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Multicultural Education and the Digital Divide (September 2001)
by Paul C. Gorski, Hamline University and EdChange

Multicultural education calls for all aspects of education to be continuously examined, critiqued, reconsidered, and transformed based on ideals of equity and social justice. This includes instructional technology and covers its content and delivery (or curriculum and pedagogy). That is, it is not enough to critically examine the individual resources--in this case, CD-ROMs, Web sites, or pieces of software--we use to ensure inclusivity. Instead, we must dig deeper and consider the medium itself and how it is being used differently in different contexts. What roles are various software titles, Web sites, and the computers that facilitate our use of them, playing in education? Are they contributing to education equity or supporting current systems of control and domination of those groups already historically privileged in the United States education system (such as White people, boys and men, first language English speakers, and able-bodied people)?

The term "digital divide" has traditionally described inequalities in access to computers and the Internet between groups of people based on one or more social or cultural identifiers. Under this conceptualization, researchers tend to compare rates of access to these technologies across individuals or schools based on race, sex, disability status, and other identity dimensions. The "divide" refers to the difference in access rates among groups. The racial digital divide, for example, describes the difference in rates of access to computers and the Internet, at home and school, between those racial groups with high rates of access (White people and Asian and Asian-American people) and those with lower rates of access (Black people and Latina(o) people). Similarly, the sex- or gender digital divide refers to the gap in access rates between men and women.

So, by the end of 2000, when women surpassed men to become a majority of the United States online population, many people also believed the sex digital divide had disappeared. If there were more women than men using the Internet, the logic went, equality had been achieved. Girls and women were equally likely to use computers and the Internet as boys and men.

Still, though the fact that more girls and women were using the Internet is a meaningful step forward, a broader and deeper look at their position in relation to the increasingly techno-centric society and global economy, reveals that equality in access is considerably different from equity in opportunity. In fact, most of the sex and gender inequities in society and other media are replicated online. The ever-present and ever-growing Internet pornography industry, along with the threat of cyber-stalking and the relative ease with which potential sexual predators can attain personal information about women online, make the Internet a hostile--and potentially dangerous--environment for many girls and women. Equally hostile to women are academic and professional pursuits of mathematics, sciences, engineering, computer sciences--all traditionally male fields that are closely linked with computers and the Internet. Research shows how women and girls are systematically steered away from these fields beginning as early as elementary school through school culture, classroom climate, traditional gender roles, and other societal pressures. Additionally, video games, largely marketed for men and boys, often depict girls and women as damsels in distress or sideshow prostitutes. Even those games, such as Tomb Raider, that challenge these stereotypical roles by casting strong, independent, heroic female characters in lead roles dress these big-breasted women with impossibly-dimensioned bodies in tight, revealing clothes. Most video game makers are men and most video game consumers are boys and men. So, instead of critiquing this fact and considering why it is so, the producers bow to market pressures and recycle the industry sexism. Unfortunately, a majority of information technology professionals cite video games as their initial point of interest in the field.

As a result of these and other socio-political, socio-historical, and socio-cultural dynamics, during the same year that women became over 50 percent of the online population, only 7 percent of all Bachelor's-level engineering degrees were conferred to women and only 20 percent of all information technology professionals were women. So, while equality in access rates reflects an important step forward, it does not, by any useful measurement, signify the end of the sex digital divide. In fact, the glaring inequities that remain despite equality in Internet access illustrate the urgency for a deeper, broader understanding of the digital divide and a deeper, broader approach for eliminating it.

These remaining inequities, which mirror deeply entrenched and historically cycled inequities in professional, economic, and education opportunities for women in the U.S., together serve as a clear, powerful critique of the unidimensional approach most often employed for addressing the race and class digital divides: simply providing schools and communities with more computers and more, or faster, Internet access. Again, though this is a positive step forward, it fails to address social, cultural, and political factors that will be in place with or without more machinery. For example, research indicates that, while teachers in schools with a high percentage of White students and a low percentage of students on free or reduced lunch programs are more likely to use these technologies to engage students in creative and critical thinking activities, teachers in schools with a high percentage of Students of Color and a high percentage of students on free or reduced lunch tend to use computers and the Internet for a skills and drills approach to learning. Additionally, the growing online presence of African Americans and Latina(o)s is tempered by the growing number of white supremacy Web sites and a more intense sense of fear and vulnerability among these groups (along with Native Americans) related to the availability of personal information online.

