Open for Whom?: Designing for Inclusion, Navigating the Digital Divide
Christina C. Davidson
Lily Pad, Rio de Janeiro (2012) - Christina C. Davidson
I have a confession to make. Although I proposed a class discussion and e-book chapter on the “digital divide,” at the time I did not exactly know what the “digital divide” was. To be honest, I am not even sure that I used the words “digital divide” in my proposal to the class. My initial instinct when I suggested this chapter was to figure out what we were missing as a team of learners. We had discussed open access in our class on “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” and had learned that our current educational model was invented for the Industrial Age and not for our contemporary Digital Age. At some point during these conversations, it occurred to me that beyond its anachronism in the modern world, education in the Industrial Age was not invented for the millions of people who were kept out of mainstream schools and universities because of their race, gender, or other social factors. Considering that social relations today are different than the past century even while current inequalities have a base in historic disparities, I began to ask myself, “What are we missing?” What inequalities are inherent in new practices of education and technology in the Digital Age? To begin answering these questions, I realized that I had to address the so-called “digital divide.”
What We Did In Class
When I began to research the digital divide in order to provide the class with a reading assignment, I was immediately overwhelmed by the sheer amount of literature on the subject. How could we possible hold a substantive and directed conversation on a topic so vast and multifaceted? What type of assignment would appropriately cover the “digital divide,” a subject that could sustain a semester-long course? I felt the pressure mounting. I had not left myself enough time to prepare to lead this class! In retrospect, it would have taken me years.
Remembering that “we” are a learning community provided me with some comfort. First, I realized that since we all come from different backgrounds, we most likely have different ways of conceptualizing the digital divide. Second, I realized that what we needed most, as graduate students concerned with education in the digital age, was a complex vision of the multiple factors that cause inequality in today’s world. The key was not to provide just one definition of the digital divide—its effects and possible solutions—but to discuss a framework for understanding the divide in order to assess the questions and proposed solutions that we are confronting in the area of education.
I set out to find a reading selection that would provide a multidimensional model for understanding the digital divide. I settled on the first and second chapters of The Deepening Divide: Inequality in the Information Society (2005) by Jan A. G. M. van Dijk. Since I wanted to have a meaningful discussion about the digital divide’s impact on education specifically, I also chose an article published in The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. The article, “OpenCourseWare, Global Access and the Right to Education: Real Access or Marketing Ploy?” by Henk Huijser, Tas Bedford, and David Bull, provided guidance to the types of problems that forward-looking educational models face when it comes to the topic of the digital divide.
Considering the community-learning principles of the class, I thought it best to copy the model that Barry and Elizabeth put forth, and “envision the class as a brainstorming session.” Instead of merely reading the selections I assigned, each member additionally prepared one outside reading on the digital divide (based on unique areas of interest) to present to the class. The outside reading could be a journal article, blog, government or NGO report, etc. The only stipulation was that it had to engage with the assigned reading in some way. The objective of this assignment was trifold: 1) to emphasize the multi-faceted nature of the digital divide; 2) to bring in other opinions and make them known to the class; 3) to encourage all of us to evaluate our outside selections in light of the digital divide framework as developed in the assigned readings and our in-class discussion. (See the list of outside readings the members of the class came up with at the end of this chapter.)
The class, including our guest Todd Presner, held an hour-long discussion on the digital divide. We began discussing van Dijk and ended with a stimulating conversation regarding the meaning of the “digital divide” in education. The next few sections cover our notes from the reading, our discussion, and the key points raised during our class conversation on the topic.
A Framework for Understanding the Digital Divide: Key Points from the Two Main Texts
The main objective behind the two assigned readings was to provide baseline answers to the following questions:
1. What do we mean by the “digital divide”?
2. What are the multiple factors that complicate this topic?
3. What questions does the digital divide raise for the field of education?
While there are no clear-cut answers to these questions, the readings helped orient the class.
1) What do we mean by the “digital divide”?
