The Second Digital Divide: Disparity in Online Skills Leaving Many Students Behind

kids-at-computersWhile digital learning can infuse an exciting variety of technological resources into the classroom, many students lack the basic understanding and skills to maximize the academic potential of today’s technology.

At a recent press briefing in Washington D.C. hosted by the American Library Association, experts came together to discuss ways to overcome what’s been dubbed a “second-level digital divide” in students’ abilities to use digital resources. While a stark digital divide already exists between the “haves and have-nots” when it comes to Internet access and technology ownership, the effort to narrow the gap has refocused on ensuring that those with access know how to properly use the technology.

“Educators expect students to have online access at home, and they also want to communicate with parents through those means,” says John Horrigan, a featured panelist and the author of a recent report, The Essentials of Connectivity.” “That means governments and schools need to make complimentary adjustments in digital readiness to help the population they serve use the tools that they’re pushing at them.”

According to Horrigan, the digital divide has declined by about 40% since 2009. It’s a testament to national efforts designed to improve connectivity across America that the number of adults without online access has fallen from 83 million in 2009 to 48 million in 2012. Still, greater access doesn’t necessarily correlate to mastery of the technology.

In a recent national study, Horrigan found that Americans’ digital readiness, or their ability to understand and confidently use the technology, was becoming a more pressing issue than the digital divide. The study found that 29% of Americans had low levels of ‘digital readiness,’ and that as many as 70 million Americans are not ‘digitally ready’ for online use.

“Nearly one-third of Americans are not ready to meet the twin challenges of trust and skills in a society in which digital applications are extended to more corners of our lives,” Horrigan said in his report.

So how does the second digital divide relate to public schools? Experts say that a move towards online scholastic research in schools is requiring students to use proper digital researching skills with greater frequency. Unfortunately, many students may lack the skills required to adequately utilize digital tools in their learning. And this lack of digital readiness can manifest itself in poorer grades and decreased retention of knowledge.

“Let’s imagine what it’s like to be a student in today’s 21st-century learning environment,” said Barbara Stripling, president of the American Library Association and a featured presenter during the briefing. “You, like a large percentage of students, attend a school where teachers expect you to know how to find accurate information online and have the technology skills needed to navigate online collaborative platforms, such as GoogleDocs and Blackboard. Where would you go for help with computer-based homework assignments? And how do you produce quality homework if you do not know how to properly research information available on the Internet?”

Stripling says the best way to overcome this divide is for educators to incorporate technology into their curriculums so that students can learn from a young age how to harness the academic potential of digital resources.

“You have to start from the second that students are in the schools, and it needs to build grade-by-grade so you can develop the thoughtfulness and abilities needed to use these technologies and the resources all the way through,” she says. “You can’t just drop in and have it at one grade level.”

Unfortunately, some schools suffer from such a scarcity of financial resources that showcasing digital learning strategies in tandem with classroom teaching is nearly impossible. That’s where Stripling says public school libraries can play a key role.

More than just book depositories, school libraries can serve as tech-friendly zones where knowledgeable librarians can assist students with research and show them the proper methods for compiling sources. But school libraries have also not been spared from funding cuts, and many lack full-time librarians who can help students sharpen their digital learning abilities.

A 2013 report from the American Library Association found that even as the average number of computers in school libraries increased by 5% from 2011 to 2012, almost one-third of public schools lacked full-time, state-certified librarians. So even while technology use in schools may be on the rise, students still lack the necessary digital readiness needed to not only succeed in school, but be prepared for a society that’s rapidly becoming more digitally centered.

Richard Reyes-Gavilan, a featured speaker during the briefing and the executive director of the DC Public Library, says that the emphasis on using and understanding the latest technology often shortchanges those who can benefit the most from a mastery of digital skills. Without the proper guidance on how to use technology, those who lack access or understanding of technology now will continue to be left behind as the more digitally savvy Americans build upon their digital skills.

“If research on the digital skills divide has been around for years, why is there now a renewed focus?” Reyes-Gavilan said. “It’s back on our radar because of this problem I’d like to call digital exclusivity. The world has lost its patience with those who can’t navigate the online world. And because those folks who cannot navigate the online world are typically uneducated, poor, or otherwise vulnerable, this group is really easy to overlook.”