Ultimately, the traditional understanding of the digital divide as gaps in rates of physical access to computers and the Internet fails to capture the full picture of the divide, its stronghold, and its educational, social, cultural, and economic ramifications. Meanwhile, such a narrow conceptualization of the divide serves the interests of privileged groups who can continue to critique access rates instead of thinking critically and reflectively about their personal and collective roles in cycling and recycling old inequities in a new cyber-form.

A new understanding of the digital divide is needed--one that provides adequate context and begins with a dedication to equity and social justice throughout education. Multicultural education--a field that enters every discussion about education with this dedication--offers an important, desperately needed framework for such an understanding. It is from that framework that I have crafted the following statement about understanding and eliminating the digital divide.

A multicultural education approach to understanding and eliminating the digital divide:

  1. critiques technology-related inequities in the context of larger educational and societal inequities, keeping at the fore of the discussion the fact that those groups most disenfranchised by the digital divide are the same groups historically disenfranchised by curricular and pedagogical practices, evaluation and assessment, school counseling, and all other aspects of education (and society at large);

  2. broadens the significance of "access" beyond that of physical access to computers and the Internet to include access to support and encouragement to pursue and value technology-related fields, educationally and professionally (at home, in school, in the media, by peer groups, etc.);

  3. broadens the significance of "access" beyond that of physical access to computers and the Internet to include access to non-hostile, inclusive software and Internet content;

  4. critically examines not only who has access to computers and the Internet, but how these technologies are being used by various people or identity groups or by those teaching various people or groups;

  5. considers, in the context of studying access rates with this broader definition of "access," the larger socio-political ramifications of, and socio-economic motivations for, the expanding significance of information technology, not only in schools, but in society at large, and how the growing merger of cyber-culture with wider U.S. culture privileges those who already have access in the broadest sense;

  6. confronts capitalistic propaganda, like commercials portraying children from around the world announcing their recent arrival online, that lead people to believe that these technologies are available to everyone, everywhere, under any conditions, who want to use them;

  7. rejects as simplistic and patriarchal any program that purports to "close" the divide only by providing more computers and more, or faster, Internet access, to a school, library, or other public place;

  8. rejects as inadequate any solution that aims to "close" and not "eliminate" the divide; and

  9. conceptualizes the elimination of the digital divide as those actions that:

    1. lead to, and maintain, a present and future in which all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, disability status, age, education level, or any other social or cultural identity, enjoy equitable access--safe, comfortable, encouraged and encouraging, non-hostile, and valued physical, cultural, social access--to information technology including software, computers, the and Internet;

    2. lead to, and maintain, a present and future in which all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, disability status, age, education level, or any other social or cultural identity, enjoy equitable access--safe, comfortable, encouraged and encouraging, non-hostile, and valued physical, cultural, social access--to educational pursuits in technology-related fields including mathematics, science, computer science, and engineering;

    3. lead to, and maintain, a present and future in which all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, disability status, age, education level, or any other social or cultural identity, enjoy equitable access--safe, comfortable, encouraged and encouraging, non-hostile, and valued physical, cultural, social access--to career pursuits in technology-related fields including mathematics, science, computer science, engineering, and information technology;

    4. lead to, and maintain, a present and future in which all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, disability status, age, education level, or any other social or cultural identity, play an equitable role in determining the socio-cultural significance of computers and the Internet and the overall social and cultural value of these technologies; and

    5. lead to, and maintain, a present and future in which all of these conditions are constantly monitored, examined, and ensured through a variety of perspectives and frameworks.

As information technology becomes more and more interwoven with all aspects of life and well-being in the United States, it becomes equally urgent to employ the complexities and critiques of multicultural education theory and practice to the problem of the digital divide. It is the next--the present--equity issue in schools and larger society with enormous social justice implications. This reframing of the digital divide can serve as a starting point for more active participation in digital divide research and action within the field of multicultural education.

Additionally, this conceptual piece should challenge those currently studying or working to eliminate the divide in all contexts to broaden and deepen their understandings of equity. It is crucial to recognize that the effort to eliminate the divide, while a clearly identifiable problem unto itself, must be understood as one part--albeit an immensely important one--of a larger effort toward eliminating the continuing and intensifying inequity in every aspect of education and society.

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