Digital Divide versus Digital Inequality

Before this project was assigned, I honestly can say I gave very little thought to either digital divide or digital inequality.  The province I reside in and the school division I work for are technology rich in many ways. Furthermore, the town I live in, for the most part, caters to middle class citizens. We definitely have more “haves” than “have-nots”.  I have always appreciated the fact that our school division (if not the province) has invested so much in technology.  Even my own daily life, at home and at work, is heavily dependent on technology.  Last Friday the school switched Internet providers and I felt totally lost without the Internet.  I had technology dependent lessons but I couldn’t use them; I had planning that required the Internet and it was left undone too. It made me realize the important role technology plays in my life now.  Ironically, the group project, on its own, was getting that message across but Internet-less day at work made me really feel like I was part of the digital divide. And I can tell you this: I did not like it – not one bit! So imagine what it is like for the people who have that feeling every day?!

Tennessee, the state our group choose to study, like the province of Alberta has established a technology infrastructure that ensures hospitals, public libraries, post-secondary institutions, and schools have Internet, but that is where the similarities end. In Tennessee, urban centres have more access than rural centres; and many rural areas have little or no access to the Internet. I remember when people used to complain about having dial-up in the country … now, in Alberta, many people have access to high-speed broadband even if they live in the country, or up north! Ironically, some people in Tennessee would love to have dial-up never mind broadband. Let’s face it none of the options we explored in our assignment would work without access to the Internet. How could the state even worry about digital inequality if it didn’t address the issue of digital divide first?

Based on this realization, our group determined that Option 4 (providing high-speed Internet and mobile access) had priority over all other options. The option that ranked second also focused on access as well. As much as we didn’t like the idea of subsidizing Internet service providers, we knew this had to be done as well if the state had any hopes whatsoever of overcoming the digital divide. Having Internet available is not enough either – the citizens, especially the have-nots, need to afford to pay for access as well!

Once the issue of access was addressed, our group considered the best possible way to overcome digital inequality. In the end we decided that education (enhancing computer skills and using digital technologies) was the best option. What good is the Internet if people do not know how to use it effectively and safely? Funding libraries made sense as they can provide both access and training. Many libraries already offer on-line content and in-house training for information literacy. On-line educational training also makes the most sense cost wise because a lot of content is already available, and once this content is on-line it is relatively easy to maintain.

Keeping schools open after hours and weekends and simply handing out computers to disadvantaged people ranked last because of the expense involved in commissioning these options. Also, the logistics seemed impossible to overcome. The Bridges.org report suggests that bringing about technological advancement is more viable if an organization utilizes things that are already in place. The government of Tennessee is already investing in its libraries and on-line education so these options had a higher priority for the group. Besides something sustainable is more likely to bring about results. Once the money ran out, the state would not be able to keep the schools open nor continue to hand out computers to its disadvantaged citizens.

Our alternative options focused on more sustainable access as well in the sense that travelling Internet hotspots via our mobile tech trucks and televisions as computers seemed more realistic than the last two options. These alternative options would be less expensive in the long run and more flexible in terms of the logistics of delivering access and training to the masses!

The digital inequality assignment really brought these issues into the open and gave us the opportunity to actually see what it might take to resolve (not an easy task obviously) these issues as well. Ironically our group was completely dependent on technology in order to accomplish the task at hand. Every person in our group lived in a different state or province (from Tennessee to Alberta) yet we were able to work together because we had access to the Internet, and we had the right tools to get the job done. We were completely reliant on Google tools to make this happen. In fact, Google docs and Google hangout brought us together as much as the Internet did. These tools allowed us to build and collaborate more readily. In this case we definitely were the haves, not the have-nots. Sadly, the exercise also reinforced how fortunate we are while others are not. As both educators and citizens, we must do everything in our power to lessen the digital divide and close the inequality gap!