A New Understanding of the Digital Divide
In 2006, web-usability consultant Jakob Nielsen wrote an article that got to the heart of our understanding of this problem. In his article, he breaks the digital divide up into three stages: the economic divide, the usability divide, and the empowerment divide.
What is usually called the digital divide is, in Nielsen’s terms, the economic divide: the idea that some people can afford to have a computer and Internet access while others cannot. Because of Moore’s Law (see chapter 2), the price of hardware has continued to drop and, at this point, we can now access digital technologies, such as smartphones, for very little. This fact, Nielsen asserts, means that for all intents and purposes, the economic divide is a moot point and we should not focus our resources on solving it.
The usability divide is concerned with the fact that “technology remains so complicated that many people couldn’t use a computer even if they got one for free.” And even for those who can use a computer, accessing all the benefits of having one is beyond their understanding. Included in this group are those with low literacy and seniors. According to Nielsen, we know how to help these users, but we are not doing it because there is little profit in doing so.
The empowerment divide is the most difficult to solve. It is concerned with how we use technology to empower ourselves. Very few users truly understand the power that digital technologies can give them. In his article, Nielsen explains that his (and others’) research has shown that very few users contribute content to the Internet, use advanced search, or can even distinguish paid search ads from organic search results. Many people will limit what they can do online by accepting the basic, default settings of their computer and not work to understand how they can truly be empowered.
Understanding the digital divide using these three stages provides a more nuanced view of how we can work to alleviate it. While efforts such as One Laptop per Child are an excellent start, more work needs to be done to address the second and third stages of the digital divide for a more holistic solution.
Sidebar: Using Gaming to Bridge the Digital Divide
Paul Kim, the Assistant Dean and Chief Technology Officer of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, designed a project to address the digital divide for children in developing countries.  In their project, the researchers wanted to understand if children can adopt and teach themselves mobile learning technology, without help from teachers or other adults, and the processes and factors involved in this phenomenon. The researchers developed a mobile device called TeacherMate, which contained a game designed to help children learn math. The unique part of this research was that the researchers interacted directly with the children; they did not channel the mobile devices through the teachers or the schools. Another important factor to consider: in order to understand the context of the children’s educational environment, the researchers began the project by working with parents and local nonprofits six months before their visit. While the results of this research are too detailed to go into here, it can be said that the researchers found that children can, indeed, adopt and teach themselves mobile learning technologies.
What makes this research so interesting when thinking about the digital divide is that the researchers found that, in order to be effective, they had to customize their technology and tailor their implementation to the specific group they were trying to reach. One of their conclusions stated the following:
Considering the rapid advancement of technology today, mobile learning options for future projects will only increase. Consequently, researchers must continue to investigate their impact; we believe there is a specific need for more in-depth studies on ICT [information and communication technology] design variations to meet different challenges of different localities.
To read more about Dr. Kim’s project, locate the paper referenced in this sidebar.