When most people think of the “digital divide” they assume the “divide” is a question of access to technology. Simply put, those who have access to up-to-date computers and the Internet are on the positive side of the divide and those who have limited or no access are on the negative side of the divide. This vision of the digital divide is partially due to the binary connotation of the word “divide,” which in English conjures images of a line easily (or not so easily) crossed (van Dijk 3). In The Deepening Divide, however, van Dijk describes physical access as just one of the many forms of access that may limit a person from fully engaging in the digital world (4; see also chapters 3-6). The true nature of the “digital divide” is therefore perhaps better understood through the words “digital spectrum” (4),as “digital divide” neglects to capture the spectrum (or matrix) of inequality. A person’s place on the spectrum is determined not solely by his or her physical access to technology (although that plays a part), but by the interplay of various social factors of inequality. This vision of the digital divide thus takes into account pre-21st century social inequalities, as well as new patterns of disparity made possible by the Digital Age. It also accounts for some common misunderstandings of the digital divide, such as the assumption that the divide is unbridgeable, absolute, and singular (4).
In short: the term “digital divide” references a process of inequality, made up of moving interrelated factors of social division that combine to intensify various levels of unequal access to technology (“access” is defined multiply) and participation in society (“participation” also defined multiply).
2) What are the multiple factors that complicate this topic?
Since the words “digital divide” actually reference a whole process of inequality, one way of establishing a framework for understanding that process is to list out its multiple components. Van Dijk does this in his first and second chapters by first describing some principles of inequality and then employing a relational view of inequality and presenting a model of his core argument.
In terms of principles, it is readily apparent that history plays a role in the perpetuation of current social disparities. Old inequalities do not just cease because we are in the Digital Age. Instead, they may in fact intensify social division. Van Dijk says it well when he asserts that “[t]he more information and communication technology is immersed in society and pervades everyday life, the more it becomes attached to all existing social divisions” (2). These attachments make the digital divide more of a “social and political problem” than merely a technological one (3). Here are some baseline principles that van Dijk uses to answer some important questions about the digital divide (6).
1. Divides are byproducts of old inequalities.
2. Digital technology is intensifying inequalities.
3. New inequalities are appearing.
4. Both old and new inequalities are at work.
5. Digital technology has its own enabling and defining role to play.
These principles are important to keep in mind because they determine the ways that we understand the digital divide as a process of interrelated factors. Considering these principles, the term “interrelated factors” refers to old and new social inequalities (principles 1 and 3). How do such old and new inequalities (the “new” are brought about by digital technology) work together to intensify social disparity (principles 4 and 2)? In what ways can digital technology be used to solve old and new disparities (principle 5)? After all, the digital divide (or the process of inequality) is not static. It can change—and for the better.
The relational view of inequality helps to demystify the dynamic nature of the digital divide. Instead of focusing on the individual characteristics of a person, the relational view takes into account the interplay between groups and relationships. Theoretically, this network analysis would help one determine her place along the “digital spectrum” by examining the thickness or thinness of her interactions to other individuals and groups. Van Dijk provides the following example of a young Jamaican teacher in the United Kingdom:
Her inclusion in the categories of educational workers, young people, and inhabitants of a developed country would put her on the “right” side of the digital divide […] being a female with relatively low income […] and being part of an ethnic minority means that she would most likely be on the “wrong” side. (13)
Using the relational view, one would have to analyze this young teacher’s relationship to each of the categories mentioned above. Just because she is “poor,” for example, does not mean that she would be on the wrong side of the “divide.” Her relationships (parents, professional ties, etc.) may provide her with the resources needed to balance out the negative effects of low income. The interplay of all of the factors mentioned above, as well as the networks these categories represent, demonstrate the multiple factors that further complicate the notion of a singular digital divide. While we might make generalizations across groups (females are disadvantaged when it comes to technology), these generalizations do not tell the whole story, nor do they fully represent the multiple layers that cause inequality.
Considering the complex interconnection of factors that contribute to inequality, the relational view offers some benefits when compared with other ways of conceptualizing the digital divide. Van Dijk lists these benefits on pages 11-13 of his book. First, this view does not require that any one factor dominate the others, but it demands the study of a combination of factors. It also takes into account the fact that people appropriate technology differently based on their life circumstances and personal experiences. Lastly, the relational view distinguishes between “differences” and “inequality.” As in the example above, a social difference does not necessarily translate into inequality. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that “divides are byproducts of old inequalities.” The relational view helps us navigate through this murky relationship.
Van Dijk’s visualization, “A Causal Model of the Core Argument,” is helpful for understanding the relationship between four different “states of affairs” that play into the process of the digital divide. The model works as a feedback loop, and thus explains the intensification of inequality when access (defined multiply) to information and communication technology (ICTs) is limited. The model and the core argument are summarized in five steps on page 15 of van Dijk.
3) What questions does the digital divide raise for the field of education?
