Emerging Trends and Issues: The Nature of the Digital Divide in Learning

 

Download article in Learning to Bridge the Digital Divide (.pdf) | By OECD/CERI Secretariat | Published in Learning to Bridge the Digital Divide, 2000

 

Ample illustrations of the digital divide in learning were put forward during the Fifth NCAL/OECD Roundtable, The Lifelong Learning and New Technologies Gap: Reaching the Disadvantaged, December 1999. The Roundtable’s illustrations of the digital divide show that there is no single, clearly-defined divide, but rather a series of gaps, brought about by a variety of factors, many of which do not have their roots in the technology itself.

 

Perhaps the most obvious manifestations of the learning digital divide are the ICT gaps that exist within formal education, between one school or school district and another, in terms of the equipment, materials, connectivity, professional competence, and integration of ICT within the teaching/learning environment.

 

There is an important role for schools and other educational institutions to ensure equality of access to ICT, and thereby to raise technological literacy throughout the student population – a basic learning aim. It has to be noted that many aspects of the digital divide are determined by ICT access and use outside the formal system, but as a number of participants recognised, schools and other educational institutions can play a compensatory equalising role. There are aspects of the divide which are profoundly social rather than technological.

 

The differences across societal groups in terms of ICT skills, confidence and competence show that while the necessary ICT investments must first be in place, it is vitally important to empower people to use them. Gender is clearly one important dimension in relation to the digital divide, along with technology learning gaps among different generations, economic groups, ethnicities, and cultural communities.

 

Formal educational policies that aim to bridge the digital divide risk leaving untouched some of the most influential aspects – notably the home differences in computer and Internet access. Many relatively privileged students are already active in out-of-school electronic networks, thereby furthering their own education and hence their advantage. This view clearly shows the need to bridge home-related inequalities.

 

There are also the very wide national disparities, between the richest countries of the world (notably the United States to which most of the existing data relate), and other countries with much lower or minimal technology use in education, homes, enterprises and communities. In consequence there is an international dimension to the digital divide, including a gulf between North and South, which leaves poorer countries disadvantaged. As with other manifestations of the digital divide, the tendency appears to be that the most privileged are able to enhance their advantage.

 

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