New Report Explores Higher Education’s Digital Divide
In recent years, the federal government, community groups, and other organizations have warned Americans about the growing “digital divide” occurring as Internet and computer usage increases in society. Government agencies, such as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and private organizations, such as the Benton Foundation, have advised that a failure to ensure broad access to the Internet and computers will lead to a highly stratified society separated by “information haves and information have-nots.”In one of the first major research reports to address the digital divide in higher education, the College Board asks if new technologies will expand opportunities for those traditionally underrepresented in higher education, or will they “deepen the divide between the rich and the poor, the educational haves and have-nots.” The newly released report, The Virtual University and Educational Opportunity: Issues of Equity and Access for the Next Generation, documents the growth in online education and distance learning opportunities offered by American colleges and universities.The report cautions that the “virtual campus may widen opportunities for some, but not, by and large, for those at the low end of the socioeconomic scale.” It also presents recommendations to help erase disparities between the cyber-rich and the cyber-poor. Those suggestions are directed at designers of virtual campuses and programs; the industries that make and distribute information technology products; and the policymakers who have responsibility for ensuring a level playing field for students.“While education is the great equalizer, technology appears to be a new engine of inequality,” the report says. Lawrence E. Gladieux, executive director for policy analysis for the College Board, says the nonprofit group — which has traditionally conducted research on issues of higher education access and equity — is attempting to bring attention to higher education’s management of information technology access. Gladiuex and Dr. Watson Scott Swail, associate director for policy analysis for the College Board, co-authored the report. “We began to focus on the [technology access and equity question] about a year ago. Not enough attention has been paid to research on this issue,” Gladieux says. Among the highlights in the report that are stirring discussion among educators, are data that show that freshman students at private and public historically Black colleges and universities have the lowest rate of e-mail usage. While 80.1 percent of freshman at predominantly White private institutions use e-mail, only 48 percent of students at private HBCUs and 41.1 percent at public HBCUs report using e-mail, according to a University of California-Los Angeles study cited in the College Board report. In the annual national freshman study that dates back to 1966, UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, in coordination with the American Council on Education, included for the first time last fall questions about Internet and e-mail usage. It found that in the fall of 1998, use of the Internet as an educational tool became prevalent enough among freshmen to be considered a normal part of academic life.Last fall, 82.9 percent of freshmen — more than four out of five students — said they use the Internet for academic research or homework. Almost two-thirds, or roughly 66 percent, reported they communicate by e-mail. The 1998 fall survey included responses from 275,811 students at 469 two- and four-year colleges and universities across the nation. A number of Black college officials say the findings don’t surprise them given that computer ownership and access to the Internet has been shown to closely correlate with socioeconomic status. They point out that higher percentages of their students come from poor school districts and low-income households than those who enroll in other types of institutions. Studies have shown that “students who come from low-income and minority backgrounds are less likely to have been exposed to computers and the Internet at home and school,” according to the College Board.Dr. R. Timothy McDonald, chief information officer of Oakwood College in Alabama, says that Black schools face a great challenge in training their students to use computers and the Internet as educational tools when many students arrive on campus without having prior exposure. “Our job is to help students become computer literate. We have instituted a general education requirement that students complete a three-hour course on computers,” McDonald says, adding that it “has helped tremendously” with getting Oakwood students basic exposure to computers and the Internet.While the lack of prior exposure may account for some of the disparity in e-mail and general Internet usage, Black college officials say a number of campuses are only now beginning to provide campuswide access to the Internet and e-mail accounts. Dr. Lester Newman, president of Mississippi Valley State University (MVSU), acknowledges says a lack of financial resources is the reason that some Black schools are struggling to build the required infrastructures and to maintain the computers or computer data ports necessary for convenient Internet access.However, he explains, “I don’t see it as a burden; I see it as a responsibility.”
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