The digital divide? When first hearing the term, it sounds like the rift between Android and iOS fans. But the digital divide is actually something much deeper than that. Here’s the definition we received and discussed in class:

“The digital divide is the gap between demographics and regions that have access to modern information communications and communication technologies, and those that don’t have or have restricted access to those technologies.”

Did you know 5 billion people worldwide do not have access to a computer or the internet? That’s a pretty staggering statistic, right? Especially, in a time when we’re not only using these technologies to communicate, chat, share but also learn. And I don’t mean online learning on Lynda.com or Skillshare, I mean real grade school and high school classrooms. Yes, many schools across the US are requiring the use of the internet and digital technologies for their students. (See this article from the New York Times)

When taking a closer look at the digital divide, we realize that all the factors that create the divide can actually be separated into three main categories.

  • Global 
    • Industrialized versus non industrialized nations
      • Wealth, inadequate telecommunication infrastructure, language, and inadequate literacy and education
  • Social
    • Wealthy versus poor individuals
      • Age, income, education, race
  • Personal (these have less to do with access and more to do with personal choice for not closing the gap)
    • Privacy and security concerns
    • Fear or resistance to new technologies and change
      • digital natives (people brought up on these technologies) versus digital immigrants (those who are adopting them later in life)

For other reasons why there is a digital divide between people, here’s an interesting 2013 study from the Pew Research Center title: Who’s Not Online and Why

Why is the digital divide a problem?

As the world and its technology advances every day, the digital divide becomes more and more of problem, setting those on the disconnected side at an even larger disadvantage. This isn’t news but the internet provides a wealth of opportunity; Opportunity to learn outside of the classroom, (I’m convinced you can literally learn anything from YouTube), opportunity to connect without buying a plane ticket, and opportunity to share and express thoughts, concerns, beliefs. I believe everyone, globally has the right to access these opportunities. Without them, people in poor situations will have a much more difficult time bringing awareness or finding solutions to challenges they face. A great example is that over 2 billion people don’t have access to clean water or toilets, water.org aims to solve this as well as educate people. However, without the internet people who live in these conditions can’t access information like this infographic or notify water.org that they need help. They are relying heavily on others outside their community to help identify their problem and provide a solution.

Solutions to the Digital Divide

In our class discussion we spent a lot of time tossing around ideas of how to close the digital divide gap. The most obvious answer was improving access and figuring out ways to deliver these technologies to the communities who don’t have them. Some good examples were that local businesses could donate tablets to schools or build a free community computer lab, or sponsor free public wifi. For a business, there are multiple benefits to doing something like this – 1) They get to put their name on some social good, which is like gold in today’s consumer market place. Think Toms or Warby Parker.  2) More people accessing the web means more potential consumers of your content and products.

Another idea was conducting trainings within a community, group or business. Again, this would likely fall on local businesses or non-profit organizations. A neat example that our Professor, Chris Baker gave was a personal one his newspaper initiated. They realized that a large demographic of their readers are senior citizens. So to help these individuals access their online content, they initiated a tablet training program at local senior living communities and town centers. The trainings were one on one and covered everything from how to turn the device on to accessing websites and articles of interest. This is something that can be done anywhere in the world. A group could raise funds to donate tablets to a community and then spend time educating the recipients on how to use them. (Obviously, on a global scale there can be larger challenges at hand like actually having a telecommunications infrastructure.)

That program is actually similar to a program I’m running at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where I’m teaching our thought leaders, (doctors) how to enhance their personal brand and the institute brand through social media. These doctors are obviously a very intellectual and capable group so the gap with them falls more on the personal level. They feel they don’t have time to use social media or they have privacy concerns, or that social isn’t important or they don’t know what to share. So to combat this, I spend time with them both individually and in small groups and show them how to use Twitter and LinkedIn and explain why using these channels can be effective and is important to establishing themselves as thought leaders and promoting our brand. We now have 40 doctors on Twitter and you can follow that growing list here.

I think right now a major step towards helping close the gap is simply awareness. As more people are educated on this issue, they’ll be more brains thinking about solutions.

What are your thoughts on the digital divide? Can you think of other major issues it causes? How would you suggest bridging the gap between those with access to those who don’t or won’t use it?

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