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Dismissing race and class in Digital Divide story

December 27, 2010

MLive posted a story by a Grand Rapids Press reporter on the digital divide for students in Grand Rapids. The article claims that one third of Americans still do not have access to the Internet from home, which effects both urban and rural populations.

The digital divide is a serious problem in the US and in West Michigan, but instead of exploring what that really means the Press reporter decides to just speak with a student, a parent and two local library staff. All of those interviewed are addressing either their use of computers at public libraries or the increased amount of research students must do as part of their class work, even though the headline clearly puts the emphasis on the negative consequences of the digital divide. (Grand Rapids students caught in the digital divide as more school assignments include online aspect)

Besides some Census Bureau data, the MLive story never explores what the digital divide really means for Grand Rapids students. There is no investigation into the testing skills of students with easy access to the Internet compared to those with limited access. There is no exploration on the difference with Internet access along class and income lines or along racial lines, which seem to be obvious and important routes to take in such a story.

The first major government funded study on the digital divide was done a decade ago by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The report found that there were major sectors in both urban and rural areas that have limited or no access to the Internet. Since then more Americans now have access, but the data shows that it disproportionately effects low income and minority populations.

The Pew Research Center just conducted a survey of Internet use in the US by income levels and found there was a disparity in use between households that make more than $75,000 and those that make less than $75,000. However, the household income level seems to be a bit misleading and there would no doubt be an even greater disparity if one looked at households of $25,000 or less.

Just having access does not always mean the digital divide is decreased, since the speed and quality of the broadband can also impact Internet use. A new report by the FCC says that 68% of the 133 million broadband users in the US have way too slow of a connection to even be legitimately considered broadband.

The Pew Hispanic Center published findings in July of this year about the digital divide when comparing US born to foreign-born children now living in the US. This is the most recent study that looks at the digital divide along racial lines and similar investigation could be done for Grand Rapids Public School students, considering that it is a majority Black student population and a growing Latino student population. An excellent resource for exploring the digital divide and online use for school age students is the book The Young and the Digital, by S. Craig Watkins.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. stelle permalink
    December 27, 2010 5:30 pm

    My teenager is required to do online quizzes and homework at home on a regular basis. If we did not have access to Internet, her ability to stay up on her studies would be profoundly impacted. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to go to the library or find other places to get online access nearly every night of the week.

    She also dislikes these assignments as she finds them tedious and prone to irritating glitches. (My son, who is working on a master’s degree, agrees that online classes are boring and offer very little learning value apart from credit at the end of the term.)

    Coupled with substituting “online learning” for real live teachers and the assault on net neutrality, we seem poised for an even wider “digital” divide that will effectively disempower lower class folks and people of color even more, while chiseling away at the one American Dream many still try to cling to, education.

  2. Kate Wheeler permalink
    December 28, 2010 4:47 am

    Although far from perfect, the EU is developing plans to give all EU citizens broadband access by 2013. The Union is specifically addressing the digital divide in European countries with a Digital Rights Charter, which will provide lower-income families access to and aid to buy computer equipment. The charter will also create collectives of digital public services in key areas. In a recent conference, the EU looked at plans to bring about price equity for computer equipment and smart phones across all EU countries.

    The Union committee is also examining a plan that allows the government to take charge of services in areas where private companies are charging too much or neglecting an area–such as a rural community–because they don’t see enough profit in service there.

    It’s a plan built around a capitalist model, but at least they are acknowledging the problem, seeing it as a social justice issue, and attempting to look for a mix of public and private solutions to address it. Meanwhile, here in the U.S., we are way behind in even discussing the class inequities in this situation. Thanks very much for this commentary and update.

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