Huijser, Bedford, and Bull begin their article by quoting Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit” (1). In the article, the authors are specifically concerned about the concept of “merit,” since proving one’s merit “requires access to, and the mastery of, the tools of education that are acquired at an earlier stage in an individual’s education” (1). In other words, an individual’s ability to demonstrate “merit” depends on whether she has mastered the “literacies” required to gain admittance into institutions of higher education. This point raises three important questions: 1) What literacies are required for education in the digital age? 2) What limitations do people face in gaining these literacies? 3) What inequalities are inherent in new practices of education and technology in the digital age? Since Duke21C is structured around the first question and the above explanation of van Dijk provides some answers to the second, below I elaborate on possible answers to the last question based on the Huijser, Bedford, and Bull reading.
Huijser, Bedford, and Bull’s article specifically evaluates one new mode of education: OpenCourseWare (OCW). In their case study, OCW is developed within the context of a university program, the tertiary preparation program (TPP) at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), which provided global access to its course materials in 2007. As the authors explain, the development of OCW within this context presents a number of concerns. The university stands to gain economically by rolling out OCW because in opening courses to a global market, it potentially attracts more full-time students. In this way, the university is able to build its brand. Thus, one concern about new practices of education in the Digital Age is the influence of the market. In what ways does a market orientation both positively and negatively influence education? Another concern is summed up in the word “cyber-imperialism.” As the authors explained in their case study, TPP was created for a specific Australian audience. The Australian pedagogical method may not be relevant in other global contexts. When creating new forms of education for the digital age, to what extent should we take into account the multiple social, cultural, and lingual differences that may create barriers in learning? More pointedly, to what extent are non-western populations participating in the construction of OCW and other advancements in education? This last question underscores the most critical effect of the digital divide on education: unequal participation in the development and practice of new modes of education. Following van Dijk’s model, such unequal participation feeds back on the process of inequality.
So, “what inequalities are inherent in new practices of education and technology in the Digital Age?” While there are multiple answers to this question, three key areas of inequality become immediately apparent.
1. Barriers to entry: Learning does not happen in a free-market vacuum. There are barriers to entry. As the global market and education merge, the “who, what, where, when, and how” of education will also change and present new (or intensified) inequalities.
2. Participation: Who designs new open modes of education matters. To a certain extent, this is also a question of process (how). Who gets included in the creation of new methods highlights current inequalities in education.
3. “Cultural imperialism”: What is being designed also matters. Is it inclusive? What are the barriers to modifying OCW? Inequalities deepen when education is not easily modified for local contexts.
In this section I provided a basic outline of the key points and questions raised in the assigned texts. After having read the texts, the class came prepared to discuss van Dijk’s framework for understanding the digital divide and its application for education in the 21st century. The next section presents the main discussion points that were covered during an hour-long conversation on the topic.
Our Duke21C Class Discussion
Instead of having each student present on their outside readings, we decided to conduct the discussion portion of the class as a conversation. The students, Cathy, and our guest, Todd Presner, enriched the conversation with their personal experiences and outside examples. Many of these experiences are represented below in the paraphrased transcript of the first 40 minutes of discussion.
The discussion began with the question:“While others say that the digital divide is closing, van Dijk says that it is widening and deepening. What does this tell us about the relationship between technology and society?”
While the class recognized the relevance of a digital inequality spectrum, the question of “leapfrogging” was raised. Cathy explained that sometimes technology allows one to “leapfrog” over social divides to the extent that it enables new ways of engaging with the world. She provided the example of children of African towns who are learning English by using laptops provided by the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program. These children are also figuring out how to enable features that were deactivated by the programmers, such as the camera. In their engagement with technology, the children are not only learning programming and lingual skills, but their English is better than children learning English in formal environments. Is this an example of leapfrogging?
In response to the idea of leapfrogging, a question was raised: Does having access to technology imply that the digital divide is narrowing? Cathy replied negatively. Access does not mean that the divide is narrowing, but it does imply that the way that we measure the divide needs to change. It is not about access to an Apple computer, for example. People can use very cheap mobile devices to leapfrog by gaining digital literacy that is more useful and effective than what other people in other countries are doing. Another example would be the use of a mobile device to sell goats online and thereby receive a better price for livestock. This type of engagement with technology changes the terms of the digital divide.
