Digital Divide? Inequality Issue Runs Much Deeper, Says Researcher

By Tom McLaughlin

As school districts throughout the country gear up for another round of online learning, parents, educators, and policymakers are forced once again to contend with the widening “digital divide” – the lack of consistent or reliable access to online-learning devices and the internet for all students.

In New Jersey, the state Department of Education estimates that 230,000 pre-K to grade 12 students lack sufficient online learning tools, prompting Gov. Phil Murphy to unveil a plan in July to bridge this gap.

This dire issue, explains one Rutgers University–Camden researcher, is a much deeper societal problem than having a dependable computer and internet connection – and must be addressed accordingly.

“When we hear the term ‘digital divide,’ we might think of a divide in access to technology between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’” says Jim Brown, an associate professor of English and director of the Digital Studies Center at Rutgers–Camden. “For a long time, we have tried to address this issue by getting computers into classrooms, but this isn’t the best way to think about this problem; access to tools looks very different for different individuals.”

Brown notes that some students who do have access might have slower or less reliable internet connections, and/or might have older computers in need of an upgrade or repair. Moreover, having access to the tool doesn’t mean the same level of access to a support network for learning how to use that tool.

“Does someone’s family or friend group have the time and resources to help that person learn how to use the tool?” he asks. “The divide here is really less about digital technology and more about the larger, systemic divides in our society. The income and wealth gaps are the real divide we need to address if we want to think about the digital divide.”

Jim Brown

The pandemic, he says, has shed light on the insidious fact that digital access is not evenly distributed and that publicly available systems – for instance, Wi-Fi at libraries and universities – are resources that many people rely on.

“When students move to remote learning, those systems become difficult or impossible to access, meaning that many students either have to find workarounds or simply have no way of doing their work,” he says.

Even more alarming, he says, many parents whose children lack sufficient online-learning tools are now faced with the choice of whether to send their kids to in-person classes despite the inherent risks.

“It is yet one more situation where the systemic inequalities are forcing those with fewer resources into more dangerous situations,” says Brown, who adds that teachers, whom we rely on to “make do,” are also forced into more precarious working conditions.

The Rutgers University–Camden researcher acknowledges that school districts are in an impossible predicament, given small or shrinking budgets. He posits that the problem of the digital divide is one to be taken up not just at the school-district level, but at the municipal, state, and federal levels.

“There are just not enough resources available to schools to actually address this problem,” he says. “In the meantime, districts will have to make no assumptions about what their students do or don’t have access to. They will then have to work from the idea that everyone’s access is bare-bones and build their curriculum from there.”

Brown further notes how the entire educational infrastructure is built on the idea that students can visit a physical space to learn and gain access to resources. However, many schools can’t even typically rely on that, given that school funding is tied to property taxes.

“The best thing that parents can do is advocate for their kids while schools plan for remote learning, reminding districts of issues that they may not be thinking of,” he says.

One glaring problem, he continues, is that certain places and regions around the country do not have stable internet access. Consequently, he argues, internet access should be treated as a public utility, funded in the same way and regulated as such.

“This means figuring out a way to make sure that everyone, no matter where they live, has high-speed internet access,” says the Rutgers–Camden scholar. “This is no longer a ‘luxury’ good; it’s the same as having access to power and water.”

But don’t quit there, says Brown. Policymakers need to rethink public education from the ground up, he says. That means not tying school funding to property taxes, but also undoing the decades-long defunding of public education – in K-12, as well as at higher-education institutions – that has exacerbated inequalities, digital and otherwise.

“If we want to address the inequalities that define our digital lives,” says Brown, “we have to address the deeper, systemic problems that continue to widen the gap between those who can assume systems will be available, accessible, and working for them, and those who cannot.”

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