Bridging the Digital Divide with Online Education

by Staff Writers

The Great Divide is Getting Wider

Image: digitalart /

Even as technology advances and becomes increasingly ubiquitous, little doubt remains that there is an ever-widening digital divide between haves and have-nots in this world. In the United States, the wealthiest 1% of the population controls more than 40% of resources. Overall, the top 20% control more than 90% of the wealth. In contrast, the bottom 80% controls just 7% of the actual physical wealth in this country (Domhoff, 2011). A December, 2010 report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project confirms that the digital divide is largely a function of this economic divide. The findings indicate that 87% of high income families (making more than $75,000 a year) have high-speed Internet access in their homes compared to 40% of families making less than $30,000 a year. Among the highest income Internet users, there is significantly more involvement in e-commerce, searching for health-related information, and online learning. The following graph from the report illustrates the discrepancy:


Where does this divide leave online learners? Online learning is generally a more affordable option than attending a brick-and-mortar university, and thus is an option that is often more appealing to learners from lower income families (Media Alliance). Online learning seems like a natural fit for individuals who are interested in pursuing a degree but lack the financial means to do so in a traditional college. When you consider the data above, however, the idea of using technology-based classes to overcome the digital divide has a poetic appeal but remains challenging for many. After all, according to Media Alliance, low-income individuals have significantly less Internet access than their wealthy counterparts. In addition, when they do have Internet access, they spend significantly less time using the Web for activities other than entertainment (Pew Report, 2010). While it is beyond the scope of this blog to single-handedly bridge the digital divide, an examination of what low-income learners stand to gain from participating in online learning may help clarify why making technology and Internet access universally available is an important societal goal to establish (USDLA, 2011).

The Benefits of Learning Online for Low-Income Students
If the obstacles to online learning that inhibit low-income students from accessing higher education can be overcome, there are several benefits that can help further bridge the digital divide. Disadvantaged students participating in online education stand to enhance their:

  • Technical skills
  • Web literacy
  • Economic skills
  • Self-confidence

Technical Skills
The most obvious benefit to students with limited access, and thus less developed technology skills, is an enhancement of those missing skills (Marquis, 2009). The best way to develop computer literacy is by using specific software tools and practicing with them. In an online classroom, students need to develop proficiency in the following areas in order to be successful:

  • File management – Understanding the basic workings of a computer is an invaluable skill set that is enhanced by the requirements of using the technology to participate in virtual learning.
  • Word processing – One of the key elements of any education, word processing involves cultivating not only the technical skill of typing, but also the process of writing within a particular discipline.
  • Media production and presentation tools – Increasingly important in business and industry, the ability to express oneself through audio, video or graphics can be developed in the online classroom.
  • Troubleshooting – There are always technical problem to overcome when taking an online course, and developing the skills to solve these problems can lead to improved self-confidence for the online learner. Particularly in someone who has had limited prior technology access.

Web Literacy
Web literacy and the related skills are one of the keys to being a successful participant in a 21st Century, information-based economy. Taking a class via the Internet is a perfect vehicle for gaining these skills. In addition to the simple exposure provided by working online to participate in the class, the following skills are often specifically cultivated by taking an online class:

  • Web navigation – The basic process of navigating the Web can be intimidating to someone with limited technology experience. Dealing with the very logistics of learning online can help to enhance this skill.
  • Searching – Another essential skill for successful virtual learning and for participation in virtual life beyond the classroom. The requirements for any online class will include an ability to effectively find information online.
  • Information evaluation – Scaffolding for this skill should be discipline-specific and supported within the context of an online course. Once an individual has a handle on finding useful and reliable information on the Internet, he or she can apply that skill to other areas of inquiry.
  • Collaboration – Not every online class will require student-to-student collaboration, but all will require some degree of virtual collaboration between the student and the instructor. In a world where co-workers are increasingly "remote," developing skills in working together at a distance is important.

Economic Skills
A key to bridging the digital divide is providing low-income individuals with the means to escape from their socio-economic status. The exposure to the Internet provided by taking an online course begins to break down this barrier by introducing these students to one of the primary resources for creating and accessing the economic system: the Internet itself. Participation in an online course can provide students with the following avenues for developing knowledge and skills for their long-term economic benefit:

  • Technical skills – As mentioned previously, there are a great number of technical skills that can be learned from taking an online class. Many of these directly translate to the work world. In addition to these secondary skills, the skills and knowledge associated with a particular area of study provide economic opportunities.
  • Social/business networking – Beyond simply using networking tools similar to those used in the real world, the business networks that can be cultivated through F2F and virtual interactions associated with the class are invaluable.
  • Access to information – Knowing how and where to find important information is a skill that can be leveraged both for personal economic benefit (finding discounted airfares, for example) as well as for professional benefit (searching and applying for jobs online).

As mentioned previously, self-confidence is developed in the online learner through all of the activities that they undertake in virtual learning, from troubleshooting and collaboration, to searching for information online. For a low-income student, who may previously have had little opportunity to develop self-confidence in using technology, this may be the most significant step in using online education to bridge the digital divide. Self-confidence is the key ingredient that allows or inspires a student who is new to technology to pursue further and deeper learning. Just like any skill, confidence in one aspect supports growth in that area as well as a willingness to reach out and delve into new ones. Low-income, technologically disadvantaged students, who gain the opportunity to begin to develop self-confidence in the use of technology, can extend that advantage and begin to close the digital divide. The stories below illustrate two successful efforts to provide students with access and the opportunity to enhance their self-confidence and technology skills through online learning.

Building Bridges across the Divide
The benefits of online learning that will help low-income students bridge the digital divide can only be gained if some initial headway is made in first providing these learners with access to computers, software and the Internet. Many efforts are underway to begin breaking down the barriers to e-learning that currently make it inaccessible to members of low-income communities. The following examples illustrate the ways these efforts occur in both urban and rural impoverished areas.

  • Connected Learning – This US Department of Commerce funded effort by the NYC Department of Education provides computers, broadband access, software, and technology training to families in all five boroughs of New York City in order to extend learning into the homes of low-income families.
  • "Navajo bridging digital divide with online classes" (Navajo Times, July 9, 2011) – This story examined the efforts of Navajo Technical College to introduce an online education program and the success it has had in increasing technological literacy in the Navajo Nation. It also discussed the process and importance of providing access to people in extremely isolated rural areas.

These are just two of the efforts underway to leverage technology and online learning to begin bridging the digital divide. However, this is an uphill battle as educational spending cuts hinder schools' efforts to provide online learning opportunities. At the same time, personal economic circumstances make individual access more challenging for many. It is fitting that technology holds the key to bridging the digital divide, but this is ultimately a human problem and will require human intervention. Making computers and broadband access more widely and affordably available to all is a first step in allowing technology to begin spanning the chasm that is the current digital divide.

Further Reading
Media Alliance: Online Learning: The Answer to the Digital Divide? Divide is barrier to online education
USDLA: Enabled by Broadband, Education Enters a New Frontier
CLASP: Policy Solutions that work for low-income people