The conversation then moved to the topic of bandwidth. Someone made the claim that access to bandwidth should be a universal right. Jade stated that more people have access to mobile phones than flushing toilets, but if you are accessing on low bandwidth phones, you can’t access “open learning” in the same way. Geography matters. One solution could be low bandwidth MOOCs that are easily accessible on mobile devices. Barry provided the example of Ubuntu, a company that provided its users with free CDs of the operating system when they couldn’t access it online because of low bandwidth.
We discussed van Dijk’s model on page 15. Elizabeth said that she appreciated the model because it demonstrated the intricacies of inequality. It is different than what is typically spoken about with the divide. Typically people frame the divide as a matter of having access to the Internet.
Another student explained his experience with access to the Internet. He didn’t have Internet access at home during high school. It was a formative time for him because he had to strategically save all of his work on disks before school ended in order to continue work at home without the Internet. This was the experience for many people living at a lower-income level.
I (Christina) commented on the ways that the model made the question of the digital divide a personal question. I realized that I may have been disadvantaged in certain ways without knowing it. Even though I grew up around the latest technology in school I did not engage with it because of my lack of orientation at home. It was not until the fall of 2012 when I got a new computer and joined Duke’s PhD Lab that I began to engage more seriously with technology.
Cathy described a library program that was developed in Chicago. The program is geared toward inner-city children. They are encouraged to play with the technology at the library. What was great about the program was that the children who came to the library to experiment with computers subsequently began to check books out. Surprisingly, they even began to bring their older siblings and parents to the library. Now people who have never engaged with the public library—who never felt that they were a part of that space—are checking more books out per capita than some of the more affluent communities.
The discussion of the Chicago Public Library program led to a discussion on participation: Who gets to participate in the decisions about technology and learning? Our guest, Todd Presner, raised a question. If we are advocating for participation without condition, are we pressing towards a utopian model? Obviously we’re pressing for social change, but some people would dismiss anything that smacks of utopia.
In response, Omar advocated for specific ways to get people involved. He provided the example of Whole Foods, which extends micro-credit and technology options to people in developing countries, who then go and use these resources in the interest of the community. The key is to find specific, viable forms of community involvement.
Jade said that she favors dystopia and crisis as an analytical model. The concept of a divide sets up a binary in which one group is understood to be in crisis because it is disadvantaged. However, when people get technology in crisis, they often create with it. Trends come from people who are in difficult circumstances, or excluded from the utopian vision in some way. One example is that less-privileged minorities (Blacks and Latinos) have tended to buy cell phones more often than computers because they are cheaper. Now that new smart phones can be used as computers, the practice has spread to other, more privileged groups.
Barry said that he learned about computers by repeatedly fixing the one he had while growing up. It was old and constantly broke down.
Patrick commented that the problem with utopia is that everyone does not have the same vision of perfection. Utopia becomes borderline fascist. I (Christina) replied that the “utopia” is in creating spaces for participation even when people have different ways of being. In many ways what people are fighting for is the space to be different. Participation in technology has to allow for difference—not having one model. It’s about not having just one concept of who fits in society and who doesn’t, who counts and who doesn’t.
Cris asked how access to technology enables you to make structural changes.Cathy responded that it is difficult. In her own experience she has made structural changes around the edges of the university. Her work has gained some success in terms of new buildings and spaces where education can be practiced differently. She has not, however, changed the Duke value system. Perhaps the question of structural change is too hard. Perhaps we should focus more on how you can use technology to make your life better and more sustainable.
Jade reminded us of one of the key points in The Medium Is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan. In his model media technology doesn’t do anything to change the structure. It only changes the ways that people can see themselves extended out in society. If we think about the picture of arrows extending from a center, the technology only extends the arrows. It does not change the structure of the picture. Cathy commented that perhaps this is what we mean by leapfrogging. The structure stays the same, but technology allows you to extend yourself more in certain areas.
Jade followed up, pointing out that parents do not understand the literacies that technology affords children. The kids understand technology differently. Also, we are not currently able to predict how technology will be used in the future. In the future structure could change. An example of this took place at the Mozilla festival in London. Children figured out how to create animations with a device that was purposed to only make pictures. Once a few kids started creating animations they all wanted to do it. There might be a structural change that we don’t know is there.
I (Christina) reiterated one of the concepts from the reading. There are multiple factors that make up inequality. When we talk about leapfrogging we have to consider the ways that those factors relate and help us navigate the structures. Cathy said that it’s about being agile in relationships and using them to navigate structures and to make structural changes. Technology allows connections and enables one to think outside of the consensus that there are no other options.
