Should Educators Be Worried About The Digital Divide?

If the Digital Divide exists, should educators be worried about it? How does it impact your school or classroom?

excerpt from LTEC 3530 – Telecommunications in Education and Industry

The digital divide undoubtedly ‘exists’. One can see this is present in our country by observing a large random sample of its people and assessing their access to technology. The digital divide is also present on a global scale, but I’m not going to focus on that since I believe it is a well-agreed-upon consensus that some countries have less access to information resources than others. I want to focus on the digital divide within the United States; something that I believe isn’t talked or thought about as much as global digital divide between developed and povery-stricken countries when discussing the lack of accessibility.

First, what constitutes a digital divide must be agreed upon. There is no objectively ‘correct’ definition of a digital divide. The definition will vary slightly amongst people of the same culture, and more drastically with those who are geographically AND culturally distant from each other. I consider the digital divide to not be solely whether or not information and communication technologies can or cannot be accessed, but more of how easily and efficiently they can be accessed. That does not mean that someone who cannot access technology resources is not digitally divided from those with more access, but I think that more emphasis needs to be put on the experience of the access, rather than the often black and white, yes or no answer applied to the availability of access. Especially when evaluating the digital divide within a first world, developed country. Based on my experience in working with people and technology, there is more of a divide within users of technology than there is between those with and without access to it.

This is due to the quality of technology that is available to consumers today. With increased globalization, outsourcing of technology industries, and a prioritization of profit over quality, certain technology products have become very inexpensive in recent years. You are now able to buy a laptop computer (netbook) for $199.99. This is the cheapest price that anyone has ever seen on the market for a complete machine. However, with the savings made on these sub-par machines, comes with it huge sacrifices in performance and quality.

Throughout my last five years working as a technician on a helpdesk for a company of around ~500 employees, and as a system administrator for another small company, I accredit most of the end user frustration I see to poor quality devices. These devices are manufactured towards a specific audience. That audience purchases these products and does not understand that the monetary savings gained result in a large sacrifice in quality and performance of the product, and do not realize that it will severely impact their user experience with it, the performance, durability, and the life span of the device. Additionally, these devices are not cost-effective. They may seem cost effective on the surface, because of their inexpensive price tag, but they will need to be replaced twice, or even three times as frequently as durable devices. The user experience of using such a device will not be enjoyable and can prohibit the efficiency of the work you complete on it, if you are even able to complete it. It is my wish that inexpensive machines were not available to consumers, because the reality is that these devices are not useable in my opinion. Many of the inexpensive notebook and desktop computers that I have interacted with are extremely slow, on account of the fact that they lack the internal hardware specifications that make them speedy. So not only is the device unenjoyable and often times impossible to work on, during the next operating system release for said device, the machine will have to be trashed since it cannot support the higher resource demands of new software. Therefore, the end user is left to purchase yet another inexpensive computer, in what is a vicious cycle of end-user frustration and extra expenses. If end users invest in good machines from the onset, the machine can happily live through several generations of operating system releases. Not only will they not have to purchase a new machine as frequently, but they will also be working on a fast, more reliable machine with less frustration. To say nothing of the business implications on how increased productivity can affect your business.

I have seen many times on inexpensive computers:

  • Screen hinge broken or loose
  • Notebook plastics broken
  • User complaining machine is too slow even after an OS clean install (due to outdated hardware)

These things can be resolved if say, $1200 is spent on a new laptop, instead of $300.

THIS is where the divide is that I am referring to. The divide is between users of what I call “unusable technology” and those with access to high quality machines. Access to better technology means less frustration, higher efficiency, more productivity, and sometimes whether not the work is simply “completed” or not.

In academia, this is more important than anywhere else I believe. For university students, access to sub-par technology is just not acceptable or feasible. At a minimum, we students need machines that work 24/7, and that are fast and reliable, so that we can focus on our studies and not on issues with technology. When issues with technology arise mid semester it can wreak complete havoc over your academic life. With any degree program, a usable computer is a necessity. I have used many machines during college that have negatively impacted my performance. Some to the point that I actually just wanted to quit school all together since I didn’t have the technology necessary to complete my assignments. The frustration and stress is often unbearable. Borrowing my friends Acer netbook for a week, as opposed to sitting at my i7 desktop with dual monitors that I now own, entails very different experiences for me. On my desktop I can get my homework done so quickly, efficiently, and without any annoying technology issues. But on a slow netbook, I will spend 5 hours doing what I could have completed in 1 hour on my desktop. Even the simple ability to have a textbook open on one screen, and document processor on the other instead of constantly switching back and forth between windows, makes a world of difference in my experience with technology and my education. There is obviously a large spectrum between which devices that yield unusable experiences, and ones that yield great experiences. Students with low financial resources, are limited to low-performance unusable devices. This SEVERELY impacts their education, and educators should be very worried about this. It is not fair that I am at such a huge academic advantage over other students because I simply received more financial aid and could therefore purchase a higher quality machine. A computer is such a critical component of education, and I realized that more than ever when I was without a computer for a semester. Of course, one can always “go to campus” to use their computers. But what about students who have jobs during the day? What about students who do not own a vehicle and take the university buses to campus which stop running at 5PM? There is an infinite number of barriers that make “using campus computers” a ‘cop-out’ and completely illegitimate excuse for a student’s inaccessibility to technology, or to usable technology. Students who own devices, unusable or usable, already have a huge advantage over those who are forced to use machines on campus.

I think that all students have experienced this issue to some extent. I think the population that experiences this issue more often are:

  • Traditional students with limited financial resources
  • Students enrolled in technology related courses
  • Students enrolled in online classes
  • Students enrolled in online degree programs
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