Time to retire the “digital divide”?

Today prominent researcher John Horrigan proposed a new take on what many have referred to as “digital literacy” as part of a new report released at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF). “Digital Readiness” shares findings from a 2013 national survey and proposes recommendations to address the “twin challenges of trust and skills in a society in which digital applications are extending to more corners of our lives.”

ITIF also invited a panel of experts to weigh in on the report, which questions the logic of the typical framing and focus on the digital divide. Larra Clark, director of the ALA Program on Networks, spoke alongside Laura Breeden from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), Nicol Turner-Lee from the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council and Scott Wallsten of the Technology Policy Institute.

Horrigan’s research defines digital readiness as “the capacity for people to engage with online resources with full information about service attributes and use of personal and household data.” Quite a mouthful! He asserts that because online competency is now required to navigate a number of fields, such as healthcare, employment, applications, education, and civic engagement, the issue of digital readiness is public in nature, and requires adequate responses from public policy, private partnerships, philanthropists, states, and libraries to increase online competency.

While the previous policy focus had been on increasing access to broadband technology, he suggests that the digital divide is narrowing–85 percent of Americans are now internet users, and 82% have advanced access, meaning either broadband at home, or a smart phone. While access is still an important issue, an emerging concern is digital readiness, or the approximately one-third (70 million) of Americans who have low digital skills. This number includes 33 million Americans who have advanced broadband access, but few skills to effectively use ICT.

The research shows that those with low skill levels tend to be older, have lower incomes, and lower levels of education. This group is far less likely to engage in activities such as visiting a government website, using the internet for job search, or taking online classes. This also holds true for those who have advanced online access, but low digital skill levels. To increase digital readiness, Horrigan proposes that the two key factors to address are building skills, and building trust in online platforms. Framing the discussion around digital readiness, rather than the digital divide, could foment more robust policy development around digital skills education as a vital aspect of modern citizenship.

Horrigan called out the need for additional capacity through libraries and other community-based organizations to tackle the digital readiness issue. He suggested the following to make progress:

  • Use libraries (!)
  • Complementary investments in digital readiness by government agencies
  • Leverage existing program
  • Make sure communities have “tech champions” to advocate for digital readiness
  • Engage the philanthropic sector

Larra Clark contributed examples of the roles libraries play in teaching digital skills, and highlighted the ongoing need for digital training in a rapidly evolving tech society. She states that there is no permanence to digital literacy, as technology users have to adapt to updates and new platforms constantly. Clark also noted that lack of “digital readiness” compounds (rather than supplants) traditional digital divide concerns, and policy advocates must bear in mind other barriers, such as limited literacy, in considering meaningful solutions.

Scott Wallsten and Nicol Turner-Lee both noted that different devices may be more or less accessible to users, and we still need more and better data related to mobile Internet use. Policies will need to take into consideration the platforms and devices that various groups trust, and increase accessibility and skills literacy for targeted populations. For example, members of low-income communities are more likely to have broadband access via a smartphone, rather than a PC in their home, and creating mobile apps and compatible health, government, and employment websites to address digital readiness may increase trust and skills.

In addition to consuming and accessing valuable information online, it is increasingly necessary to be able to produce digital information as well. Political debates, education, and career development are taking place online more and more frequently, and according to Clark, being able to engage with elected officials, employers and the wider community through social media and video is a new component of modern citizenship and democratic participation.

From the discussion, it was clear that digital readiness can be an important basis for framing policy to address digital inclusion in our public policy, philanthropy, learning, and technology adoption. As Wallsten aptly stated, technology can be a symptom of a growing gap between the digital haves and have-nots, or it could be a tool to help mitigate that gap and promote equal opportunity. Institutions such as libraries will continue to play a vital role in providing the skills training and trusted resources needed to increase digital readiness.

About Margaret Kavaras

Margaret Kavaras is the 2014 Google Policy Fellow working with the American Library Association (ALA), and a recent graduate of George Washington University.

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