‘Under the digital literacy umbrella are numerous interrelated skills that range from basic awareness and training to foster informed citizens and to build consumer and user confidence, to highly sophisticated and more complex creative and critical literacies and outcomes. Given the constantly evolving nature of technology, acquisition of digital literacy skills represents a process of life long learning.’ (MNet, 2010)
Computers have provided an entirely new medium for literacy (reading and writing). Digital literacy has led to great increases in information that can be conveniently and quickly accessed and facilitates the collaboration and sharing of knowledge. With other forms of digital literacy, we are also seeing an increasing reliance on digital modes of communication. Word processing is now the standard for writing and there has been a global uptake of email and usage of the World Wide Web. In addition sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, all speak to digital literacy leading to greater global participation in literacy. There is now the potential for global access to knowledge and an interest in creating more multilingual and multi-literacy online environments as digital technologies facilitate global and intercultural exchange.. The computer has become a part of global business and the education culture, to this end digital literacy has a direct effect on a country’s economy. ‘…digital literacy is so closely connected to the traditional association of literacy and democratic rights, as well as to more specific notions of e-government.’ (Dobson & Willinsky, 2009). Dobson and Willinsky have been very clear that in considering digital literacy and its importance we must also be cognizant of the digital divide.
Digital Divide Defined
When discussing the digital divide it is helpful to have a definition or understanding of what this term means. The term is often used to describe the differences in access to ICTs. First mentions of the digital divide “appeared about 1995, in documents such as ‘Falling through the net’” (Gutierrez & Gamboa 2008). The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) “define the divide as the ‘gap between individuals, households, business and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regards to their opportunities to access information and communication technologies and to their use for a wide variety of countries’” (Gutierrez & Gamboa 2008). It is important to understand that the digital divide is extremely complex and is a dynamic concept. There is not a single divide but multiple divides and therefore there are numerous ways to measure the divide; the most popular measure is the assessment of the extent to which people have access to the Internet. In addition reports suggest that the inequalities of access are evolving and taking on new forms, specifically in regards to the digital divide between the speed and quality of access to ICTs (ITU, 2007).
Digital Divide Factors
Now that we have a working definition of ‘Digital Divide’, the next step is to understand the factors that contribute to this inequity. After reading dozens of journals regarding the digital divide there are definite recurring themes regarding the main factors contributing to this phenomenon. Those factors include: age, health, living conditions, employment, culture, background, gender, education, and income. Lack of education combined with a low-income compounds the issue and increases the likely hood of the lack of digitization. Further significant factors include physical location such as rural vs. urban, remoteness of area and whether the individuals are located in a developed or developing country. Even the level of overcrowding in a bedroom is an important factor (Gutierrez & Gamboa 2008). When we look at the more advanced ICTs we see that they are even more limited in their distribution to the poor, less educated and aged population (Gutierrez & Gamboa 2008). The experts seem to agree that the main factors determining whether individuals are likely to use ICTs is wealth and education. “While Disparities in wealth continue to exist, the digital divide will persist “ (ITU, 2007). It is important to note that there are ICT have and have-nots globally, nationally and locally (Bracey Sutton, 2008) and that “The digital divide still exists and it is widening” (Bracey Sutton, 2008).
So why do we care if there is a digital divide and whether or not it is widening? ICTs are having ever greater impact on global economies and social processes (For, 2008). “It’s potential for catalyzing development in poor countries should be seriously considered as well” (For, 2008). Having a widening divide is hazardous on many levels, especially when technology is a primary driver for productivity, growth and efficiency (Dickinson, 2007). Those who are the digital have-nots “are in great danger of finding themselves left behind in the 21st Century economy” (Dickinson, 2007).
To this end I find undertakings like Project Gutenberg to be inspiring, the ‘sheer quantity and range of texts that are now available online has become a defining aspect of digital literacy.’ (Dobson & Willinsky, 2009). All of this knowledge, available at your fingertips, knowledge is power, and to access the knowledge you need to be digitally literate. With this in mind would we not be doing our learners a great disservice if we did not prepare them to be digitally literate in this new environment?