I work in a school that serves students of low-income African-American families. At the beginning of every school year, I ask how many of my students have computer access. After I get my initial answer, I ask how many of them have access to the Internet, by way of cell phones, tablets, or some other such device. By a show of hands, I count how many students have access, how many have sporadic access and how many do not have access to technology and the Internet. I have always been aware of the lack of access to technology among students from low-income families and schools in low-income neighborhoods. What drives the point for me this year is the literacy class that I am taking with Prof. Nate Phillips.
The readings from class have highlighted for me what will herein be referred to as the “digital divide.” Access to digital technology promotes literacy, and the converse is also true. In the last ten years since the digital divide and broader technology access issued in the national conversation, not a single article in the three major communication journals addresses the digital divide or technology access issues (Banks, 2006). Apart from city and town libraries that support access to digital technology among low-income families, infrastructure aimed at bridging the digital divide is non-existent.
Hoffman and Novak (1998) examined racial differences in Internet access and use at a single time point and found in 1997 that, overall, whites were significantly more likely than African Americans to have a home computer in their household and also slightly more likely to have PC access at work. Whites were also significantly more likely to have ever used the Web at home, whereas African Americans were slightly more likely to have ever used the Web at school. As one might expect, increasing levels of income corresponded to an increased likelihood of owning a home computer, regardless of race. Although income explained race differences in computer ownership and Web use, education did not. That is, they found that whites were still more likely to own a home computer than were African Americans and to have used the Web recently, despite controlling for differences in education. (Hoffman and Novak, 1999 Pg. 2)
This situation still holds true today, albeit with more technological devices on the market.
In an article entitled “Access, Equity, and Empowerment,” (Phillips and Manderino , 2016) the authors posit five action items related to supporting the development of digital literacies and the attempt to create the necessary infrastructure to bridge the digital divide. These actions are as follows:
Action 1: Promote teaching and assessment of digital literacies across grades.
Action 2: Provide professional development experiences that ensure educators have the support, skills, and resources to leverage digital literacies.
Action 3: Build leadership capacity across educational contexts to allow for shared decision-making.
Action 4: Provide structural and financial support that enables equitable access.
Action 5: Collaborate in and support the development of needed research.
The authors suggest that in order to have meaningful transformations in the digital space, transformations that will bridge the digital divide, these action items ought to be treated as functioning interdependently and not as individualized actions.
In the context of new literacies, digital technology is an indispensable tool. Literacy and access thereof is being defined by access to digital technology. It is for this reason that it is important for schools, community centers, and institutions that cater to the youth take the charge to work to bridge the digital divide by implementing the action items posted above. Policy makers must do their part of the bargain to ensure that the American student, irrespective of background has access to the digital technology and the concomitant advancement in literacy in today’s world.