Special Report

Closing the Digital Divide

By Andrew Trotter — May 10, 2001 12 min read
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It is a heady feeling to be involved in a political or social cause at the moment it sweeps the nation. And Mark Diaz knows the feeling.

Diaz is one of the directors of Street-Level Youth Media, which gives Chicago teenagers opportunities to use video and Internet technology to create art projects after school. The 5-year-old project gained the national spotlight last spring, when President Clinton visited it on his New Markets Tour. “As soon as [the visit] hit the news, we got phone calls coming in and congratulating us,” Diaz says.

Other projects that give access to information technology to people who can’t afford it, or technology skills to those who lack them, have gleamed in the media spotlight over the past 18 months, as the movement to bridge America’s “digital divide” climbed to the top of the public agenda. Youth workers and technology advocates who spent the past half-decade running storefront computer centers, installing computers at libraries, and opening up school computer labs early and keeping them open late have been gratified at the attention, which they say is overdue.

“It put us in the place we should be,” declares Diaz.

The Clinton administration deserves credit for putting the digital divide in the spotlight, says Andy Carvin, the digital-divide guru of the Benton Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that has served as a clearinghouse on digital-divide issues. Clinton’s tour during the last months of his presidency was important, he says, but so was the Digital Divide Summit held in Washington in December 1999 by then-U.S. Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley. It brought together influential corporations and foundations that had been working separately on the issue, Carvin says.

That coalescing of different groups arose just as the World Wide Web, e- mail, and online learning came of age. Together, such groups began to highlight the wide disparities in access to all those new technologies. And Clinton and Vice President Al Gore championed new federal efforts to address the problem, through grants and technical assistance for technology purchases; after-school programs and community technology centers; donations of used government computers; and the E-rate program, which offers discounts on telecommunications equipment and services to schools and libraries.

But now, many of these initiatives are up for review by the Bush administration, which has signaled that it may not make the digital divide as high a priority as the Clinton administration did. For example, the Bush administration’s fiscal 2002 budget will reportedly seek to slash the federal Technology Opportunities Program grants, which support community technology partnerships, from the $42.5 million budgeted in 2001 to $15 million.

Others question how an intense focus on the digital divide might shortchange other priorities, especially ones that affect schools.

William L. Rukeyser, the executive director of the Woodland, Calif.-based group Learning in the Real World, says “one of the hazards of focusing on the digital divide is that it tends to overshadow other divides. In my experience, kids living in poverty tend to have less of everything that money can buy.”

Some researchers, too, have voiced skepticism about the seriousness of the divide, suggesting the problem has been exaggerated and that it’s unnecessary for the federal government to play such a prominent role in fixing it. “Clearly, the vibrant PC market is doing more than an adequate job of providing computing technologies to all Americans,” wrote Adam D. Thierer, an economist at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, in a paper published in April 2000. “Free computers and inexpensive computing technologies are filling any digital divide that remains.”

20,000 Services

As it is, more than 20,000 digital-divide-related services are listed in a new, online national directory offered by the Benton Foundation at www. digitaldividenetwork.org.

The sites, many of which offer free Internet access and information- technology training, include public libraries, community technology centers, “Powerup” sites, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “Neighborhood Network Sites,” U.S. Department of Commerce “ Technology Opportunities Program” grantees, and Urban League centers, according to the foundation. (The site offers an online search tool that will provide a map of centers nearest to any U.S. postal zip code.)

Among the groups on the list are some established youth-service organizations that have modified their missions to include the digital divide. The Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the Girl Scouts of America, and the National Urban League all have digital-divide projects, in partnership with other groups. Last December, for example, the Microsoft Corp. contributed $100 million to help put technology centers into every Boys & Girls Club in the United States.

The nation’s best resources for spanning the digital divide, except for its public schools, are its public libraries. Ninety-five percent of the 16,090 public libraries and branches across the country now offer Internet access to the public, up from 76 percent in 1998, according to the American Library Association. Libraries have been able to do so because of the E-rate program and the more than $2 billion in equipment and software donated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, says the ala’s president, Nancy Kranich, who calls both sources instrumental in equipping libraries for the demands of the information age. Libraries are especially effective access points, she adds, because librarians can help users choose from “a vast sea of unwashed resources out there.”

“Seventy percent of health information on the Net is erroneous or outdated ,” Kranich cautions, as one example of the need for careful use of the Internet’s trove of facts and fallacies.

Almost half of public libraries are now providing technology training to the public in how to use a computer and to critique information, she says. Libraries have also invested in purchasing licenses for electronic materials, including costly information services such as Lexis/Nexis.

Reaching for Deeper Solutions

The nation’s response to the digital divide—while impressively broad—has not reached deeply into the problem, says the Benton Foundation’s Carvin. “ There’s been tremendous improvement over the past few years in digital- divide investments, but there’s still a long way to go,” he says.

Richard Cutler, a senior research associate at the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, adds that it’s a false impression that digital-divide programs have sprung up everywhere. The Claremont, Calif.-based institute, which specializes in studying Latino issues, has conducted a multiyear study of digital-divide projects that involved field visits and data analysis of 30 of the best ones. The findings of the Digital Steppingstones Project are scheduled to be released this spring. Cutler says that in many poor communities, access to technology is available to the public at one place— often the school or the public library—but that’s it.