Questions Raised During the Discussion
Below is a list of key points that were raised during our class discussion on the digital divide. These points highlight important themes that intersect with the assigned readings and other conversations we had in class.
● Sometimes technology enables people to “leapfrog” over social inequalities, since people use technology to create new ways of engaging with the world.
● Bandwidth and geography matter when considering “open learning,” since low bandwidth prevents access to open learning.
● Divides, such as the digital divide, set up a binary in which one group is in “crisis” because it is disadvantaged. Nevertheless, people often innovate with technology during moments of “crisis.”
● When we discuss the concept of participation as it pertains to technology and education, we should allow for difference. Participation means not having one model.
● Considering McLuhan, technological media do not change structures. Technology is only a tool that changes the way that people can see themselves extended out in society.
● Technology allows relational connections and enables individuals to think outside of the general consensus that there are no other options than the structures that control our lives.
One theme that is present in many of these points is the power of technology to change our world for the better. Even though social inequalities remain a constant, people may engage with technology to change their circumstances and the world around them. Although this chapter focuses mostly on providing a framework for thinking about the digital divide, it is also important to remember that digital technology is a tool. Our human use of a tool may perpetuate inequalities as well as help us “leapfrog” over them. The point is that the question of social inequality in the digital age is not a straightforward matter.
Although the topic of the digital divide is vast, it is an important subject to address when thinking about education for the 21st century. There is not one correct model or framework that adequately describes the digital divide. Nevertheless, in our reading and class discussion we privileged a framework that considered the multifaceted and interrelated structures that account for inequality in the Digital Age. The digital divide is not simply a question of whether an individual can physically access a computer and the Internet. Instead, it references a process in which old and new interrelated factors of social division combine to intensify various levels of unequal access to technology and participation in society. Thus, when we discuss participation in education—be it in the form of open learning communities, OpenCourseWare, or some other mode—it is important to question the limitations of supposedly “open” participation. As we continue to explore ways to design for inclusion, we must repeatedly ask ourselves: “open for whom?”
Huijser, Henk, Tas Bedford, and David Bull. "OpenCourseWare, Global Access and the Right to Education: Real Access or Marketing Ploy?" The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. 9.1 (2008). Print.
van Dijk, Jan A. G. M. The Deepening Divide: Inequality in the Information Society. London: Sage Publications, 2005. Print.
Recommended Outside Reading:
Link or Bibliographic Info
Fouché, Rayvon. “From Black Inventors to One Laptop Per Child: Exporting a Racial Politics of Technology.” In Race After the Internet. Ed. Lisa Nakamura and Peter A. Chow-White. New York: Routledge, 2012. 61-83.
This essay critiques One Laptop Per Child in light of racist stereotypes.
Tim Berners-Lee, “Web Access is a Human Right.” <Link: idg.com>
“A Hand-Cranked Tablet Revealed”: <Link: www.technologyreview.com>
Opcool—engineers at Etsy making MOOC platform: <Link: codeascraft.etsy.com>
My readings are all Internet pioneers arguing that bandwidth should be a universal human right. Is it just about One Laptop Per Child? What is bandwidth?
Modarres, A. “Beyond the digital divide.” National Civic Review 100.3 (2011), 4–7. <Link: onlinelibrary.wiley.com>
From digital divide to digital inclusivity, the issue of access has become more sophisticated in less than a decade. Now, inclusion encompasses service provision, access to data, creating a presence on the Internet, and having an influence in shaping the future information and communications technologies.
Deputy UN chief calls for urgent action to tackle global sanitation crisis: <Link: www.un.org>
McLuhan, Playboy Interview: <Link: www.nextnature.net>
Topics of focus when we make digital central for #1, Historical issues of race & technology divides in #2[GA1]
Weldin, Sandra J. A. P. Giannini, Marriner Stoddard Eccles, and the Changing Landscape of American Banking. Diss.University of North Texas, 2000. <PDF: digital.library.unt.edu>
Nisbett, Richard E. “The Anti-Creativity Letters: Advice From a Senior Tempter to a Junior Tempter.” American Psychologist 45.9 (1990): 1078-82. <PDF: personal.umich.edu>
The history of American banking based on extending microloans to immigrant communities that had no access to banks
Creativity and status-quo-based restriction
McPherson, Tara. “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2012. 139-160.
Tracing the race-tech disjunction back to the “effect of the very designs of our technological systems, designs that emerged in post-World War II computational culture” (140).