The Digital Divide in California

WRITTEN BY MEHA GOYAL & BEA ALEXA RONDON
EDITED BY CHRISTIANA REYES
GRAPHICS BY BEA ALEXA RONDON

If you can read this, consider yourself lucky. Many people around the world don’t even have the technology necessary to access an online article like this one. 

The economic, educational, and social inequalities between those who have computers and online access and those without is known as the “digital divide.” The digital divide has existed since the introduction of electronic technological advancements, and it persists even in a rapidly developing country like the United States. Despite being home to famous tech hotspots, many Americans are unable to enjoy the benefits of surfing the internet or even having a phone in their pocket. While there are those fortunate enough to enjoy the benefits of tech innovation, those who lack tech resources, schooling, and skills are left behind and often forgotten. The digital divide is a barrier that hinders the education, employment, and connectivity of many people across the US, and thus is an issue that must urgently be addressed.

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  • While the increase of technological advancements has proven significant in today’s world, it likewise uncovers a series of economic, educational, and social inequalities collectively known as the “digital divide”, affecting disadvantaged communities across the globe and especially those in the U.S.
  • K-12 schools across the U.S. have willingly integrated the use of technology as a means to facilitate the majority of educational activity, thus creating a greater demand for reliable internet connectivity that many areas with inconsistent power and tech accessibility struggle to adapt to. 
  • The digital divide does not only affect students, but also severely limits the economic opportunities available to workers across the U.S. — primarily those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and have no direct access to technology in order to carry out their tasks. 
  • Despite the fact that Wi-Fi is expected to be of nationwide access, more than 20 million households — usually low-income, less educated, rural, Black, and Latino households — have no broadband, hence widening the gap of the digital divide. 
  • Due to the current pandemic, many private, educational, and governmental institutions have collectively shown to be taking more initiative in efforts to conquer the digital divide. However, the issue remains to be at large and in dire need of our help to constantly shed light the negative impacts of tech inaccessibility.

“Thanks to software, the standalone textbook is becoming a thing of the past,” Bill Gates mentioned in his and his wife Melinda’s 2019 Annual Letter. They discussed the benefits of computer programs and online videos to teaching and learning, but due to the digital divide, such digital mediums are tools that many students can only dream of using. “I haven’t heard from anyone who misses their heavy, expensive textbooks,” Bill Gates added, which may be true for those who have the privilege to switch to digital mediums of teaching and learning. However, he fails to mention that many students have no choice but to still buy textbooks that may cost more than their minimum wage, contain obsolete information, or be discarded after just one semester.

In a world that strives to digitize every aspect of our lives, such as education in particular, it’s unfortunate that not all schools can provide free digital resources, services, and equipment to all of their students. The digital divide prevents many students from participating in engaging, personalized, and efficient tech-reliant education.

Thanks to federal and state funding, many K-12 schools across the US now embrace tech integration by using the internet to deliver instructions, administer assessments, manage educational data, and relay announcements to parents and students. In addition to internet connectivity, some of these funds have been directed to adopting e-books, on-site computer labs, and tech-related courses. Even in schools that do have reliable broadband, many students are negatively affected by limited digital resources and connectivity at home and in their community. Areas with inconsistent power and internet, less-equipped schools, tech illiteracy, and lack of household devices make technology integration difficult for teachers and students alike. There are various factors that contribute to the digital divide, so eliminating it will not be an easy feat.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, 70% of California teachers assigned homework that required broadband access, and because the current pandemic discourages physical meetings on campus, 5 million California students are currently required to learn from home. 90% of California schools met the minimum threshold for digital learning in 2018, while rural and high-need schools were just as likely to meet this standard. However, only in 16% of schools does each and every student own a device that could access the internet, while about 1.7 million students in California have no household broadband at all. Even for those who do, not all of them have service sufficient to watch a video or even load an article. Schools, libraries, and other public spaces that used to offer free internet access are closed due to the current COVID-19 pandemic; therefore, students have little to no alternatives if they don’t have reliable internet at home. Some schools have resorted to sending textbooks and packets of materials to students without the technology to participate in remote learning, either through the mail or having them dropped off by the school’s bus drivers. 

A 2008 study from the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System concluded that teenagers with computers and internet access at home are more likely to graduate from high school than teenagers without such technology, so it goes without saying that tech accessibility can enhance tech literacy and overall academic performance. In addition, tech accessibility can improve school culture and student engagement by empowering teachers to be more creative with classroom instruction, as well as equip students with new learning tools. Students burdened by the digital divide are left with less educational opportunities as well as less economic opportunities in the future, putting them at a disadvantage that can affect them for a lifetime.

Yes, workers feel the effects of the digital divide as well.

