In honor of Adult Education and Family Literacy Week, World Education staff have written blog posts about this year’s theme - income inequality - on our blog The Well. To contribute to this effort, today’s post is a little different from our usual Tips. Instead of focusing our attention on how to integrate technology into instruction, we offer a brief reminder of why we do it.
The digital divide is alive and well in the United States, but it isn’t the same divide it was twenty years ago, or even ten years ago. When the term was first used, in the 1990s, the focus was on increasing access to technology for all. As the cost and availability of computers, mobile devices, and internet access has improved, it has become apparent that mere access to technology does not close the gap. Digital literacy is equally important for individuals to be able to benefit from technology.
It is no surprise that the people most likely to be at a disadvantage due to lack of access or lack of digital literacy skills continue to be people with low income and low education, minorities, older adults, and individuals with disabilities (Pendell et al., 2013). There was a time when it was hoped that technology would be a great equalizer, but instead it has become another force that reflects and reinforces economic inequality (Warf, 2013). Lack of adequate access among the lowest income groups also contributes to what is now called the “homework gap” - the disruption to learning caused by the high percentage of assignments that are given that require technology to complete.
To bridge the digital divide, adults need to have reliable access to technology and the skills to benefit from it. To address the access issues, EveryoneOn provides access to hardware, the Internet, and also training to help people get started. Through a partnership with OCTAE, EveryoneOn provides a portal specific to the needs of the adult education field, EveryoneOn.org/adulted.
Once reliable access and basic skills have been addressed, digital literacy skills are still needed to be able to get the most benefit from technology. A report published earlier this month looks at “digital readiness”, showing 52% of adults falling into the category of “relatively hesitant” as far as using technology for learning (Horrigan, 2016). Additionally, the PIAAC identified that only 31% of American adults show basic proficiency on “problem solving in technology-rich environments”, which is the “abilities to solve problems for personal, work and civic purposes by setting up appropriate goals, and accessing and making use of information through computers” (OECD, 2012).
It has traditionally been left to schools to work toward closing the digital divide, but to do so, schools are limited by their own funding issues that further disadvantage the poor (Warf, 2013). For adults who do not complete high school as well as new immigrants, there is a great need for digital literacy instruction. Adult education programs have increasingly been integrating technology into their curriculums, both as separate computing courses and woven into all subject areas. Learners are often highly motivated to improve their skills to create resumes or apply to jobs, to support their children’s education or for communicating with friends and family, among other reasons (Pendell et al., 2013). Often though, teachers do not have strong technology skills themselves, suffer from technology anxiety, or make negative assumptions about their students’ abilities to access and understand technology (McLanahan, 2014).
- Horrigan, J. (2016). Digital readiness gaps. Pew Research Center.
- McClanahan, L. (2014). Training using technology in the adult ESL classroom. Journal of Adult Education, 43(1), 22-27.
- OECD (2013), Time for the U.S. to reskill?: What the survey of adult skills says. OECD Skills Studies, OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264204904-en
- Pendell, K., Withers, E., Castek, J., & Reder, S. (2013). Tutor-facilitated adult digital literacy learning: Insights from a case study. Internet Reference Services Quarterly, 18(2), 105-125.
- Smith, M. C., & Smith, T. J. (2010). Adults' uses of computer technology: Associations with literacy tasks. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 42(4), 407-422.
- Warf, B. (2013). Contemporary digital divides in the United States. Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, 104, 1–17.
Images are from The Noun Project.
- Icon #1 by Guilhem
- Icon #2 by Luis Prado
- Icon #3 by Creative Stall