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11.3: The Digital Divide

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    The Digital Divide

    As the Internet continues to make inroads across the world, it also creates a separation between those who have access to this global network and those who do not. This separation is called the “digital divide” and is of great concern. Kilburn (2005) summarizes this concern in his article Crossroads:

    Adopted by the ACM Council in 1992, the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct focuses on issues involving the Digital Divide that could prevent certain categories of people - those from low-income households, senior citizens, single-parent children, the undereducated, minorities, and residents of rural areas — from receiving adequate access to the wide variety of resources offered by computer technology. This Code of Ethics positions the use of computers as a fundamental ethical consideration: “In a fair society, all individuals would have equal opportunity to participate in, or benefit from, the use of computer resources regardless of race, sex, religion, age, disability, national origin, or other similar factors.” The article discusses the digital divide in various forms and analyzes reasons for the growing inequality in people’s access to Internet services. It also describes how society can bridge the digital divide: the serious social gap between information “haves” and “have-nots.”

    The digital divide is categorized into three stages: the economic divide, the usability divide, and the empowerment divide (Nielson, 2006)

    • The economic divide is usually called the digital divide: it means that some people can afford to have a computer and Internet access while others cannot. Because of Moore’s Law (see chapter 2), the price of hardware has continued to drop, and, at this point, we can now access digital technologies, such as smartphones, for very little. This fact, Nielsen asserts, means that the economic divide is a moot point for all intents and purposes, and we should not focus our resources on solving it.
    • The usability divide is concerned with the fact that “technology remains so complicated that many people couldn’t use a computer even if they got one for free.” And even for those who can use a computer, accessing all the benefits of having one is beyond their understanding. Included in this group are those with low literacy and seniors. According to Nielsen, we know how to help these users, but we are not doing it because there is little profit.
    • The empowerment divide is the most difficult to solve. It is concerned with how we use technology to empower ourselves. Very few users truly understand the power that digital technologies can give them. In his article, Nielsen explains that his (and others’) research has shown that very few users contribute content to the Internet, use the advanced search, or even distinguish paid search ads from organic search results. Many people will limit what they can do online by accepting the basic, default settings of their computer and not understanding how they can truly be empowered.

    Understanding the digital divide using these three stages provides an approach to developing solutions and monitoring our progress in bridging the digital divide gap.

    The digital divide can occur between countries, regions, or even neighborhoods. There are pockets with little or no Internet access in many US cities, while just a few miles away, high-speed broadband is common. For example, in 2020, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC ) reports that “In urban areas, 97% of Americans have access to high-speed fixed service. In rural areas, that number falls to 65%. And on Tribal lands, barely 60% have access. All told, nearly 30 million Americans cannot reap the benefits of the digital age.” Overall, reported that as of August 2020, only ~85% of the US population has internet access.

    The global pandemic (Covid-19) has made Internet access an essential requirement due to the social distance or lockdown mandates and has spotlighted this issue globally.

    Challenges and efforts to bridge the Digital Divide gap

    Solutions to the digital divide have had mixed success over the years. Initial effort focused on providing internet access and/or computing devices with some degrees of success. However, just providing Internet access and/or computing devices is not enough to bring true Internet access to a country, region, or neighborhood.

    The Worldbank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), in their annual meeting in 2020, brought together global leaders and private innovators to discuss how to bridge the digital gap globally. Three challenges were identified:

    1. Lack of infrastructure remains a major barrier to connectivity
    2. Greater collaboration is needed between the public and private sectors
    3. Education and training to help connect people in underserved communities

    In June 2020, the UN Secretary-General stated that Digital Divide is now ‘a Matter of Life and Death’ amid the COVID-19 Crisis and called on global leaders for global cooperation to meet the goal: every person has safe and affordable access to the Internet by 2030.

    With this challenge being made acute due to the global pandemic of 2020 (Covid-19), many leaders have increased their investment to bridge this gap in their countries. For example, the IMF reported that countries like Kenya, Ghana, Rwanda, and Tanzania had made great progress in using mobile to connect their citizens to financial systems (IMF, 2020). Many states in the United States have increased their funding through public or private partnerships, such as the California Closing the Divide initiative (CA dept of education, 2020).

    Continued global investment to bridge this gap remains a critical need for the global world, both during and post-global pandemic.

    Sidebar: Using Gaming to Bridge the Digital Divide

    Paul Kim, the Assistant Dean and Chief Technology Officer of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, designed a project to address the digital divide for children in developing countries (Kim et al., 2011.) In their project, the researchers wanted to understand if children can adopt and teach themselves mobile learning technology without help from teachers or other adults and the processes and factors involved in this phenomenon. The researchers developed a mobile device called TeacherMate, which contained a game designed to help children learn math. The unique part of this research was that the researchers interacted directly with the children; they did not channel the mobile devices through the teachers or the schools. Another important factor to consider: to understand the context of the children’s educational environment, the researchers began the project by working with parents and local nonprofits six months before their visit. While the results of this research are too detailed to go into here, it can be said that the researchers found that children can, indeed, adopt and teach themselves mobile learning technologies.

    What makes this research so interesting when thinking about the digital divide is that the researchers found that, to be effective, they had to customize their technology and tailor their implementation to the specific group they were trying to reach. One of their conclusions stated the following:

    Considering the rapid advancement of technology today, mobile learning options for future projects will only increase. Consequently, researchers must continue to investigate their impact; we believe there is a specific need for more in-depth studies on ICT [information and communication technology] design variations to meet different localities' challenges. To read more about Dr. Kim’s project, locate the paper referenced in the list of references.


    ACM (2020). ACM Code of Ethics and Professional conduct. Retrieved December 5, 2020, from

    Digital Divide ‘a Matter of Life and Death’ amid COVID-19 Crisis, Secretary‑General Warns Virtual Meeting, Stressing Universal Connectivity Key for Health, Development. Retrieved November 1, 2020, from

    Kiburn, Kim (2005). Challenges in HCI: Digital divide. Crossroads 12, 2 (December 2005), 2-2. DOI=10.1145/1144375.1144377

    Kim, P., Buckner, E., Makany, T., & Kim, H. (2011). A comparative analysis of a game-based mobile learning model in low- socioeconomic communities of India. International Journal of Educational Development. doi:10.1016/j.ijedudev.2011.05.008.

    Nielsen, J (2006). Digital Divide: The 3 Stages. Retrieved Nov 1, 2020, from

    Statista. (2020). Internet usage in the United States. Retrieved December 5, 2020, from

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