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Are All Schools Equally Wired? An Overview of the Digital Divide in Elementary and Secondary Schools in the United States
by Kira Isak Pirofski, San Jose State University


In the mid 1990s, when Internet usage began in earnest, it was hailed as a tool that would revolutionize the ways in information is transmitted, stored, and retrieved. This powerful tool which allows the user to access countless documents and send information to all parts of the globe was seen as “great equalizer” wherein every man, woman, or child could access the same content. However, extensive research documents that minorities, women, and those in lower socio economic sectors of society do not have the same access to the Web as do white, males who were in the mid- to upper income levels.

This unequal distribution of technology described by Lloyd Morrisett as the “digital divide” is manifest in elementary and secondary schools throughout the United States. This paper summarizes the development of educational technology as well as cites existing literature documenting that access to Internet in schools is less apt to occur in rural, low income, high minority school districts. It also cites research indicating that teachers usage of computer applications is closely related to student’s racial and ethnic background.

Statement of the Problem

Elementary and secondary schools were among the last societal institutions in the United States to adopt Internet and computer technology. Initially, educators were wary of computers, they feared they would replace instructors, and many envisioned and rejected the image of a classroom wherein isolated students sat before a computer screen. School administrators and school boards believed the cost of computer technology was prohibitive, and thus overlooked educational technologies potential to teach and instruct(Topic).

Several conditions led these groups to rethink their attitude towards educational technology and computer use in elementary and secondary school classrooms. The prevailing factors which led to the inclusion of computer hardware and software were availability of federal funding for educational technology school programs, and the availability of more sophisticated software.

Cited conditions, combined with teachers and administrators’ growing awareness that children would eventually need to be computer literate, led to adoption of computer technology. Current estimates are that between 70 and 90 percent of all schools have computers, sixty-four percent of schools can access Internet, eighty-five percent schools in the United States have multimedia computers, and more than half of US schools have computers equipped with CD ROM drives (Coley, Cradler, and Engel, 1997).

Educators, administrators, and government officially have largely accepted computer technology, currently a more significant concern must be addressed. School districts and federal agencies must find ways to ensure that computer technology is distributed equitably to all students, race and income no withstanding.

It must be acknowledged that elementary and secondary school distribution of computers is based on the racial composition of the school’s students, the level of income of the parents in the school district, and the geographical location of the school. This access gap must be acknowledged, and the unequal distribution of computer technology must be rectified.

Development of Educational Software

In the late 1970s schools began to integrate computer instruction into the curriculum. The foremost objective was to make students computer literate and computer instruction was limited to teaching children basic computer skills like logging on, logging off, saving, printing documents. During the decade of the 1980s new software allowed children to begin using computers to retrieve, transmit, create, print, and save information. Educational technology came to be regarded by educators in a more holistic sense began to see its potential as a vital learning resource (Simic, 1993). Schools today still teach basic computer literacy as well as introduce students to more sophisticated computer applications such as web site design and interactive media.

The type of software and applications used in schools was first developed in the early 1960s under the direction of Donald Bitzer, the University of Illinois initiated the PLATO Project (Educational, 1999). PLATO, is a tutorial which teaches children specific math and language arts skills. It also offers individualized and guided learning wherein students received instant feedback and corrections (Educational, 1999).

In 1963, following Bitzer’s innovations, Stanford Professors Patrick Suppes and Richard Akinson, began the Stanford Project. The duo developed computer assisted instruction (CAI) which was a skill and drill feature which were used for acquisition of basic skills (Miller). In 1968, more creative educational technology came into vogue and the value of pedantic skill and drill programs was challenged by educators. Programs like LOGO, developed by Seymour Papert which taught students programming skills and encouraged creative thinking became increasingly more popular (Educational, 1999).

The cited applications as well as word processing programs, games, and derivations of PLATO and LOGO became increasingly more a part of elementary and secondary school curriculum. And as of 1997, ninety-nine percent of all schools have computers, sixty-four percent of schools can access Internet, eighty-five percent of schools in the United States have multimedia computers, and more than half of US schools have computers equipped with CD ROM drives (Coley, Cradler, and Engel, 1997).

Digital Divide in Public Schools

The phrase,” digital divide,” first coined by Lloyd Morrisett, ex- president of Markle Foundation refers to the distribution of computer technology based on race, ethnicity and income. Figuratively speaking, on one side of the divide are white, educated males with moderate to high incomes, on the opposing side are low income minorities such as Hispanics and African-Americans. Although the phrase is generally used in reference to technology acquisition in the aggregate society, the divide is equally prevalent in US schools (Hoffman & Novak, 1998).

The National Center for Educational Statistics noted that in the fall of 1997, public schools with high minority school enrollments were less likely to have Internet access than public schools with a low enrollment of low income, minority students. The Center’s report also indicated that there were fewer instruction rooms in public schools with a high percentage of low income, minority students than schools with low enrollment of low income minority students (Coley, Cradler, Engel, 1997).

