Measuring the digital divide: Access or competency?

Researcher: It's not about who has access but who knows how to use the content on the Net. Who will hire those who don't know how to use it?

How to measure the digital divide? By how many students have Internet access or how many know what to do with that access? That's the question put forward by a professor in a recent journal article. In an article in The Information Society Journal, Karine Barzilai-Nahon, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Information School, proposes that measuring the digital divide should be more a question of what people do with the content gleaned from the Internet, as well as counting how many students in lower socio-economic strata don't have Internet access, Government Technology reports.

Barzilai-Nahon made note of a report issued last month by the U.S. Department of Education, showing that 37 percent of students from families with incomes below $20,000 use computers at home, compared to 88 percent of those from families with incomes over $75,000.

"Ten years ago, when someone had a connection, it was enough," Barzilai-Nahon, said. "Today, in some places it's nothing. The idea is, what do you do with the content? Do you know how to use it?"

The power of technology is about knowing how to harness it to enhance daily life both at home and at work, she said. "Think about those people that don't know how," she added. "Ten years from now, who will hire them?"

In order to better understand and assess the digital divide and who's getting left behind, Barzilai-Nahon says that it is important to use the data collected to "systematically conceptualize the digital divide."

She suggests the following metrics to get a more accurate measurement of the problem:

  • Social and governmental support and constraining factors, including training, funding and emphasis on digital empowering.
  • Affordability relative to other expenditures and average income.
  • Use, including frequency, time online, purpose, skill level and autonomy of use.
  • Socio-economic factors, including age, education, geography, race and language, among other factors.

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