In the US, Wi-fi is expected to be available in almost every corner, yet more than 20 million households have no broadband according to a report published last year by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). A report published last year by Microsoft estimated that almost 50% of all people, or 163 million, in the US don’t use broadband internet due to its unavailability where they live or their inability to afford it. 44% of these households said cost was the main barrier to owning these technologies, and they tended to be low-income, less educated, rural, Black, and Latino households. Nearly a tenth of all US households don’t even own a laptop or smartphone of any kind. Without this resource, workers lose their competitive edge in communicating with the online market, jobs leave, and new employers don’t come back into their communities. Especially with the rise of the tech industry, access to such resources is increasingly important, and a lack of internet access can hinder one’s ability to be successful in their workplace.

Regardless of whether or not adults end up going into the tech industry, however, access to technology has been shown to be a limiting factor in industries of all types. A study conducted in February of 2020 found that 87% of executives reported current or anticipated technology skill gaps in their workforces. As business continues to move online, this gap becomes even more dangerous especially for workers with little to no basic tech experience. 

Before the pandemic hit, only 3-4% of Americans were estimated to be working remotely. However, as of today, almost every city in the US is shut down and a majority of work is being done remotely. Unfortunately, teleworking has proven to be a difficult task as many newcomers to Zoom had never heard of its name before and therefore struggled to share screen, manage audio, and perform other basic tasks in group meetings. 

A further study determined that the Digital Divide and consequently disengaged employees have cost the US hundreds of billion dollars each year in lost productivity. In companies with lagging technology, almost half of workers complain that they are held back by outdated devices, lowering their productivity dramatically. If companies invested more in providing adequate access to technology for their workers, it follows that workers will be more productive and satisfied with their work environments. 

The Digital Divide in our workforce limits access to job opportunities for millions of people, causes a loss of productivity, and costs billions of dollars to our economy each year. In order to combat these issues, especially during the pandemic, companies are encouraged to invest more in tech literacy programs. Several studies found that for each dollar invested, they have gained four in return. Further, investing in a high speed network and updated technology is crucial to maintain productivity and retain workers.

Particularly during the current COVID-19 pandemic, collective efforts from private institutions, schools, and governments all over the US have only stopped the digital divide from growing rather than actually diminishing it. This might be great news, but there is still lots of work to be done. Tech inaccessibility has clear negative consequences that can persist across generations, so we must support initiatives that offer tech resources to those who lack them. Thus, it is pertinent that we not only raise awareness of the digital divide, and just how dire the circumstances are for those who are burdened by tech inaccessibility, but we must also strive to conquer the digital divide.

REFERENCES

Across the digital divide: Managing remote workers. (n.d.). Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/across-the-digital-divide-managing-58091/

America’s digital divide. (n.d.). Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/trust/archive/summer-2019/americas-digital-divide

Anning, R. (2019, May 02). Are textbooks becoming obsolete? Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://elearningindustry.com/textbooks-becoming-obsolete

California’s digital divide. (2021, February 18). Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://www.ppic.org/publication/californias-digital-divide/

Demographics of mobile device ownership and adoption in the United States. (2020, June 05). Retrieved February 28, 2021, from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/mobile/

Digest of Education statistics, 2018. (n.d.). Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_702.60.asp

Finley, K. (n.d.). When school is online, the digital divide grows greater. Retrieved February 28, 2021, from https://www.wired.com/story/school-online-digital-divide-grows-greater/

Frazier, K. (2020, July 09). The coronavirus pandemic is expanding California’s digital divide. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://techcrunch.com/2020/07/09/the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-expanding-californias-digital-divide/

Gates, B. (n.d.). We didn’t see this coming. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://www.gatesnotes.com/2019-Annual-Letter

It’s time for a new approach for Mapping broadband data to better serve Americans. (2019, April 12). Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://blogs.microsoft.com/on-the-issues/2019/04/08/its-time-for-a-new-approach-for-mapping-broadband-data-to-better-serve-americans/

Johnson, S. (2020, May 04). More California students are online, but digital divide runs deep with distance learning. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://edsource.org/2020/more-california-students-are-online-but-digital-divide-runs-deep-with-distance-learning

Lambert, D. (2020, July 20). Governor’s order means most California school CAMPUSES won’t reopen at the beginning of school year. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://edsource.org/2020/governors-order-means-most-california-school-campuses-wont-reopen-at-the-beginning-of-school-year/636590

Reston, M. (2020, April 09). Pandemic underscores digital divide facing students and educators. Retrieved August 17, 2020 from https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/09/politics/digital-divide-education-coronavirus/index.html

Turner-Lee, N. (2020, March 05). Bridging digital divides between schools and communities. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://www.brookings.edu/research/bridging-digital-divides-between-schools-and-communities/

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