The Center for Research on Information Technology and Organizations found that schools with high minority enrollment have less access to educational technology hardware and software. In schools with low minority enrollment there were 6 students per computer computers per student, yet in high minority schools there were 9 students per computer. Additionally, in schools with few minority students, 60 percent had computers with CD Roms, however only 40 percent of high minority schools had computes with CD Roms (Anderson & Ronnkvist, 1999).

Further disparities between high and low minority schools vis a vis educational technology exist. Pentium or Power Mac capable computers are present in 50 percent of low minority schools, only 30 percent of high minority schools have this capacity. Thirty percent of low minority schools are equipped with simultaneous internet access, and 20 percent of high minority schools have this capacity (Anderson & Ronnkvist, 1999). In regards to unequal access to computer technology in schools, Neuman (1991) found that wealthy districts had a 54:1 student-computer ratio whereas the poorer districts had a ratio of 73:1 (Neuman, 1991).

In addition to discrepancies in the distribution of computers based on a student’s race and ethnic background, use of Internet varies depending on the achievement level of the student. Becker and Sterling (1987) found that students identified as high achieving students used the computer more often than average or slower students. Low achieving students use Internet for games, skill and drill feature, practicing remedial and basic skills. High achieving students use applications that require critical thinking processes, they are taught programming, and use Internet presentations and Email (Watt, 1982).

The Teaching Learning and Computing 1998 national survey, suggests that computer use and access varied depending on the geographical location of the schools. Fifty percent of suburban schools have computers with CD roms, 44 percent of rural schools have CD Roms. Computers with Pentium or Power Mac capabilities are available in 40 percent of suburban schools, 40 percent of rural schools have this capability Direct access to printers is present in 70 percent of suburban schools, only 60 percent of rural schools have this hardware (Anderson& Ronnkvist, 1999).

Implications of the Digital Divide Elementary and Secondary Schools

The digital divide effects adult minorities and low income populations in the United States, and the outcomes of the gap in access to computer technology is of concern for said population. However, the urgency with which the unequal distribution of computer technology in elementary and secondary schools in America needs to be addressed is paramount. The long term consequences of not closing the digital gap apparent in schools cannot be ignored.

Minority and low income students who are not provided programming, networking, and word processing skills will have compromised educational, economic, and employment possibilities. Post-secondary educational institutions expect students to be computer literate, and almost all forms of employment have placed an increasing premium on computer skills.

In addition, researchers Sivin-Kachala & Bialo (1995) submit that minority and low income students who are given access to computer technology have a better attitude towards school and a more positive self image. Students who access said technology do better academically in school than students who are not given access to computers (Kosakowski, 1998). These factors could translate into lower drop out rates for minorities and low income elementary and secondary school students. For these reasons, the gap must be closed. Although schools have fallen short of fulfilling former President William Clinton’s goal to have Internet access available in all of the school libraries and classrooms in the United States by the year 2000, (Hoffman & Novak, 1998) educators, administrators, and government officials must continue to strive to make that goal a reality.


Anderson, Ronald E. :Ronnkvist, Amy,” The Presence of computers in Amer9can Schools Teaching, Learning, and Computing: 1988 National Survey, Report Nol 2, 1999, ERIC,

Becker, Donald; Sterling, Thomas, Using Technology to Support Education Reform -- September 1993 Availability of Instructional Technologies

Bialo,E. R.; Sivin-Kachala, J.(1995) Report on the Effectiveness of Technology in Schools, '95–'96 (Washington, D.C.: Software Publishers Assn., 1995). Coley, Richard, Cradler, John, Engel, Penelope K., 1997, “Computers and classrooms: The status of technology in US schools policy and information report” Educational Testing Service, 71 p. “Digital Divide Widens, Commerce Says,” July 28, 1998, 4/20/00 “Educational Technology Timeline” (1999), Created by the CI 335 / CS 317 students at the University of Illinois in Fall 1999 Hoffman, Donna L.; Novak, Thomas P., (1998) “Bridging the Digital Divide, The impact of race on computer access and internet use,” Project 2000, Vanderbilt University, Feb. 2, 1998, http://www/ Kosakowski, John, (1998), “The Benefits of Information Technology.” ERIC Digest: ERIC Clearinghouse on Information and Technology Syracuse NY. McConnaughey, James M., Lader, Wendy; (1997) “Falling through the net II: New Data on the digital divide,” National Telecommunications and information administration, pp1-6 Morahan-Martin, 1998, “Women and Girls Last: Females and the Internet” IRISS '98: Conference Papers International Conference: 25-27 March 1998, Bristol, UK Neuman, Delia; (1991) “Technology and Equity” ERIC/IT Digest 1991. ED339400 Simic, Marjorie; (1998), “Guidelines for computer-assisted learning instruction,” ERIC Digest,, Clearinghouse on reading and communication skills, Bloomington, Ill. Feb. 2, 1998, Watt, Daniel. (1982). Education for citizenship in a computer-based society. In R. Siedel, R. Anderson, & B. Hunter (Eds.). Computer literacy. New York: Academic Press.

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