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Last week, a friend sent me a copy of an article that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on June 24th, which visits (or more accurately, revisits) an issue we’ve also grappled with here in the U.S.: the so-called “digital divide.” The term became popular in the 90s and refers to differences in the adoption of technology in different communities based on economic and/or cultural differences, and a resulting inequality in educational, social and income opportunities because of it.

According to the SMH article, in Australia the Internet access gap between the wealthy and the poor is increasing even as prices for Internet service decrease and more and more public access systems – at libraries, schools and Internet cafés – become available. Read the article here.

There’s no question that the nature of education is evolving, that computers and online connectivity are becoming more important tools for learning. A child who doesn’t become familiar with computers is at a definite disadvantage – certainly the ability to do research on the Web greatly expands a student’s access to resources for doing homework, completing projects, even choosing a college. Many of today’s jobs, even those not directly IT-related, require basic computer skills.

But are textbooks really on the verge of becoming obsolete? Some teachers are wary of an educational system that relies too heavily on Internet-based information, since the accuracy and reliability of much of the information found on the Web. While electronic data has the advantage of being potentially more up-to-date, textbook material usually has been more extensively reviewed and edited for accuracy and quality.

It’s also interesting to take a brief tour through history and recall that books themselves were exclusively reserved for the wealthy in their first incarnations; until the invention of the printing press, books were painstakingly hand-lettered a single copy at a time and thus were extremely expensive. Certainly the availability of computers and ‘net access has spread throughout society much more quickly than the printed word did. Nonetheless, there are still many homes, even in the most technologically developed countries, that don’t have the equipment or services to get online.

According to the SMH article, 86% of Australians in the highest income bracket ($100,000 and up) have Internet connections at home, whereas only 26% of those in the lowest ($25,000 and under) do. On the other hand, these figures for 2004- 2005 reflect a significant increase at both ends: only 44% of high income persons and 5% of low income persons had access in 1998. Here at home, U.S. census figures for 2005 showed that about 62% of households nationwide had computers and about 55% had Internet connections at home. This is according to the PCPro article here.

In both countries, statistics show that households with children are more likely to have Internet access than those without.

Something neither article really takes into account is the number of people without computers/access at home who are able to use the Internet at work or school. I have several friends in that situation; although they aren’t particularly motivated to buy a home computer, they regularly email me when they’re on the job. Many employers allow workers to use the company machines for a reasonable amount of personal business (just as they allow a certain amount of personal use of company telephones), and these people often spend their lunch hours or coffee breaks surfing the web or sending personal mail.

For kids, the situation is even more encouraging. In addition to the greater likelihood that their homes will have computers than homes without children, almost all public schools in the U.S. today have computer systems of some type available to students. There are many non-profit organizations such as the Computers For Schools Association  that refurbish donated PCs and give them to educational institutions. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gives away over a billion dollars every year; much of that has gone to computers for libraries and schools.

Some schools are going even further than putting computers in the classroom. Some schools have experimented with issuing laptops to each student so they can take the computers home with them. Results have been mixed; even older students can’t always be trusted to properly care for a relatively fragile and relatively expensive piece of electronic equipment, and problems with security, software updates and failing hardware components. Taxpayers question the added expense.

And merely having computers doesn’t ensure that the students will be able to get online after school hours – unless they live in an area that’s established “free” (taxpayer funded) wireless networks. Much of the new, high tech educational model is dependent not just on computers but on Internet access, as well. Students can access assignments and study resources online, join in group discussions, email teachers with questions, and even submit their work and get their grades via the ‘net. The value of such a system in case of some sort of major catastrophe that closes down the bricks and mortar schools (hurricanes, flu epidemics, terrorist attacks) is obvious. Schools could continue to hold classes remotely – but only for those students (and teachers!) who are able to connect to the ‘net.

Of course, it’s not just about education. As we discussed in last week’s editorial, the Internet has changed the job hunting landscape, and those without access are at a disadvantage. Fewer and fewer companies bother to advertise in print media now, since posting job listings online is usually less expensive and tends to bring in a higher overall quality of applicant. Even activities such as shopping are affected by the divide. It’s often the case that you can find goods and services online at a lower price than you might be able to find locally. Are people without Internet access also paying a premium for the things they buy?

Some have gone so far as to say that in today’s world, Internet access is a basic human right. Does that mean the government should buy every citizen a computer and provide us all with “free” Internet service? Or should they just do so for those below a certain income level who are deemed not to be able to afford it themselves? How many more billions of tax dollars would it cost to do that? Or is it enough to provide public access sites, like those in libraries, schools and community centers, where the poor can use shared systems? (After all, cities and states build public transportation systems; they don’t generally buy cars for individuals). Is this in fact really a problem at all, or is all the talk about a digital divide just another tool of those who want to incite class warfare?

Let us know your thoughts on the digital divide.

Deb Shinder