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Mar 15, 2017

The Digital Divide (as I finally understand it)

Articles outlining the Digital Divide began appearing in Ed Tech journals a few years back but I could not get a clear understanding of what it really was. At the time I worked in a small private university, with less than 20% financial aid kids and less than 14% minorities; our constituents were the direct heritors of the positive side of the divide. While the digital divide was definitely happening, it was happening a long way away.


At that time, as now:
  • Practically all college students had smart phones, 
  • Many students that I encountered opted to complete homework (writing papers and discussion posts, etc.) using their phones, and 
  • Every poor person I encountered in Baltimore owned a smart phone.
I simply conflated the groups to develop my opinions on the subject; poor, inner-city black, students. Embarrassed, I recall once saying to my director, “The digital divide is largely becoming a myth…today more students than not [particularly poor inner city students] have access to the internet, online tools, and applications to get schoolwork done.” While superficially true, I had no empirical evidence of what poor kids were actually doing.

Impecunious youth at our private university were the ones who had to get work study jobs as part of their financial aid packages, but even they had grown up with the web at home.

It didn’t help my understanding not personally knowing people living in poverty and unable to afford the supremely necessary home computer. I simply could not relate.
A Commodore 64

As a kid of the 80s, I got my first computer at age 8—about a decade before computers became a necessary accessory for US households. My sister and I programmed computer games—in Basic—for fun. In high school and college I always had both a Mac and Windows computer on which to work—as a graphic designer and artist having both was a personal imperative. Between undergrad and graduate schools I purchased, used, and equipped with the appropriate software packages, a total of four personal computers (two Mac, two Windows).

Like I said, I didn’t know. And that was the missing piece in my puzzle.

Today, I work at a state school; a  public, historically black university with over 80% of its students in receipt of financial aid. The majority of whom are black Americans, a vast majority of those from the Baltimore area, and many of whom are using their first personal computers, ever.

Back in the private university world of privilege, undergraduate students—who opt to complete homework on their phones grew up with desktops, laptops, and tablets in houses with secure internet access, wired and wireless routers, and monthly bills that were paid on time. They had the opportunity to bring their own laptops to schools that boasted open WiFi, or were given computers on which to work, by their schools. The poor Baltimore kids, some the first in their families to go to college, never had an equivalent or anything close. Even though today all of these kids have smart phones that can allow them to complete projects and do research on the fly, only the first group actually takes advantage of that fact.

On the wrong side of the chasm that we call the digital divide are the poorer, blacker students.

Personal Interactions with  Students Opened my Eyes


My department shares an office with the university’s library tech support team. Often students walk in with a computer or network problem. Rather than have them wait for one of the two technicians or leave a message, I usually field the easier questions to help get students back to the two things I’ve always taken for granted, understanding and access [to the computer].

On the morning before our first and only snow day of the year a young woman came in asking for help to install and start up Skype. She was scheduled to have the first important interview of her career on the following day. Nutrition and Dietetics undergrads are required to complete a six-month, 40-hour per week internship before they sit their certification exam. This university senior was nervous and excited for the upcoming virtual meeting.

Her problem was that Skype was hanging up instead of starting quickly, as it had earlier. I ordered her to grab a seat at the coffee table, plug in the power cable, and start up her Macbook while I finished writing an email at my desk.

As she did this, I informed her that one way to avoid any issues with virtual meetings was to “ALWAYS use a wired connection, rather than rely on WiFi.”

" What do you mean by wired connections...I don't understand," she replied.

I explained what an Ethernet cable was and where to plug it in. She was still confused.

Admittedly, a bit perturbed, I asked her how she accessed the internet at her off-campus apartment. In her entire life, she had only ever used a library computer or WiFi hotspot from a phone to get online, never having a secure wired internet connection in her own home.

Understanding her predicament, I asked a few probing questions while I connected my spare Ethernet cable to her laptop and played with the Skype application. I started and restarted Skype, “have you used Skype on your computer—your phone—another campus computer before…experienced any similar problem…do you ever change network settings…do you have a login password for this Mac…what time is the interview…” etc. While we worked we also talked about her ambitions for the interview and beyond.

Within minutes I showed her how to see and edit her network settings, adjust and test her audio, uninstall and reinstall the Skype app (we got it working), and then gave a few tips about what to do during the interview to avoid technical snags.

This is a young woman who has a 3.5 GPA, and a passion for working with children suffering rare genetic disorders. She has excelled in a difficult educational field and has applied to one of the more competitive internships for her major—accepting under 50 students per year, nationwide. In her undergraduate tenure she has worked at the campus library, become well-respected in the Mathematics department (she told me that they would loan her of one of their laptops to take home for a backup interview computer), and has developed larger ambitions for a doctorate in the field of public health. If anyone does, this woman deserves every opportunity to succeed.


A few days earlier, a young man came to my office with a problem, his professor had recently posted the weekly quiz online, but his computer did not allow him to download the necessary test-taking plugin. Please recall that I’m not tech support and I don’t actually know the precise fix for this problem. However, it’s something that has slowed my progress in the past. I suggested to him that the Windows firewall settings might need to be changed to allow the software download. An easy fix, if it works.

This young man did not have his computer with him, so I queried him more about the error messages then I gave him the number for the help desk and told him to call them while at his computer—he could then relay the specific errors or prompts to the Help Desk agent in real time.

The next day he returned to my office with his laptop and asked for my assistance. Normally I would have handed him my phone and restated my directive from the previous day, but the touchscreen laptop in his hand was the Toshiba Satellite, my latest Windows laptop, and frankly the bane of my existence (it’s not great). Rather than my sending him to the experts, we walked through a solution together. My assumption was right, a quick adjustment to his settings allowed download of the application.

On his way out, this third year student thanked me profusely and remarked in the doorway, “this is my first computer, y’know.” My heart melted for him. In another year he would enter the world of work (or graduate school) with only a 12-month experience in working with and trouble shooting his own personal computer.

The impact of his innocuous statement hit me. This thing—that I and a large segment of Americas youth take for granted—is foreign, a difficult concept, a largely unknown and misunderstood commodity to many poor black students.


Now, as back then, practically all students have smartphones, but the poor ones, the black ones, the ones from underprivileged Baltimore have never had a computer at home on which to write a paper, use the calculator app, or plagiarize from Wikipedia. So, they never developed the skills to transform their powerful smartphone into a powerful educational tool. They rarely make the leap to write that paper in Word 365 or Google Docs, using their thumbs and built-in spell check.

The Digital Divide is real. And it’s growing.