The Digital Divide: Why the Digital Divide
Will Continue to Exist in Light of Access
Dr. Howard Besser
Numerous studies have concluded that there is a "digital divide." Meaning that there is a growing disparity between those that are able to benefit and access computers and the World Wide Web, thus creating an information have and an information have not scenario. These same studies often conclude that it is due to a lack of access to personal computers and the web that this "digital divide" exists. Thus giving way to the argument that if there were someway to provide everyone with access to a personal computer and the web then we can close the digital divide. However, making personal computers and the web more widely available is not the solution to solving the problem of the digital divide. Computers are now cheaper than they have ever been, and there are some Internet service providers who are willing to provide their services free of any monetary cost. It should be noted that people who choose to use these types of services must give up certain privacy rights and be bombarded with advertising from any company the internet service provider chooses, in order to benefit from this "free" access. Even if one doesnŐt want to invest in a personal computer or become a second-class citizen to get Internet access, one doesnŐt have to. Many libraries and lots of other community centers are providing the use of computers and web access for free, and yet the digital divide still exists. LatinoŐs, Blacks, and Americans with disabilities, and also those with low household incomes are still much less likely to use computers or access the web, which would keep them in the category of information have nots.
The reason the digital divide continues to exist in light of the fact that access is widely available is because access is only one barrier to the web. Solving the access issue doesnŐt solve any problems that arise from users of the internet not having the necessary education to use and benefit from the information one may receive from the web, the access issue also doesnŐt address providing more user friendly computer software and web pages for those in our society that have disabilities
Education as a barrier to the web and computers
The World Wide Web is full of information that can improve and enrich our lives. In order to benefit from all of this information it must exhibit some type of relevance to our everyday lives and one must also be able to read and interpret this information so that it is useful to us. So in order for someone to successfully argue that providing access will eliminate the digital divide, requires many assumptions. The main assumptions are those surrounding literacy. One would have to assume that everyone you supply a computer and Internet access would already have the knowledge necessary to benefit from the use of these two mediums. According to the National Literacy Survey performed by the US Department of Education nearly 25 percent of American adults (age 16 and over) are functionally illiterate. That translates to nearly 44 million adults nationwide lacking the ability of interpreting the information that they read and being able to apply it. The study categorizes these individuals as Level 1(the lowest level of literacy). This group did demonstrate some limited literacy skills, but some were so limited in their abilities that they were not even able to complete the study. An example of the ability that were exhibited by adults at Level 1 literacy is that most could identify a country in an article but were usually unable to locate an intersection on a map. Another example of the ability they usually demonstrated, finding one piece of information in a sports article, but were usually unable to find two pieces of information in a sports article. According to the National Institute for Literacy individuals in the lowest literacy groups (groups 1 and 2) are more likely to receive welfare (in the form of food stamps). The National Institute for Literacy also found that 43 percent of the adults in the level 1 category are living in poverty compared to only 4 percent of those that scored in the highest tier (Level 5).
In the current state of the web (mainly text-based) in order to receive any kind of benefit from having access one would have to be able to read and understand what they have read, in order to know how this information applies to their life. Also most of this text-based information is aimed at those of us in our society that have at least a college education. So when it comes to accessing a shopping site for instance, something that will make life a little easier by allowing us to spend less time traveling outside of the home and waiting in long lines, 45 million adult Americans that are functionally illiterate will be excluded from the advantages and conveniences that these type of sites provide, since these type of sites often include a set of procedures that must be followed in order for an order to be processed correctly, which functionally illiterate Americans may be unable to interpret and follow through. Therefore, the statistics that 66% of college graduates are now using the internet compared to only 6% of those with an elementary education or less , should not come as a surprise.
Being that the majority of the web is created for those with at least a college education raises other issues surrounding content and information literacy. One might ask why would a person that has a high school education or less be interested in accessing the web since most of the content available on the web does not address the needs of this segment of our population. Therefore content itself is an issue that is contributing to the digital divide. There are not many people who want to fish through tons of information that they either donŐt understand or just simply lacks any relativity to their every day lives. The lack of content relativity in terms of cultural diversity on the web may also explain why minorities are not accessing the web in greater numbers. When we look at content relevance we should also include information literacy. Not only should the content be relevant to us but we should also posses the knowledge to decipher between truth and fiction. One of the greatest benefits of the web is that it gives anyone who knows how to create web pages the space to do so and it allows this space to become accessible to millions of other people around the world. However, this great benefit is also one of the webs greatest drawbacks. Anybody could post anything to the web posted as the truth regardless of whether or not there is any truth behind the information. Information literacy though doesnŐt just apply to those Americans who arefunctionally illiterate, but to all members of our society, even to some that we consider to be the most educated and brightest in our society: our teachers. Just look at the Tass.net experiment. Tass.net was a web site that claimed that the Russian national news agency was the source of their information and released the statement that Pol Pot had been granted exile in Stockholm. Andy Carven experimented by leaving the site up for people to examine at a seminar that he conducted for the Benton Foundation. Twelve teachers examined the site and only one questioned the legitimacy of the information on the site. Which it turns out was totally false information.
