The Second Digital Divide

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a different sort of digital divide ...One of the key findings from a recent report by the OECD was that "the digital divide in education goes beyond the issue of access to technology.  A second digital divide separates those with the competencies and skills to benefit from computer use from those without."

Most visitors to this blog will be quite familiar with the term digital divide, which was popularized in the 1990s as the Internet exploded into public consciousness, but which has been around in concept for a few decades.  Much of the related dialogue, and certainly most of the action by governments in developing countries, has so far treated unequal access to ICTs (especially the Internet) as a largely technical challenge at the core of digital divide initiatives, and as a result technical solutions have been explored and implemented (usually led by very technical people) all over the world.

What's different about a 'second' digital divide?

First, some acknowledgements and disclaimers: This concept of a 'second digital divide' that the OECD puts forward is not new (the authors make no claim to novelty; here's a paper written almost a decade ago [pdf] on the topic, one of many). Some would argue that the types of inequities and challenges bundled under the concept of a second digital divide were actually part of many early dialogues about the 'digital divide'. Others contend that 'digital divide' arguments are specious, or miss the point, and still others have identified a 'third', 'fourth' or even 'fifth' digital divide. I'll leave it to the academic community to argue about definitions and parse the semantics -- while there is vigorous related discussion about all of this, it is not my intention to revisit it, or attempt to summarize it, here. (On a related note, and to anticipate a likely comment on this post, I note that, in many places, the digital divide is as much about access to reliable power as it is about access to ICT.)

My intention here is to suggest that it is only now that a practical awareness, with potential consequences for action, is beginning to build in some ministries of education outside the OECD about the extent and importance of this second, and far greater, challenge, prodded in many instances by forward-thinking civil society groups, both intentionally and locally, and to some extent by companies demanding ICT-related skills and competencies that are in short supply.

(This is, sadly, is also consistent with the larger 'typical' evolution in thinking and action that characterizes a second stage of large-scale investemnts in ICT in education in many if not most countries.  The first, exciting stage, involves buying lots of cool new equipment.  The second stage is figuring out what to do with it -- and how. Many people find this to be a rather unfortunate, and backward, approach to planning for the use of technology in education -- but this is a reality that one sees time and time again, in place after place.)

At a practical level, the responsibility for bridging the first digital divide in the education sector, especially in developing countries, was (has been) delegated to the 'ICT people'.  To be sure, much still needs to be done in many places, especially in rural communities and especially in Africa, to ensure an adequate access to computing, connectivity and communication tools, and the "ICT people" have important roles to place in this process.

That said, this second digital divide lies at the core of the educational challenge faced by many countries today.  Even critics of 'one laptop per child' and 'the $100 laptop' marvel at the rhetorical power behind such seemingly simple slogans, which succinctly encapsulate a larger set of ideas, concepts and beliefs, to provoke debate -- and action.  The OECD warning about a 'second digital divide' is perhaps not noteworthy in 2010 for its novelty or newness (although my discussions with many policymakers with oversight in this area suggests that it is indeed new to them).  Rather, it may prove to be a useful rhetorical device to help open additional discussions and debates, especially for those people and groups fearful that current approaches to the use of ICTs in the education sector in many places can further marginalize groups already excluded or marginalized from existing educational practices and environments.

ICT use holds very real promise for facilitating greater inclusion of such groups into existing educational practices and environments as well -- but such inclusion is by no means automatic, despite what countless pictures of happy children with computers from all walks of life might imply.

For more information:

  • Browsing through the studies and policy documents on topics related to  'digital literacy' -- a term which means different things to different people -- is a quick way to immerse yourself in debates related to this concept of a 'second digitial divide', and expose yourself to a rich and varied bibliography. The best single source global resource for information on topics related to digital literacy is the ICT Digital Literacy portal.
  • A short chapter from infoDev's Monitoring and Evaluation of ICT in Education Projects: A Handbook for Developing Countries attempts to describe where and how monitoring and evaluation practices might be able to play a role in supporting pro-equity approaches to the use of ICT in education. 

Please note: The public domain image used at the top of this post ("a different sort of digital divide") comes
via Wikimedia Commons.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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