Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Digital Divide to Digital Continuum: has the digital divide been bridged?

The general reason for public libraries to provide access to technology is the digital divide. Low income has always been tied to lack of access to technology. Libraries have increased the number of computers and internet bandwidth to keep up with demand. However, a recent report by the Department of Education (Digital Divide to Digital Continuum) refutes the idea that there is a digital divide in relation to income and technology. A quote from the GovTech Blog, Digital Divide Subtracted, :

New research funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Innovation and Improvement and conducted by the Michael Cohen Group LLC, under the auspices of a grant to the Ready to Learn Partnership (RTLP) revealed that while television took nearly three decades to become universal, nearly 40 percent of low income families now have computers and almost a third have Internet access at home in just the last five to seven years. This new research suggests that given the proliferation of media across the socioeconomic spectrum, although significant differences do exist by income level, a stark digital divide no longer captures the relationship between income and technology ownership and that technology is integrated into children's lives, regardless of their families' income.

This means that for public libraries, basic connections is not enough anymore. Yes we have public access computers (new ones thanks to Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other local intiatives), with internet (although it needs to be increased), but are we providing anything beyond that to enhance technology opportunities. Or is this our role?

I like the developments that I see in many libraries. They provide a technology petting zoo to help their patrons understand and use new technology. It also helps to show patrons how it relates to library usage, such as downloadable items and database usage.

David Lee King talks about Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library's Techie Toy Box (photos). Princeton Public Library provides a Gadget Garage too.

More from the article:
"According to the survey, families from every income level own and use technology, albeit with differences in the frequency of participation based on income. However, the rate at which lower income families have come to own media technology has been astonishingly quick," said Dr. Michael Cohen. "The metaphor of the digital divide no longer captures the relationship between income and technology ownership. The current state is perhaps best described as a digital continuum."

So technology acquisition is growing very fast. Is access an issue? Library's have traditionally provided content via books and over the internet. We slice away at the proprietary layer of the web by providing free access to content. Newspaper archives, research, and even free downloadable content. I think our role is to continue to provide access to content and to educate the public on a variety of topics, especially technology. Technology is often thrown at people as a solution and the public library continues to be a hub of learning for that technology. Technology is available at all levels of society and acquired faster, but do learning curves differ? Yes they do.

"For years, Congress has supported literacy-based television programming to help pre-schoolers get ready to read and to foster reading skills among school-aged children," said Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture and a leading advocate for early childhood education. "This new study shows that we are making progress in closing the digital divide and that television and computers can be effective tools to reach children, regardless of income levels, in an effort to help them become productive and successful adults."

A webcast of the report will be available on October 25th: Digital Divide to Digital Continuum.

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