The digital divide is alive and well in the United States, but it isn’t the same divide it was twenty years ago, or even ten years ago. When the term was first used, in the 1990s, the focus was on increasing access to technology for all. As the cost and availability of computers, mobile devices, and internet access has improved, it has become apparent that mere access to technology does not close the gap. Digital literacy is equally important for individuals to be able to benefit from technology.
Technology continues to become more embedded in our daily lives and in the fabric of American culture. More choices are increasingly offered exclusively online in areas including civic involvement, education, healthcare, entertainment, and perhaps most of all – employment – making the repercussions of being on the wrong side of the digital divide more severe than ever before.
It is no surprise that the people most likely to be at a disadvantage due to lack of access or lack of digital literacy skills continue to be people with low income and low education, minorities, older adults, and individuals with disabilities (Pendell et al., 2013). There was a time when it was hoped that technology would be a great equalizer, but instead it has become another force that reflects and reinforces economic inequality (Warf, 2013). Lack of adequate access among the lowest income groups also contributes to what is now called the “homework gap” – the disruption to learning caused by the high percentage of assignments that are given that require technology to complete.
To bridge the digital divide, adults need to have reliable access to technology and the skills to benefit from it. To address the access issues, EveryoneOn provides access to hardware, the Internet, and also training to help people get started. Through a partnership with OCTAE, EveryoneOn provides a portal specific to the needs of the adult education field, EveryoneOn.org/adulted.
Even with reliable, high-speed access, digital literacy skills are needed to be able to take advantage of the technology, and with digital literacy comes the need for basic literacy. About one quarter of those who do not use technology struggle with low literacy (Warf, 2013). Literacy skills and technology use go hand in hand. A study by Smith & Smith (2010) demonstrated the correlation between computer use and literacy skills (including reading, numeracy, and using information) finding a substantial difference in skill levels between adults who used a computer and those who did not. A possible explanation is that computer use improves literacy, or it could be that those with low literacy skills are less interested or able to use computers due to lack of access or perceived lack of relevance. Either way, teaching one can help to improve the other.
Once reliable access and basic skills have been addressed, digital literacy skills are still needed to be able to get the most benefit from technology. A report published earlier this month looks at “digital readiness”, showing 52% of adults falling into the category of “relatively hesitant” as far as using technology for learning (Horrigan, 2016). Additionally, the PIAAC identified that only 31% of American adults show basic proficiency on “problem solving in technology-rich environments”, which is the “abilities to solve problems for personal, work and civic purposes by setting up appropriate goals, and accessing and making use of information through computers” (OECD, 2012).
It has traditionally been left to schools to work toward closing the digital divide, but to do so, schools are limited by their own funding issues that further disadvantage the poor (Warf, 2013). For adults who do not complete high school as well as new immigrants, there is a great need for digital literacy instruction. Adult education programs have increasingly been integrating technology into their curriculums, both as separate computing courses and woven into all subject areas. Learners are often highly motivated to improve their skills to create resumes or apply to jobs, to support their children’s education or for communicating with friends and family, among other reasons (Pendell et al., 2013). Often though, teachers do not have strong technology skills themselves, suffer from technology anxiety, or make negative assumptions about their students’ abilities to access and understand technology (McLanahan, 2014).
- Horrigan, J. (2016). Digital readiness gaps. Pew Research Center.
- McClanahan, L. (2014). Training using technology in the adult ESL classroom. Journal of Adult Education, 43(1), 22-27.
- OECD (2013), Time for the U.S. to reskill?: What the survey of adult skills says. OECD Skills Studies, OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264204904-en
- Pendell, K., Withers, E., Castek, J., & Reder, S. (2013). Tutor-facilitated adult digital literacy learning: Insights from a case study. Internet Reference Services Quarterly, 18(2), 105-125.
- Smith, M. C., & Smith, T. J. (2010). Adults’ uses of computer technology: Associations with literacy tasks. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 42(4), 407-422.
- Warf, B. (2013). Contemporary digital divides in the United States. Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, 104, 1–17.
Images are from The Noun Project.
- Icon #1 by Guilhem
- Icon #2 by Luis Prado
- Icon #3 by Creative Stall
Leah Peterson is the Assistant Director of the EdTech Center and manages E-Learning PD, a collection of online courses that provide opportunities for adult education professionals to explore topics that they are facing in their programs, exchange ideas with one another, and get feedback from experts in the field. She also coordinates the IDEAL Consortium, and is the co-founder and editor for the Tech Tips blog. Leah is the Communication Coordinator for World Education/U.S. and supports the NELRC publication, The Change Agent. Leah is currently working toward her M.Ed in E-Learning and Instructional Design at Northeastern University.