In the U.S., the digital divide in U.S. education has been well documented, and the current pandemic has provided a strong spotlight on the issue. In September 0f 2020, the Pew research center noted that 59% of U.S. parents with lower incomes say their child may face digital obstacles in schoolwork. A recent Common Sense Media analysis showed that ~30% of all public school students lack adequate internet or devices to sustain effective distance learning at home. Districts around the country are working hard to provide solutions ranging from hotspots, parking wi-fi enabled school busses after hours in neighborhoods, and low cost internet plans. Even with all of these efforts, however, many of our students are underconnected and lack enough connectivity to participate in meaningfully in online education.
Given these challenges, it is interesting how this dynamic has been named. The term “digital divide” was a term first coined by Lloyd N. Morrissett Jr. in 2001. Morissett Jr. one of the founders of the Sesame Workshop (the group that created Sesame Street) was using the term mainly to showcase those who lack access to the internet. In 2020, however, the term is also used to discuss the idea of underconnectivity. For students, this might mean limited data or access to the internet only by a phone. When it takes 30 minutes for a student to download a 3 minute video due to sluggish download speeds or when a student gets cut off of their zoom call due to data limits, learning comes to a screeching halt.
Recently, a new term to discuss the digital divide has been appearing — especially outside of the U.S.. The term “digital poverty” is getting increased use, and perhaps this does a better job of describing the pandemic connectivity problems of 2020. Poverty provides a stronger descriptor of what is actually occurring in our schools. It is a deficiency of resources that is creating significant opportunity gaps for our students, although some connectivity is allowing students to nominally participate. In essence, this nominal participation can mask the problem of opportunity to a rich and engaging education. Students still might be able to participate, but the level of participation is just enough to get by. Their learning suffers in comparison to peers who are fully connected, and this hampers engagement and success. While the term “digital divide” is accurate, the term “digital poverty” helps create a much needed sense of urgency around this issue.
Regina Schaffer, an Instructional Technology Specialist in Middletown, New Jersey, and an ISTE Digital Equity PLN Leader, recently noticed this term’s use in a webinar. The speaker, an educator from the United Kingdom, used the term to describe where we (society) are, in terms of the “gaps” that we have been trying to address to ensure equitable educational experiences for all students. The recent pandemic has exacerbated gaps in literacy, homework and digital opportunities. The common denominator among them all is poverty. While the word “divide” describes a “separation into parts” or a “separation of people”, the term “poverty” does a much better job in describing learning conditions as they really are: a punishing deficiency of resources. In some usages, divide simply communicates a difference between two different groups with no imperative to act, and this doesn’t accurately describe what is going on. When we speak of students and families who are financially challenged, we often quantify numbers by measuring those families who are “living below the poverty line” instead of “living below the wealth divide line”. When it comes to learning, then, the term “digital poverty” communicates a more accurate description of a condition that is being exacerbated by distance learning, or perhaps the lack of distance learning.
The narrative of public education and how students are accessing opportunities has changed quickly due to the COVID 19 pandemic. A year ago, home connectivity for all students was in the “nice to pursue” category. If students had limited connectivity, at least educators could work directly with them when they appeared in their physical classrooms. For most of our students now, however, in person instruction is either limited or non-existent. As underconnected students and families try to access education in these difficult times, the term “digital divide” just doesn’t describe the reality as well as it used to. While more families are getting connected, this connectivity isn’t always sufficient. Acknowledging the concept of “digital poverty” lends a greater sense of urgency, and we can amplify this urgency by substituting “digital poverty for “digital divide” in our dialogue. It will take billions of dollars to change this dynamic and a diverse group of organizations are calling on Congress to act. In addition to supporting these calls, we can begin to raise more awareness by the language that we use.