The Other Digital Divide

The title of this post is the result of a Twitter conversation that I had recently with librarians working in high schools and colleges. The conversation was about how teens/students do and don’t have access to technology and started with a Twitter post that linked to an article about the University of Virginia’s plans to phase out public computer labs.

I’ve been thinking about access to technology for a long time and I’ve realized more and more that there is a digital divide that isn’t frequently discussed.

What is this “other” digital divide that I’m talking about? It’s not the divide we see between rural and suburban. It’s the divide between people who do and don’t have laptops to bring to school in order to connect to the Internet, who do and don’t have needed software on home computers, or have or don’t have family rules that make it hard to do what they need (and want) to do online. As Jamison Hedin, Librarian at the Ludlow (MA) High School Library, put it in her Twitter post on the topic, “Access 2 software (esp. PowerPoint) and kids with draconian internet restrictions @ home are two key issues in my school” (By the way, another Twitter message from Jamison gave me the title for this blog post.)

The thing is, schools and public libraries are the place that teens can and should have access to the technologies that they don’t have at home. (Either because they don’t have computers, Internet, or software at home, or because they don’t get to access sites that they need to at home.) All too often I’ve heard librarians and school/public library administrators say, “We can’t have or use that technology here because not everyone has access to it at home.”

Wait a minute, think about that, if not everyone has access at home, doesn’t that actually mean that the library is the place where access should be available? If we level the playing field by not providing access, there’s no leveling going on at all. There will still be a divide between those that can access Facebook (for example) at home and those that can’t access it anywhere.

Access that helps to thwart the other digital divide relates to many technologies and shouldn’t simply be considered for physical computers and specific sites and software. For example, what about the teens who have MP3 players (iPods or something else) and those that don’t? Do the teens who can use and listen to music, books, and educational audio on an iPod have an advantage over those that don’t? If so, shouldn’t libraries find ways to give all teens that advantage?

Technology access for teens is a large issue that librarians serving the age group need to think about and discuss openly with their community. If librarians aren’t providing access to the hardware, software, and tools that teens need in order to gain information, learn about themselves, and grow-up successfully we are missing out on an important part of service to the age group.

As you think about this topic take a look at the post on the Learning Commons blog at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst that asked students what they wanted/needed for technology in the Commons. It should give you some good ideas and information on the kinds of access that youth need and are looking for.

About Linda W Braun

Linda W Braun is a YALSA Past President, the YALSA CE Consultant, and a learning consultant/project management coordinator at LEO: Librarians & Educators Online.
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4 Comments

  1. This year we’ve purchased inexpensive MP3s for audiobook download and checkout. Our local public library subscribes to a cooperative for audio downloads which we access on our students’ behalf. The program has had limited appeal to our students but has proven popular with our staff. That is our approach to bridging the digital divide for our patrons for MP3s.

    I also publicize the existance of OpenOffice.org for those student and faculty who do not have access to MSOffice. Our big digital divide is over MS Publisher. This is not part of the OpenOffice suite, yet creating pamphlets on topics is a favorite exercise for many of our teachers. Things are hoppin’ in the library when the pamphlets are due since few have the Publisher program at home.

    I was interested in the many comments on the U Mass survey that spoke of the appeal of the library commons being that it is a quiet place where students can concentrate without distractions. This seems to fly in the face of much I read in our professional journals about making libraries places where “shhhh” out and boisterous fun is in.

  2. A lot of students at the school where I recently worked do not have access to computers or high-speed Internet at home. Rather than this situation preventing teachers from giving tech-based assignments, the school tries to provide opportunities for students to engage in those activities while in the school building. When I asked teachers how they cope with the discrepancies between students who are wired and those that are not, they told me that they give more time for assignments that require students to go online. The school library media center is open before school and until 5pm Monday-Thursday, enabling students to utilize the resources the school has outside of class time. I think school libraries really need to offer those extended hours to students who don’t have other means of computer or Internet access. When I did a lesson using the software, Comic Life, some students were able to download the program to their home computers; others, though, visited the library during lunch and after school to complete their projects. All of this work was completed in addition to the several hours of class time devoted to the project. The school also offers an Information Literacy class where students collaborate on a Ning social networking site set-up just for their school, create screencast tutorials about Web and library resources, and are introduced to many other Web 2.0 technology tools. If a small, rural middle/high school can do it, then every school should be able to offer this type of training and access to their students.

  3. This is a very real issue which is finally garnering some attention. The real digital divide is less likely to be based on age and much more likely to be based on access.
    My stepdaughter does not have access at her mother’s house – it is an ongoing source of frustration both for her in trying to get her homework done, and for me who feels quite strongly that the situation is handicapping her learning. She constantly has teachers tell her to go home and look it up online. That is usually when I get a phone call. Furthermore she has teachers who only accept assignments completed with Microsoft products – despite the fact that she is learning the same skills, and the content is the same when she uses her hand me down Mac that I gave her to help alleviate the problem. Compounding this is the lack of a school librarian, and a public library that is closed more than it is open.
    Libraries have an opportunity to fill a very real need. I opened late some nights to help students who had after school practices when we had large research and/or tech assignments due. I provided online support in using the tools at night for those who did have access but needed help with skills.
    One thing that goes unmentioned in this post but also complicates the access divide is the issue of filters. In the library our students can not watch video online – any video. Resources other kids have access to at home are filtered in the library – ie: YouTube, certain wikis and blogs. Social networks (which I get but still . . .) – students share and do homework using SN but those who rely on school library for access lose that opportunity. And I’m sure that is true in some public libraries as well.
    I’m glas you posted on this – the access divide is real, and creates a well have/have not problem

  4. Sounds like I have a lot in common with other commenters–our library is dealing with only having certain software (like Publisher, and the necessary converter for opening .docx files in older versions of Word) on one or two computers, district-wide blocking of YouTube…

    I think a very real factor in this divide is the fact that many adults (yes, including teachers and librarians) simply aren’t comfortable with the technology. “Look it up when you get home” is sometimes code for “I don’t know how to find that.”

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