important that I cite a direct quote of the findings:


This means that the digital divide between African Americans and white Americans diminishes when mobile use is taken into account.


This should be good news, right? In some ways it is. But let's continue with the findings:


The high level of activity among African Americans on mobile devices helps offset lower levels of access tools that have been traditional onramps to the internet, namely desktop computers, laptops, and home broadband connections.


One more quote:


Looking across a range of digital activities some done online typically using a computer and others being non-voice data activities on a mobile device African American and white Americans, on average, do the same number of activities.


OK. Double sigh. I mean come on, at least more and more African Americans are on the Internet, right? Does the device really matter? For now it does. The problem here particularly for African American youth can be summed up in one word: competitiveness, the ability to fully participate, learn and earn in a global economy. You can't research, write nor print a paper from a mobile device.


It is what it is.


Next week, I get personal












I'm glad that you mention not just access, but the importance of digital literacy. Many in the "community informatics" field realize this, but in popular discourse the "digital divide" is still framed strictly in terms of access.

And this helps explain why, as you say, increasing access to mobile phones is not quite chipping away at the Divide in the way we would like.

If we think about the Divide only in terms of access, then dropping off some OLPC machines or internet-enabled cell phones in a community solves the problem. However, if we allow that access is only part of the problem, then we start to see that technology dissemination programs like One Laptop Per Child are only a first step - and maybe not even a step taken in the right order.


Anonymous (not verified)

Digital literacy in this sense is a framework for integrating various other literacies and skill-sets, though it does not need to encompass them all. And, while it may be possible to produce lists of the components of digital literacy, and to show how they fit together, it is not sensible to try to reduce it to a finite number of linear stages.