In the mid-1990s, when the public Internet was young, a large group of social activists realized the positive potential that access to the Web would afford any individual, group or community and they observed huge pockets of our national population who did not have access to all the goodness the Internet had to offer those who could afford expensive hardware, software and access. The term "Digital Divide" was coined to represent the wide chasm of opportunity between the "haves" and the "have-nots" in terms of access to the Internet. For a time, attention to the matter grew and there was a lot more attention in the media given to efforts by individuals and organizations to close that divide.
The unfortunate side of falling hardware prices and more widespread (but still less than ubiquitous) access is that the Digital Divide seems to be falling off our collective radar. Many think the Digital Divide no longer exists, but one need only take a deeper look at the lives and educational experiences of geographically and socioeconomically isolated pockets of our population to see that the divide is still there, still gaping and still in need of our attention and collective resources.
Some folks have not forgotten! In fact, a friend and colleague who works in Durham, North Carolina shared with me a story about a computer recycling organization called Kramden Institute in Durham, North Carolina. Organizations like Kramden Institute acknowledge that the Digital Divide still exists and they are still working diligently to close it. In mid-April, they partnered with technical volunteers from Fidelity Investments for a three-day computer recycling "Geek-a-thon" that placed over 100 computers with low-income youth trainees and refurbished over 250 computers for placement in low-income households. The Kramden Institute notes that each computer serves entire households, so the impact of these computer placements significantly impacts families and communities (in addition to recycling old hardware that would most likely have ended up in a landfill somewhere).
This group (and others like it*) realizes what many don't: households that can't afford a computer may not be able to afford monthly access either. So these computers come packaged with free, open-source stand-alone educational software that does not require an Internet connection to run (a concept many of our youth may not remember!).
Why is all of this still so important? Well, can you imagine growing up in a household without Internet access in this day and age? Can you imagine the stress and discomfort of trying to keep up with classmates and prepare yourself for college without the ability to hone the requisite computer skills that support nearly every academic endeavor required in high school or college? Digital literacy is every bit as critical and foundational to academic and professional success today as the mastery of reading and math. And yet across our culture, there remains a pervasive attitude that computer access is a luxury to be afforded on a recreational level to those who can afford the price of ownership and access.
It's especially important for us as educators to be cognizant of those who struggling their way out of the Digital Divide and to afford those in need our patience and compassion, as well as our efforts to connect them to needed resources. I have a section of links to free digital literacy training online and I will make it a point to find and post links to resources that can help folks find hardware and Internet access. I know that there are many fine organizations like Kramden Institute still fighting the good fight, but they're not getting enough attention. We need to support their work by bringing it to the attention of our colleagues and neighbors, and by asking ourselves, "Can they do it alone? Is there still need in my community that leaves learners unprepared for a basic academic experience? What can we do to join this fight?" And if you need ideas, let me know! I'm here to help!
*FreeGeek in Portland, Oregon has been around awhile as well. They even franchise their model to communities wanting to create their own FreeGeek operation! Check out the FreeGeek tour on YouTube!