The Next Digital Divides

Howard Besser, co-Director
UCLA/Pacific Bell Initiative for 21st Century Literacies

submitted to Teaching to Change LA 1:2, Spring 2001 (special issue on Digital Divide)

Thus far the digital divide has been primarily expressed as a gap between those who have access to technology and those who do not. This author contends that we must begin focusing public attention on a whole range of other digital disparity gaps, including: effective use of information, the ability for an information user to be more than a passive consumer, and the availability of relevant, useful, appropriate, and affordable content. As the access gap narrows, we run the risk of politicians and the media claiming victory over the digital divide, while significant barriers to equity still remain. Only if we shift the rhetoric beyond access will we be able to focus attention on the true promise of erasure of the digital divide-- digital democracy. Thus far the digital divide has been primarily expressed as a gap between those who have access and those who do not. Countless studies have called attention to this particular gap (NTIA 2000), and many major funding sources have collectively poured billions of dollars into programs that purchase equipment and network access aimed at narrowing the access gap.[1]

Statistics show that this access gap is rapidly narrowing -- from increased numbers of connected computers in homes (Jacobs 2000), to increased numbers of community centers and libraries offering local access points (Bertot & McClure 2000).[2]  In 1999, 95% of public schools had Internet connections (NCED 2000). But though the gap in technological access has narrowed, other critical gaps still remain.

Effective Use: Information Literacy

Teachers know that merely placing computers and Internet connections in the schools is not by itself enough. Students need to learn how to effectively use this new tool for more than just playing games and passively searching the Web. Teachers need to learn how to effectively incorporate this tool into their teaching. In a world overflowing with easily available digital information, we all need the skills to judge the relevance, veracity, and recency of any particular piece of information.

The library community has been in the forefront of these issues, advocating "information literacy" to bridge this digital divide. " A person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate and effectively use the needed information. Haves and have nots should be equally skilled as well as have equal access." A division of the American Library Association has developed a set of "Information Literacy Competency Standards" for higher education (ACRL 2000), and library educators have developed a similar "Big6 Skills Approach to Information Problem-Solving" that has been effectively used in elementary and secondary school settings (Eisenberg & Berkowitz 2000).

And many other groups within the library community have focused their attention on the promotion of information literacy. But particularly amongst those not attending school, a wide gap still exists between those who have the skills and competencies to effectively evaluate the appropriateness of a given piece of information, and those who do not. A major divide still remains between those able to apply critical thinking and evaluation to an information source and those who cannot.

Appropriateness of Content

The huge gap in the appropriateness of online content to under-served populations threatens to greatly increase social disparities. In their devastating study, the Children's Partnership called this "The Digital Divide's New Frontier" (Children's Partnership 2000). They cite four key content-related barriers:

Lack of Local Information -- In their studies, under-served populations were primarily interested in the kind of local information that forms only a tiny portion of the content on the Web. Considering that 21 million Americans fall below the poverty line, and that the Web has very little information about local jobs, vocational training, and social programs, this lack of local information will do nothing to bridge this gap between haves and have-nots.

Literacy Barriers -- Most online content is written for people with average or above literary skills. The vast majority of online content is virtually inaccessible to the 44 million adults and children who do not have those average literacy skills. So this group is also disenfranchised by the advent of the digital age.

Language Barriers -- Most online content is in English. And online content in other languages primarily comes from foreign sources. Yet, over 32 million Americans don't speak English as their primary language. Still another group disenfranchised by online content.

Lack of Cultural Diversity -- Little content about ethnically diverse American communities is created by those communities themselves. Particularly for the 26 million foreign-born Americans, having little access to content created by members of their own cultural community is a severe form of disenfranchisement.

Access to Content

Another looming digital gap between haves and have-nots is that between those who will have the resources to access digital content and those who will not. Though the Internet began as an environment where resources were freely shared, it is rapidly becoming a commercial marketplace where information is sold at a price that the market will bear (Besser 1995, Besser forthcoming). Digital content has become one of the hottest commodities around, and the "content industry" is using lobbying power, technological innovation, and market muscle to make sure that everyone pays for content. The president of the American Publishers Association has even aimed her wrath at librarians because they give away things for free (Weeks 2001).

Most of us have grown up in an era with a rich public domain of content, and an environment that recognized that copyright concepts like "fair use" and "first sale" were critical to education. The public domain allows us to retell and reenact fables and stories from previous centuries without threat of suit from descendents of the copyright holders. Fair use lets us do the same with contemporary works, as well as to use excerpts to create collages and art projects. First sale allows us to buy used books or borrow library books to read to our kids. Together these concepts and doctrines create a rich public commons of content upon which we draw for education and creativity.

