Connecting the Digital Divide to Digital Literacies


6.8.12 | The term “digital divide” has long been used to describe the gap between those with access to communications technology and those without—applying to both home computer ownership as well as the delivery of home broadband access, which is still an issue. In fact, though 65 percent of households (pdf) have broadband access, that figure drops to 40 percent in households with less than $20,000 in annual income.

More recently, the term has referred to the gap in the type of engagement with the digital world. It has come to mean the divide between those who use technology to learn and create and those who use it more for entertainment or staying up to date on social networking sites. It might easily be summed up as the gap between creators and consumers.

In his latest story on young people and digital culture, The New York Times’ Matt Richtel takes a close look at this current divide, which, like previous divides, is often connected to education and socioeconomic status.

Children of parents who do not have a college degree, for instance, spend 90 minutes more per day exposed to media (including books, gaming, TV and internet) than children from higher socioeconomic families, according to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study (read responses to the study). That’s a steep jump from the difference of 16 minutes logged in 1999. All kids use media mostly for entertainment, so that extra time is generally not put to good use.

“This growing time-wasting gap, policy makers and researchers say, is more a reflection of the ability of parents to monitor and limit how children use technology than of access to it,” writes Richtel. It’s enough of a concern that the Federal Communications Commission is has backed a digital literacy corps—trainers would provide basic computer and digital literacy classes at public libraries and in schools (after school hours). And the Obama administration last year launched to provide tools to teach digital literacy (read more about what it offers to educators).

“Separately,” write Richtel, “the [FCC] will help send digital literacy trainers this fall to organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Some of the financial support for this program, part of a broader initiative called Connect2Compete, comes from private companies like Best Buy and Microsoft.” He continues:

These efforts complement a handful of private and state projects aimed at paying for digital trainers to teach everything from basic keyboard use and word processing to how to apply for jobs online or use filters to block children from seeing online pornography.

“Digital literacy is so important,” said Julius Genachowski, chairman of the commission, adding that bridging the digital divide now also means “giving parents and students the tools and know-how to use technology for education and job-skills training.”

“[A]ccess is not a panacea,” danah boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft,” told the NYT. “Not only does it not solve problems, it mirrors and magnifies existing problems we’ve been ignoring.”

Plus: “If, like many others, you are concerned social media is making people and cultures shallow, I propose we teach more people how to swim and together explore the deeper end of the pool,” Howard Rheingold said last month during a visit to the MIT Media Lab to talk about his new book, “Net Smart: How to Thrive Online” (MIT Press, 2012), which looks at how we make use of online tools intelligently, humanely and, above all, mindfully.

The book addresses the five digital literacies Rheingold identifies as essential to this engagement: attention, participation, collaboration, “crap detection,” and network smarts. Download the table of contents here (pdf).

Justin Ellis, an assistant editor at Nieman Journalism Lab, writes that what distinguishes Rheingold’s work is “the attention to, well, attention.”

He’s talking about metacognition, or making ourselves more aware of what we’re doing online. We often divide our attention online, but at any given moment make “micro decisions” about what we’re going to do — write emails for work, watch a YouTube video, get lost in Twitter. Rheingold says we have to connect our attention to our intention and be more aware of how what we’re actively doing relates (or often doesn’t) to what we need. That helps when you’re looking for a restaurant recommendation, but also when you want to find accurate information about a court verdict.

“Finding the best stuff and sharing what we found is one way of improving ourselves, but also improving the commons,” he said.

Watch the video of Rheingold’s talk below.

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