Information Literacy also entails one being able to one know how to find information, know how information is organized, and know how to use information so that others can benefit and learn from it. The requirements for information literacy again exclude the 45 million Americans that are currently unable to interpret and use information for themselves. It is unreasonable to think that this group would have the information literacy needed to teach others because they canŐt even teach or understand the information for themselves.
There is one last type of literacy that needs to be addressed. Technical literacy. By simply providing access to personal computers and the web and expecting that the digital divide will close is ludicrous. If the people being provided with these new technologies and access are new and unfamiliar with computers and the web one can not reasonably assume that just having the computer and software and access to the web that the knowledge necessary for using the computers and the web will automatically follow. Training will be necessary or otherwise the access is useless.
Disabilities as a barrier to the web
The purpose of the web is to provide information in such a way that it will be accessible to the majority of the population. Seeing as how most of the American population does not posses disabilities it is easy to overlook the needs of Americans who are visually or hearing impaired or have some other type of disability.
If the web and computers could address some of the issues that served as barriers to disabled Americans, it would greatly benefit and improve their lives. The web would allow for quick access to information reducing the need for disabled Americans to leave the home in order to find beneficial information and would even reduce the need for dependency for some disabled Americans. For instance, those Americans that have mobility impairments could use computers and the net to perform such daily task as shopping, which before the net may have been impossible for immobile Americans to do themselves. While the web has the potential to greatly improve the lives of the disabled, nearly 60 percent of people with disabilities have never used a personal computer.
The heavy use of text on the web would seem, as it would be the biggest barrier for those in our society that are visually impaired. However, since reading software does exist it does provide a way those with visual impairments to benefit from access to web, assuming that the text page is not overloaded with graphics. In order to make the web more accessible more websites have to step up to the plate and provide text only pages so that this reader software is able to provide error free information to the visually impaired.
While the web has provided many benefits for the hearing impaired, such as Instant Messenger Services, that allow for typed conversation via the computer which is an easy alternative to voice communication. Another benefit that the web provides for the hearing impaired are chat rooms. Chat rooms serve as a benefit because they allow the hearing impaired to easily communicate with others that may or may not have hearing impairments, without the need of a sign interpreter. In light of the many benefits that the web provides to the hearing impaired there are also barriers that may prevent the hearing impaired from receiving the full benefit of the web. Considering that there are now many sites that allow users to download videos and music, or may even give verbal information. The surprising fact is that many to most of these sites do not have close caption so that hearing impaired users are able to read what is given as audio. By providing close caption on sites that have audio information will allow give hearing impaired users the same information as those that are not hearing impaired.
Requiring typing or the use of a mouse can be a barrier to computer use and also web use for someone that is unable to fully use or not able to use their arms at all. There has to some kind of speech recognition software that would allow persons not able to use their arms or hands to have access to computers and the web. While speech recognition is available for regular computer access and will even dial into the web, no such software is available for inputting information and getting around on web pages. So even if these Americans could dial into the web, if web pages require them to type in information or click with the mouse the web will still be unusable to Americans with certain types of mobility disabilities.
The argument of access being the solution to the digital divide is very limited in terms of Americans with disabilities. Not only does one have to address the education issues that may be present but one also has to examine what kind of disabilities a person may have and what kind of software or usability features must be present to aid any disabled person in successfully using and accessing information from the web and computers. It should also be noted that any enabling software that is necessary must be provided at a reasonable cost, so that people with modest budgets will be able to afford it, otherwise the digital divide will continue to exist.
The point of this paper is not to identify all barriers that exist when it comes computers and the World Wide Web. What I have aimed to prove is that there are other barriers that must be addressed even though they have been over shadowed by the issue of access.
In order for the Web and computers to fulfill the promise of enriching our lives we must solve the problems that serve as a mechanism for dividing the population. The web must contain information that is useful to the user and easily interpreted by the user.Computers and the web must account for any user disabilities and provide software and usability features in order to encourage the use of these two mediums among those that have disabilities. Enabling software and usability features must also be provided at a reasonable cost so that they are accessible to the disabled.
Another key to success with computers and the web will come from users being in a position of life long learning and having access to technical training, being that computers and the web are changing constantly.
It is only when we consider making information available to those of use who do not fit into the mold of the "average" user will we be able to solve the digital divide.
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