But in the world of the future where most contemporary material will be in digital form, we will not be able to do any of this without the rightsholder's permission. A combination of encryption technologies, new laws (like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Sonny Bono Term Extension Act), and vigorous enforcement will go a long way towards eliminating our important public content commons (Besser forthcoming). In the future, we will be able to engage in activities like collage and re-telling stories, but only if we (or our library or our school) pays an annual supplement to our license fee that will allow for these kinds of activities. Licensing fees will create a major disparity between those with the resources to license the raw material for creative projects and those without.

Consumers or Creators?

Most digital divide efforts have been aimed at enlarging the pool of receptive users of content, rather than at helping people learn to become active creators and distributors of information. It is no accident that most federal funding initiatives to bridge the Digital Divide have been housed in the Department of Commerce, and that the largest funding for private initiatives have come from commercial sources. The thrust of these initiatives has been to create a new body of digital age consumers.

Education should not be about merely learning how to consume; education should be about becoming an active participant in the major communication functions of society. Just as we not only teach students to read, but we also teach them how to write, how to assemble their writings into forms others will want to read, how to speak publicly, etc., in a digital age we need to teach our students how to author and distribute digital works. Students in districts that have purchased licenses for rich content and have paid for high outbound bandwidth are much more likely to teach their students how to be producers and distributors in a digital world. Those with this kind of access will be able to explore their creativity and gain experience in becoming content producers (not just consumers of works that others have produced). This also has direct application to the ability of underserved communities to produce information about their own communities. The digital divide also includes a gap between those who can be active creators and distributors of information, and those who can only be consumers.


We have outlined a number of critical digital divide issues that go beyond the basic issue of access. Portions of the library community and of the educational community are actively involved in addressing the information literacy issues. The Children's Partnership has made numerous important recommendations of how to address the content appropriateness issues, but many of these will involve marshalling public support to adjust public policy to help make this happen.

A number of groups are each working on their own approach to the issue of "access to content" in their attempts to preserve some form of an information commons (Besser website). In order to be successful, these disparate groups need to be brought together.

The UCLA/Pacific Bell Initiative for 21st Century Literacies (UCLA/Pacbell website), under the Direction of Dean Aimée Dorr and Information Studies Professor Howard Besser is trying to tackle many of these issues. We have organized information about the various curriculum activities that encourage critical thinking and effective use, and are funding the creation of a module that will be incorporated into UCLA teacher training this Fall. We have been examining adaptive information delivery systems which will allow the same set of information to be delivered to different audiences in ways best suited to a given audience's needs.

Much of the promise of the digital ages is an increase in democratic values and of broadening public participation in the various aspects of society and culture. In order for this promise to be realized, we need to take concerted action to narrow a host of different digital divides and allow everyone an equal opportunity to partake in this democratic promise.


Association of College and Research Libraries (2000). Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, Chicago: American Library Association (

Bertot, John and Charles R. McClure (2000). Public Libraries and the Internet 2000: Summary Findings and Data Tables, Washington: National Commission on Libraries and Information Science (

Besser, Howard (forthcoming). Intellectual Property: The Attack on Public Space in Cyberspace, Processed World (

Besser, Howard (website). Information Commons (

Besser, Howard. (1995). From Internet to Information SuperHighway, in James Brook and Iain A. Boal (eds.), Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information, San Francisco: City Lights, pages 59-70. (

Children’s Partnership (March 2000) Online Content for Low-Income and Under-served Americans: The Digital Divide’s New Frontier, Santa Monica?: The Children's Partnership (

Eisenberg, Michael and Robert Berkowitz (2000). Teaching Information and Technology Skills: The Big6™ in Secondary Schools, Worthington OH: Linworth Publishing (and other related works) (

Feldman, Gail (2000). Divided About the Digital Divide, The Public Manager 29:4, Winter 2000-2001

Jacobs, Joanne (2000). Nation is going online without government intervention; Divide will narrow on its own,San Jose Mercury News, February 10

Minnow, Newton N. and Lawrence K. Grossman (2001), A Digital Gift to the Nation; Fulfilling the Promise of the Digital and Internet Age, New York?: The Century Foundation, April 5 (

National Center for Education Statistics (2000). Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994-99, Washington: US NCES, February (

National Telecommunications and Information Administration (2000). Falling Through the Net: Toward Digital Inclusion, Washington: US Department of Commerce (

UCLA/Pacific Bell Initiative for 21st Century Literacies (website). (

Weeks, Linton (2001). Pat Schroeder's New Chapter: The former Congresswoman is battling for America's Publishers,Washington Post, February 7 (


  [1]  The Commerce Department's Technology Opportunities Program (formerly called the Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program), the Telecommunications Act of 1996 E-Rate, the Clinton Administration's Feb 2, 2000 initiative "From Digital Divide to Digital Opportunity", the Department of Education's Community Technology Center program, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation program for Libraries, …

  [2]  Schools without Internet connections were not more likely to be poverty-stricken than connected schools.

Last modified: 5/16/2001