In This Article Digital Divides

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Digital Divide Definitions and Related Concepts
  • International and National Reports
  • Digital Divide Single Country and Comparison Studies
  • Digital Divide Theory
  • User Classifications
  • Children, Young People, and the Digital Divide

Education Digital Divides
by
Maggie Hartnett
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0222

Introduction

The term “digital divide” emerged in the 1990s in the United States to describe observed inequalities of access, initially, to computers and later to the Internet, information, and other digital technologies. Originally defined as the gap between those who have physical access to technology and those who do not, over time a more nuanced picture of the digital divide has emerged. Other factors such as motivation to use and technology skills, intention to use, and social support available vary among populations and are collectively referred to as the second-level divide. Recently, a third-level divide related to outcomes of using the Internet has emerged. A variety of sociodemographic factors have been identified across a multitude of national and cross-national studies that determine which groups are more likely to be on the wrong side of the access, use, and outcomes divides. These sociodemographic factors include: age, income, education, employment status, and geographical location (i.e., urban/rural). Other terms such as digital inclusion/exclusion and digital capital are increasingly used to highlight how sociodemographic factors related to digitally disadvantaged groups tend to reflect existing societal inequities. Over the two decades in which research about the digital divide has been undertaken, studies have shown that the divide is narrowing in terms of access but deepening, when considering use and outcomes of use, in countries where availability of digital technologies is near ubiquitous. Research in the last decade or so has identified various user groups whose characteristics sit on a spectrum from non-use to expert use. Digital divide theories are also emerging and large datasets across multiple countries are now being used to test such theories. It is also evident from recent research that the digital divide is not a static entity but is changing as a result of increasing use of digital devices, complexities of use, and socio-contextual factors. Research focused on initiatives that attempt to address digital divide issues demonstrates that there is no “one size fits all” solution and governments, in particular, play a central role in ensuring that technology infrastructure investment and development occurs to ensure the benefits of technological use are spread throughout society.

General Overviews

Castree, et al. 2013 uses the term “digital divide” to describe observed inequalities of access to the Internet and other digital technologies. Initially thought of as the gap between those who have physical access and those who do not, called the first-level divide, over time a more complex picture has emerged. Van Dijk 2017 highlights that other factors such as motivation to use and attitudes toward technology and social support available vary among populations and are collectively referred to as the second-level divide. Digital divides have been shown to exist on many levels (Unwin and De Bastion 2009), including social, geographical, and economic. Studies such as Kady and Vadeboncoeur 2013 and Matuchniak and Warschauer 2010 have determined that differential access to technology (e.g., devices, information, and the Internet) and the skills required to use it occurs among various groups of people due to differences in education, geographical location, age, ethnicity, and income. Songan, et al. 2005 uses the term community informatics to describe the use of information communications technology ICT in overcoming the digital divide. When used well, digital technologies have the potential to empower populations particularly in developing countries such as the Bridges.org initiative in the city of Cape Town, South Africa, discussed by Peters 2006. However, as Matuchniak and Warschauer 2010 emphasizes, physical access to infrastructure continues to be a major consideration in many developing countries. According to Songan, et al. 2005, factors that determine the success or otherwise of digital divide initiatives include the cost of infrastructure, connectivity, and ongoing use; the language used for learning resources (particularly in countries and regions where English is a second language); and the requirement for coordinated and skillful approaches to ICT implementation. Furthermore, Mayhew 2015 points out that strategies to address the digital divide frequently focus on utilizing newer technologies in ways that suit local socioeconomic conditions. Unwin and De Bastion 2009 asserts that international organizations, national governments, private sector organizations, civil society, and the academy all have an important role to play in bridging digital divides. Governments, in particular, play a central role in ensuring that technology infrastructure investment and development occurs so that the benefits of technological use are spread throughout society.