Each venue has its limitations, such as its hours of operation and availability of trained staff members. Some are for children only, while others are open to anyone. A local community technology center might emphasize a particular use or application of technology—the arts, for example—that some youngsters might simply not be interested in. “Out of 900 kids in a neighborhood, you get only 30 to 60 kids [participating],” Cutler says. “It’s not something that sweeps the neighborhood.”

By contrast, upscale communities have many layers of access, he points out, from schools to libraries to many other organizations with various styles, themes, and hours of operation—plus the ubiquitous home computer.

The problem of having limited layers of access is all the more acute because many of the organizations that provide access are small and somewhat fragile. “The problem areas are sustainability, scalability, and continuity in staffing,” Carvin says.

Youth-service organizations often rely on part-time or volunteer staffs, and the salaries they pay are low—all of which means high staff turnover, especially as staff members pick up marketable technology skills they can use elsewhere.

Or they burn out: One free Internet service for low-income people in Charlotte, N.C., for example, folded after the charismatic community activist who had organized it became frustrated and left.

Beyond that, funding sources are often unstable. “The culture of many nonprofits of living from one grant to another makes life very, very difficult,” Carvin says. “If you can’t have guaranteed income coming in, you’ve got to spend a lot of time figuring out where the next grant check is coming from.”

And having several small organizations means fragmentation of services, unless they are skilled at working together.

Indeed, working together is seen as the key, but cooperation doesn’t come naturally. “There’s not a lot of effort to look at how [different groups] can be brought together,” says Terry Grunwald, a technology consultant in North Carolina who has helped community networks and technology centers.

School districts are in a good position to be catalysts, because they often have a comparatively easier time securing grants—federal money for after-school centers, for example. Unfortunately, school officials often don’t think they can afford to share. “There’s just such a lack of resources that they don’t think about moving beyond the institutional walls of schools to approaches that will increase the pie for everyone,” Grunwald says.

And rarely is much funding available to promote cooperation.

Forming a broad “digital-opportunities coalition” in a single community is one effective approach, Grunwald suggests. She argues that such collaboration would be more common if more funders would require or encourage collaboration or local matching funds, as the federal Technology Opportunities Program does.

The Best Solutions

Researchers from the Tomás Rivera Institute found much that impressed them at the 30 digital-divide projects that they visited; 25 of those projects will be described as “exemplary” in a forthcoming report, which will also distill lessons for other projects.

Generally, the exemplary projects focus on providing supplementary computer access and tutoring for young people who are about to enter junior high school, says Cutler. He adds that those students “supposedly get access [to technology] at school, but in reality they don’t get very much.”

The 25 projects share three characteristics that make them effective and sustainable, Cutler says. First, they have found reliable funding, usually by having a mix of public and private money, and even generating revenue themselves. Some projects, for example, use desktop-publishing equipment to print brochures or decorate T-shirts, or use Web design tools to earn money building Web sites for public agencies.

Second, the successful projects provide adequate staff training—both for the staff members who work directly with students and those who manage the program and represent it to the public.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the projects have a unified vision shared by all the participating groups, and that vision is focused on children. “Where there is not a unity of vision, what happens is you have different people thinking they’re working toward the mission, but they’re working on different things,” Cutler says.

Yet few partnerships are without tensions and conflicts, and community- service organizations and community advocates often view with healthy skepticism the arrival of corporations or national foundations with fat wallets and standardized plans. “Corporations are pursing the McDonaldization of community networking, but it makes it hard because they’re promoting particular products,” says Grunwald. Almost without exception, corporate efforts to bridge the digital divide involve moving products, even if for free. As some technology marketers admit, give-aways benefit the corporation by establishing brand names and technological preferences, preparing the ground for future sales.

For example, Sun Microsystems Inc., which has generously supported digital- divide programs such as the “NetDay” movement to wire schools, presents its so-called network computing as a digital-divide solution.

Just providing personal computers won’t eliminate the digital divide, says Kim Jones, Sun’s vice president for education markets, referring to the competing approach of running software over increasingly powerful desktop machines. “Those computers have to be replaced all the time,” Jones argues , “and we can’t really get enough computers for one go-round.”

In Sun’s solution, the latest software and a wealth of educational content are stored on centralized computers and distributed to users over a powerful network; users in schools, community centers, and homes can fully use those resources by using older, less powerful computers that are attached to the network.

Some of Sun’s competitors, however, argue that people still need the reliability and power of personal computers.

Lifting People Up

National projects that are backed by corporations do recognize that alliances with local community organizations are essential, because those groups know how to “segment the stuff for a lot of [local] populations” and market it to them with the benefit of inside knowledge, says Grunwald.

But without some elements of a fast-food franchise, some experts say, good ideas will remain isolated success stories. “It’s only through partnerships that ‘scalable’ success can happen,” says Rae Grad, the chief executive officer of Powerup, a nonprofit national network, based in Reston, Va., that distributes resources to selected local programs. Powerup’s three-stage formula for partnerships starts with large corporate partners, which provide the financial muscle. Local nonprofit partners are the second level, because they provide the adults who actually work with the children and other people who need access to technology. The third level is local, state, and federal government agencies that have the political clout to make things happen.

Looking ahead, Carvin says that the problem of the digital divide “may never be solved. At the point where you get low-cost Internet access, there’s a new technology that comes along that re-creates the divide, such as broadband or wireless technology.”

“The challenge,” he points out, “isn’t to literally bridge the divide, but to ensure there are opportunities for people to lift themselves up.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as Closing the Digital Divide


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