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Digital Divide: Access Is Not Enough

Access to technology is not enough to eliminate the digital divide, according to a new study from the University of Southern California. Specialized programs that provide low-income households with access to computers and the Internet must also provide ongoing and progressive training to increase participants' computer skills.

The study, "Computer Usage and Access in Low-Income Urban Communities," which was published in the July 2013 issue of Computers in Human Behavior, examined the effects of home computer access on low-income households that participated in the Computers for Families program. The program aims to reduce the digital divide by providing low-income families with refurbished desktop computers, software, technical assistance, and basic computer instruction, all of which are donated by companies, agencies, and organizations in the area. In order the qualify for the program, participants were required to attend an eight-hour computer skills boot camp.

Researchers studied the relationship between computer access and knowledge, employment, education, and children's academic performance. The most statistically significant finding of the study was that participants in the Computers for Families program "were more likely than nonparticipants to have access to the Internet from home, use a computer for more than one hour per day, complete online job applications, and submit job applications and resumes electronically," according to the report. However, lack of computer literacy and problems with hardware and software hindered success on other measures.

Participants in the study considered computer use important to furthering their education and to their children's academic achievement, and the study's survey questionnaires found a positive correlation between computer and Internet access and employment searches and academic achievement, but according to the report, "the study results do not provide conclusive evidence for the theory that technological accessibility can be attributed to the widening digital divide." Although participants in the Computers for Families program used them to apply for jobs online, their lack of computer literacy created challenges.

"Given the variation of computer literacy found within our participants, we recommend that computer literacy assessments be completed at the beginning of enrollment and throughout the year in order to better gauge where participants find themselves along the computer literacy continuum," stated the report. "This will allow program staff to gain a better understanding of each participant’s needs as well as the time to explore additional barriers that may impede their learning."

However, participants reported numerous benefits to having a computer in their home, including:

  • Ease of job searches and application submission;
  • Academic enhancement for their children;
  • Access to a wide range of information;
  • Ability to spent more time together as a family because family members didn't have to travel to the library to use the computer;
  • More time for children to complete computer-based school work;
  • Improved general computer knowledge and skills, including typing, navigating Web sites, and learning how to pay bills online; and
  • Ability to take free online classes to increase skills.

The report concluded with a recommendation for further research to "address barriers to effective computer and Internet access through conducting computer literacy assessments, ongoing trainings and providing easy to access technical support."

Participants in the study were residents of Jordan Downs, a low-income, urban, public housing community in the Watts district of South Los Angeles. Approximately two-thirds of residents are Hispanic and one-third African American. Nearly half of the residents are under the age of 18, and half of households are headed by a single parent. According to the report, approximately 60 percent of residents were unemployed and the average annual household income was $15,670. A total of 43 survey questionnaires were completed, 20 from families who participated in the Computers for Families program and 23 from families who did not.

The complete report, "Computer Usage and Access in Low-Income Urban Communities," is available on the ScienceDirect site for $19.95.

About the Author

Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at [email protected].

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