  • Castree, Noel, Rob Kitchin, and Alisdair Rogers. 2013. Digital divide. In Oxford dictionary of human geography. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    The digital divide refers to the inequality of access of people and places to digital technologies, particularly the Internet. There are different types of divides: social, based on factors like income, gender, and age; or spatial such as distinctions in access between urban and rural communities, regions of a country, or parts of the world. The term “digital divide” was popularized in the 1990s in the United States.

  • Kady, Hitaf R., and Jennifer A. Vadeboncoeur. 2013. Digital divide. In Salem Press Encyclopedia. Salem Press.

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    The digital divide was originally defined as the gap between those who had access to technology and those without. Differential access occurs due to variances in income, education, location, age, and ethnicity with income and education being the most significant determinants of the level of access. With increasing ubiquity of ICTs a new divide has emerged resulting from differences in technological skills which has the potential to increase the gap.

  • Matuchniak, Tina, and Mark Warschauer. 2010. Equity in technology access and opportunities. In International encyclopedia of education. Edited by Penelope Peterson, Baker Eva, and Barry McGaw, 95–101. Oxford: Elsevier.

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    The last twenty years has seen rapidly increasing proliferation of digital technologies. Yet digital inequalities remain in countries around the world. In developed countries, the digital divide is now considered less about physical access than the types of usage. In developing countries, physical access to infrastructure (i.e., computers and the Internet) continues to be a major issue that has to be balanced against other social priorities.

  • Mayhew, Susan. 2015. Digital divide. In A dictionary of Geography. By Susan Mayhew, 136. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    The digital divide describes differential access to devices, information, and the Internet across geographical levels (e.g., regionally, nationally). It is a misconception to think of it only as a technological divide as it can result in unequal access to, for example, resources and training. Strategies to address the digital divide primarily focus on skipping previous phases of economic development and utilizing newer technologies in ways that suit local socioeconomic conditions.

  • Peters, Teresa. 2006. Crossing the digital divide and putting ICT to work to improve people’s lives. In Encyclopedia of developing regional communities with information and communication technology. Edited by Stewart Marshall, Wallace Taylor and Xing Huo Yu, 144–145. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

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    When used well, digital technologies have the potential to empower populations in developing countries. However, existing digital divides determine who has access to those benefits and who doesn’t. Governments play a central role in ensuring that technology infrastructure investment and development occurs to ensure the benefits of technological use are spread throughout society to improve citizens’ lives.

  • Songan, Peter, Khairuddin Ab. Hamid, Alvin W. Yeo, Jayapragas Gnaniah, and Hushairi Zen. 2005. Challenges to community informatics to bridging the digital divide. In Encyclopedia of developing regional communities with information and communication technology. Edited by Stewart Marshall, Wallace Taylor, and Xing Huo Yu, 86–89. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

    DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59140-575-7.ch014E-mail Citation »

    The use of ICT in overcoming the digital divide is known as community informatics (CI). However, using CI in developing countries can present challenges. Factors that can affect the success or otherwise of bridging the digital divide include the cost of infrastructure, connectivity, and ongoing use; the language used for learning resources (typically English); and the requirement for coordinated and skillful approaches to ICT implementation.

  • Unwin, Tim, and Geraldine De Bastion. 2009. Digital divide. In International encyclopedia of human geography. Edited by Rob Kitchin and Nigel Thrift, 191–197. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science.

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    The digital divide exists on many levels (e.g., social, geographical, economic) that are not created by the technology but how ICTs are used by different groups of people. International organizations, national governments, private sector organizations, civil society, and the academy cannot bridge the divide alone. All have a role to play in creating sustainable solutions that address the various digital divides.

  • van Dijk, Jan A. G. M. 2017. Digital divide: Impact of access. In The international encyclopedia of media effects. Edited by Patrick Rössler, Cynthia A. Hoffner, and Liesbet van Zoonen. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons.

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    Digital access is considered as the complete appropriation of technology by those who use it. Digital access encompasses more than physical access to the necessary hardware, software, and Internet. Differences in digital access beyond physical infrastructure is called the second-level divide and encompasses variations in motivation, and attitude toward, intention to use and social support available to various groups of users.

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