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School & District Management Opinion

From Digital Divide to Innovation Divide?

By Beth Holland — September 22, 2018 6 min read

I spent the last week immersed in research about the Digital Divide. The 1996 National Education Technology Plan (NETP) first mentioned its existence in K-12 education. Though the Universal Service Program for Schools and Libraries Program (aka. E-Rate) and the National Digital Empowerment Act increased computer and Internet access in schools throughout the 1990s, by the turn of the 21st century, policymakers, corporations, and philanthropists began to acknowledge the emergence of a “technology gap between the ‘information haves’ and the ‘information have nots’” (Atwell, 2001, p. 252) as more than just an issue of access. Instead, they began to recognize it as a threat to social capital and a catalyst for inequity (Atwell, 2000).

The Access Gap

Despite early efforts, the Digital Divide has persisted. Though more schools now have 1:1 device programs and improved Internet access within their buildings, a phenomenon known as the “homework gap” has emerged to describe the lack of access at home. A national study from the ACT Center for Equity in Learning found that 85% of the students who had access to only one device in their household could be described as underserved (e.g. household income under $35,000, first generation in college, or of a minority race/ethnicity). Furthermore, 56% of single-device households reported having access to only a smartphone. This presents significant challenges to students who may be required to complete digital assignments, particularly since 18% of these single-device households also indicated that they had unpredictable or terrible Internet access.

However, the Digital Divide spans multiple demographics. Recent data from the Pew Research Center revealed significant discrepancies based on geography. Approximately 58% of residents in rural areas in the U.S. reported Internet access as a major or minor problem as compared to 43% of urban and 36% of suburban residents. More surprising, only 78% of rural residents report using the Internet as compared to 90% of suburban and 92% of urban dwellers. Framed the other way, 22% of rural residents do NOT use the Internet at all. According to a 2018 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, 80% of 8th graders claimed to need the Internet to complete homework, yet only 61% of households with K-12 students reported having access. When examined in conjunction with the ACT and Pew studies, it can be inferred that these numbers shift dramatically based on geography and household income.

The Usage Gap

Beyond defining the Digital Divide based on access, the 2016 National Education Technology Plan also defined it as an issue of usage. The NETP advocates that students should have opportunities to actively use technology rather than just passively consume digital content.

Much like with digital access, discrepancies in usage have historically correlated to socioeconomic status. Warschauer (2004) as well as Hohlfeld, Ritzhaupt, Barron, and Kemker (2008) analyzed usage discrepancies across districts in California and Florida. Though both sets of researchers found little disparity between the number of computers and Internet connections across the schools, they uncovered significant differences in the available software, the level of support for teachers, and the activities that students completed.

A later study by Hohlfeld, Ritzhaupt, Dawson, and Wilson (2017) found that though students had more equitable access to modern devices -- a phenomenon attributed to the rise of online standardized testing -- students in high SES schools continued to have more opportunities to use technology for student creation, research, and problem-solving. Conversely, students in low SES schools tended to use technology more for drill and practice or remediation (Hohlfeld et al., 2017).

The Literacy Gap

Beyond access and usage, the Digital Divide has also resulted in a gap in literacy. A 2016 report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center found that in families where parents have a college degree - and thus a higher income level - students received help with computers and technology. However, in lower income households where parents have less formal education, the opposite tends to occur. Though some children may be more technically proficient than their parents, they may not be as knowledgeable when it comes to understanding the connotations associated with technology.

A 2018 Digital Equity report from the Consortium of School Networking (CoSN) raised further concerns about the correlation between low access and low digital literacy. When students and parents cannot access devices at home, or have low access through only a smartphone or single device, then students may not develop basic digital literacy skills prior to entering school. However, a comprehensive study conducted by the Stanford History Education Group found that students at the middle, high school, and college level lacked critical media and civic literacy skills regardless of demographics. Researchers administered tests to 7,804 students in 12 states and across a number of settings. They found that despite students comfort with technology, they predominantly lacked the capacity to distinguish between sponsored and journalistic content, evaluate the credibility and veracity of information, or evaluate bias in social media.

Finally, during a session at the SXSWedu conference last spring, media literacy expert, Dr. Renee Hobbs, introduced me to the concept of algorithmic literacy. As artificial intelligence becomes more ubiquitous and complex, will students comprehend the role and bias inherent within the algorithms that drive new tools? If a 2018 ethnographic study conducted by Dr. Francesca Tripodi at Data & Society is any indication, then many individuals do not understand that search engines such as Google do not provide non-neutral information. Its algorithms may create or reinforce bias and misinformation.

Averting an Innovation Divide

The Digital Divide impacts not only education but also the potential for individuals’ economic success. Economists and entrepreneurs such as Salim Ismail predict exponential organizational innovation in the near future as technology and access grow so cheap that they theoretically become ubiquitous. And yet, as I wrote recently, there is danger in applying a single lens.

Unlike digital technologies, humans do not develop at an exponential rate. Given the current usage and literacy gaps, will increased access and rapid technological advancement only lead to greater inequality? While the world waits for cheaper technology and omnipresent access, how might we increase human capacity to take advantage of these new innovations? This is where I believe that education comes into play. Because, as John Dewey predicted in 1916, as technological advances add increasing complexity into society, the purpose of education is not to prepare students for learning in school but for learning in life.


Atwell, P. (2001). The first and second digital divide. Sociology of Education, 74, 252-259.

Hohlfeld, T. N., Ritzhaupt, A. D., Barron, A. E., & Kemker, K. (2008). Examining the digital divide in K-12 public schools: Four-year trends for supporting ICT literacy in Florida. Computers & Education, 51(4), 1648-1663.

Hohlfeld, T. N., Ritzhaupt, A. D., Dawson, K., & Wilson, M. L. (2017). An examination of seven years of technology integration in Florida schools: Through the lens of the Levels of Digital Divide in Schools. Computers & Education, 113, 135-161.

Warschauer, M. (2004). Technology and equity in schooling: Deconstructing the digital divide. Educational Policy, 18(4), 562-588.

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