The New Digital Divide: Skills, Literacy, and the Creative Process

by Ava L. Parker on December 21, 2011

Access to the Internet through a broadband connection remains an issue in America, as studies have shown. But now the digital divide is being reinterpreted as less about getting to the Web and more about how we use it.

With the expansion of wireless broadband and the quick adoption of smartphones and other wireless devices by minority Americans as their primary points of access to the Web, the key questions about digital equality are changing.

In an interview with Tony Cox of National Public Radio’s “Tell Me More,” sociologist  S. Craig Watkins of the University of Texas said the embrace of wireless technology by black Americans was unexpected. “Fifteen years ago, the idea that African-Americans would be kind of on the front, on the cutting edge, of a platform or a technology like Twitter would’ve been inconceivable,” he said.

Today, he said, “Latinos and African-Americans are just as likely to be on Facebook, just as likely to be using mobile devices, just as likely to be using Twitter.”

The big question — who is participating?

That does not mean the digital divide is closed, Watkins cautioned. “Now I think the question isn’t so much about access, getting to the technology,” Watkins said, “but about participation.”

Watkins may be too quick to dismiss the issue of access — it remains a significant problem.  A recent study shows that broadband access at home is common for households with incomes of $100,000 a year or more, but it is uncommon for families making $25,000 or less. For poorer families, the lack of access is real.

We also need to keep in mind that while wireless broadband does put the Internet into many more hands, it does so in a diminished way. Even the best smartphones have limited capabilities compared to a laptop. Reaching friends and family via text messaging and Twitter is a good social practice, but diddling with a phone doesn’t make someone a fully empowered digital citizen. Access with a fully capable computer remains important — as is the ability to put that computer to work.

Watkins termed such ability “media literacy,” that is, having the knowledge to do more with a computer and Web access than just communicate.

“There is a community of young people who use technology not only to consume content but also to create content, to produce content, to become kind of manufacturers and producers of their own kind of information landscape,” Watkins said.

That’s the new digital divide, Watkins said — digital knowledge, digital skills and digital literacy.

One Economy’s Digital Connectors

“What we don’t quite know is to what degree are those literacies distributed evenly across race and ethnicity and across class,” he told Cox of “Tell Me More.”

That would make for interesting research, looking at young users and how they are taking advantage of their broadband access. One of the forward-looking aspects of One Economy’s work to expand broadband access is its program to engage and empower young people, Digital Connectors.

Digital Connectors identifies talented young Americans, immerses them in technology training and helps them build their leadership and workplace skills to enter the 21st century economy.

There are Digital Connectors programs in major cities nationwide, giving thousands of young people the training, the peer-to-peer exchange of ideas and the hands-on opportunities that can launch their futures in the digital economy.

Watkins, in his radio interview, described how digital literacy is being promulgated. “It seems to me that the richest and most promising attempts to do this are really kind of happening in the informal learning spaces,” he said. “So they’re happening in after-school programs, they’re happening in the summer camps, summer workshops, which is interesting and raises a whole other set of questions about why schools aren’t able to provide these kinds of opportunities.”

Watkins’ description is a close fit for Digital Connectors, and his research and analysis explains why this One Economy program is needed — to ensure the old digital divide is not replaced by a new one of skills and literacy.

  • Ava L. Parker of Jacksonville, Florida, is the president of Linking Solutions Inc., a business-development and community-outreach firm, and a partner in the law firm of Lawrence & Parker, PA., and the voice of The AvaView, a blog on digital action and consumer protection.

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  • Anonymous

    Ms. Parker’s piece highlights the fork in the road consumers of digital technology now face.  Do we continue with a mindset focused primarily on consuming communications and entertainment, or do we start turning our mobile information access terminals into productive capital and use this capital to create another source of equity; equity that allows us to weather the next financial or economic crisis.

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