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Thursday, December 07, 2017

Higher Education, Digital Divides, and a Balkanized Internet | EDUCAUSE Review

New and old digital divides are Balkanizing the Internet, threatening to split apart not only students but also communities. This constitutes one of the most important issues confronting the U.S. higher education technology community.

Photo: Bryan Alexander
"Most of today's educational technology depends on users having Internet access" says Bryan Alexander, futurist, researcher, writer, speaker, consultant, and teacher.

Students, staff, and faculty must be online in order to participate in learning management systems, digital tests, student information systems, licensed databases, and the entire web. They not only must be reliably online but also need to do so through high-speed connectivity. The digitally networked world is increasingly predicated on users having broadband access. 

Unfortunately, Internet access has remained deeply uneven and unequally distributed in the United States.1 This has serious implications for higher education. Inequitable digital connections can warp access to learning, which in turn can help drive and escalate social inequality. Indeed, the "new" digital divides — which create a Balkanized Internet — may constitute one of the most important issues confronting the U.S. higher education technology community. 

A Short History of Digital Divides 
Uneven Internet access is not a new problem. It has been an issue since the invention of the Internet in the late 1960s. With the inception of the U.S. Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) in 1969, the number of computers, modems, connections, and nodes grew slowly through the 1970s and 1980s. Owning or otherwise having access to a networked computer was by no means ubiquitous. Although the burgeoning networked ecosystem gradually, then more rapidly, increased opportunities for access, those opportunities depended on who had access to the right combination of hardware, networking, and software. As connection speeds began to advance past dialup, they too were unevenly distributed, as per science fiction writer William Gibson's famously cited observation that the future is already here — it's just not evenly distributed yet.2

By the 1990s, the importance and size of the Internet and its new face, the World Wide Web, became popularly recognized, as did inequalities of access. Accordingly, the United States took steps to identify and mitigate what many were referring to as the digital divide by kicking off a generation of research, activism, policy development, and practice. Under the Clinton administration, federal and state government initiatives joined with nonprofits and businesses to expand Internet access across multiple fronts. The E-Rate program of 1996, for example, compelled telecommunications companies to divert resources in order to link public schools to the burgeoning Internet.

Efforts to address the digital divide continued in the first two decades of the 21st century, with the advent of programs such as One Laptop per Child and state-driven broadband initiatives. Meanwhile, Internet technology continued to change. Mobile phone access came belatedly to the United States after connecting much of the rest of the world, since America had both excellent landline phone service and more Internet-connected computers than most other nations. But once it came, the cell phone revolution offered an alternative to landlines, fiber, and cable boxes. Maximum Internet speeds grew, partly through competition between Internet service providers (ISPs) and also due to research and development, with Internet2 serving as an advanced outlier. Public libraries became community Internet anchors, as librarians not only provided computers, networks, and software but also offered the widest possible range of user training and support. More and more of education, work, and life migrated online, especially once social media took off in popularity and usage. Richer media that required more bandwidth became increasingly popular: animated images, sound files (music and podcasts), streaming video, videoconferencing and webinars, software updates and downloads, and gaming. And yet, broadband remained less than ubiquitous throughout the 21st century. By May 2013, to pick one data point, only 70 percent of households had high-speed broadband3 — and "high-speed" was defined at a lower speed than what we expect now, in 2017.

The Current Digital Divides 
Where does the Internet access gap stand now, at the end of 2017? We can look back on these historical transformations and see that Internet access inequalities have altered in some ways while persisting in others. The concept continues to deeply determine our Internet experience, dividing it into uneven strata of user access and capacity.4
Most of the forces that drive uneven Internet access have been at work for decades. To begin with, wealth and education often positively correlate with higher broadband use, as the more affluent and/or educated a family is, the more likely it is to have broadband at home and work. This makes intuitive sense when we think of the costs of laptop and desktop computers and of the greater budgets of schools in wealthier districts. Poorer students have less access to computer science offerings, from classes to afterschool clubs. In addition, higher levels of educational attainment increase one's likelihood of learning digital skills, as well as one's chance of working in a field heavily dependent on the networked world.5

Wealth can drive familiarity with computation even more strongly than generational differences, as media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan argued nearly ten years ago. Living in a poor or working-class economic stratum can lead to reduced access in a variety of ways, from inferior equipment to filtering. Poverty can remove urban residents from the relatively plentiful broadband networks that cities host. And ISPs may already be discriminating in speed offerings based on poverty, according to recent complaints to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).6

Racial inequalities also shape access. Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans continue to lag whites and Asian-Americans in home broadband speeds and access. At least partially in compensation, the former are more likely to use cell phones for connectivity. This may constitute a digital version of the 20th-century real estate practice of redlining: restricting certain populations from access to desired locations. Race is also tied in to the earlier mentioned economic issues, as blacks and Latinos generally have lower incomes and lower savings than do whites.7 As D. Amari Jackson has observed:
The good news? Your daughter's school has been designated an "Apple Distinguished School" and, as such, she and all of her peers will receive brand new iPads for their individual usage.
The bad news? Once your daughter leaves school, she can't use it — at least not at home. For you live in a lower-income neighborhood without access to Internet or a fast-enough connection to take advantage of her shiny new toy.8
Though wealth is likely a stronger factor, age is another correlate with Internet access: the older an American is, the less likely he/she is to have a speedy connection and the more likely he/she is to use the Internet for less time.  

Recommended Reading

Provosts, Pedagogy, and Digital Learning by Kenneth C. (Casey) Green, Director of The Campus Computing Project, Director of the ACAO Digital Fellows Program, and the moderator of TO A DEGREE, the postsecondary success podcast of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Charles Cook, Executive Vice President and CAO at Austin Community College (ACC), Laura Niesen de Abruna, PI on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant that created the ACAO Digital Fellows Program, is Provost and CAO at York College of Pennsylvania and Patricia L. Rogers, Executive Vice President and CAO at Winona State University.

"Panel members from an EDUCAUSE 2017 Annual Conference session offer insights about the role of provosts and chief academic officers in digital courseware deployment and the challenges of using technology to advance teaching, learning, and student success."

Source: EDUCAUSE Review