Digital Learning Apartheid
Charlie Guy, M.Ed.
05 January 2007

Silent Epidemic

According to a recent report for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, there exists ...

... a high school dropout epidemic in America. Each year, almost one third of all public high school students' and nearly one half of all blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans fail to graduate from public high school with their class. Many of these students abandon school with less than two years to complete their high school education. Given the clear detrimental economic and personal costs to them, why do young people drop out of high school in such large numbers?"1

At the same time, many well-meaning educators, politicians, and citizens are basking in self-congratulations for having successfully eliminated the at-school digital divide (the gap between individuals able to benefit from technology and those who aren't) as a contributing factor to this Silent Epidemic. But, millions of our country's economically and socially disadvantaged learners are still suffering a Digital Learning Apartheid. For them, digital isolation at home only further expands the gaps in digital learning participation and academic achievement between them and the have learners.

Have-not Learners

Although the more generally accepted term in education for this class of learners is at-risk students, I have chosen instead to use the term have-not learners first, to better clarify the cause and amplify the severity of their situation. Traditionally, when the term at-risk is applied to education, it refers to the risk of learners dropping out of school due to their family's low social economic status (SES). Secondly, substituting the term learners for students broadens the definitional scope to include these former high school dropouts who wish to use re-education or workforce development to now gain more meaningful employment.

The danger is that school personnel and others will focus primarily or solely on the personal variables and characteristics, viewing the at-risk student as deficient because he/she does not "fit" the system rather than viewing the situation from a broader, more systemic perspective (i.e., the system as deficient because it does not meet the educational needs of all of its students). Another pitfall is the use of the term at-risk without specifying in what respect the student is at risk. 2

While I do not wish to become entangled in attempts to lay blame on the potential responsible parties for the blight of these learners, I do feel, however, the term have-not learners more clearly dramatizes the truth of what these learners face not only in their school settings, as so dramatically pointed out by Jonathan Kozol in his The Shame of the Nation, The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, but also at home.

The History

Historically, the early concerns and discussions of the digital divide assumed that the most important issue was to provide technical access for all learners via infrastructural improvements to our country's public schools. This concern led to the creation of the federal E-rate program that invested public funds into the initial wiring of our country's schools to provide Internet access. This approach assumed that increased learner academic achievement would occur merely as the result of providing all learners, regardless of their families' financial situations, with equal at-school access to digital learning resources. The approach assumed the World Wide Web is simply an inert data bank, devoid of dynamic interchange.

What was neither anticipated nor addressed then, nor is being focused upon now, is disparate at-home access to the Internet. While have-not learners from our country's poorest families may in fact now have access to the Internet at school as well as to school digital learning resources, when they leave school at the end of the day, they suffer from a disproportionate degree of at-home Internet isolation.

The Truth

According to a September 2006 report released by the U.S. Department of Education, there does in fact exist an at-home digital learning participation gap between have and have-not learners:

I. Families Annual Incomes Gaps

Type of Learner Families Annual Incomes  At-home Computer Use At-home Digital Learning Participation Gap
have-not learners Under $20,000 37% 51%
$20,000-$34,999 55% 33%
have learners $75,000 or more 88% NA

II. Racial/Ethnic Gaps

Type of Learner At-home Computer Use At-home Digital Learning Participation Gap
American Indian 43% 35%
Blacks 46% 32%
Hispanics 48% 30%
Asian 74% NA
Whites 78% NA

III. Parent Educational Attainment Gaps

Type of Learner At-home Computer Use At-home Digital Learning Participation Gap
Less than High School Credential 35% 47%*
High School Credential 55% 27%
Some College 72% 10%
Bachelor's Degree 82% NA
Graduate Education 88% NA

  *As compared against a graduate education.

IV. Household Language Gaps

Type of Learner At-home Computer Use At-home Digital Learning Participation Gap
Spanish Only 32% 37%
Not Spanish Only 69% NA

V. Poverty Status

Type of Learner At-home Computer Use At-home Digital Learning Participation Gap
In Poverty 39% 37%
Not In Poverty 76% NA

Source:  Page 15, Table 3 of the Computer and Internet Use by Students in 2003, Statistical Analysis Report, Released in 2006 by the National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S.Department of Education. 1990 K Street NW, Washington, DC. 20006 The Expanding Digital Learning Participation Gap

As the above data demonstrates, when learners from more financially stable families (the have learners) return to their homes, they can extend their digital learning experiences by continuing to utilize the various research, communication, and collaboration skills learned at-school by continuing to explore the Internet. For motivated learners, this convenient at-home Internet access provides an increased opportunity to improve their at-school academic achievement. On the other hand, when the average financially disadvantaged have-not learners return from school to home, they enter a world of total digital isolation and face another learning disadvantage resulting from their families' less financially secure situations: The Digital Learning Participation Gap. The At-Home Digital Learning Participation Gap number in the above tables measures the size of the difference (gap) in amount of time spent participating in collaborative activities.

There are now compelling indicators of the potential pedagogical value of the students' use of their personal communication and collaborative skills learned in their at-home informal learning environments (the social media of blogs, eMail, Podcasting, wikis, IM, chat, social networking, etc).

The have learners, for the most part, have developed these communication and collaborative learning skills in an Internet enabled at-home environment using either their own or their family's computers and cell phones. The have-not learners, on the other hand, depend primarily upon their personal and/or family cell phones for communication only purposes.

The personal use of cell phones is, however, a primary similarity between these two classes of students. Cell phone penetration rates among high income and low income households is roughly equal. A 2005 report released by GfK Technology (formerly NOP World Technology) highlights cell phone penetration rates in the US:

73% of 18 year olds own cell phones, a 15% increase from 2002.

75% of 15-17 year olds carry cell phones, up from 42% in 2002.

Ownership among 12-14 year olds increasing from 13% in February 2002 to 40% in December 2004

Penetration is 90% in U.S. colleges

According to Henry Jenkins, PhD, co-director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT Media Center, the problem shifts from concerns about technical [Internet] access to concerns about participation in the key social and cultural experiences that are defining the emerging [learners' ] relationship to these technologies. [The Internet's] power comes through participation within its social networks.3 George Siemens further amplifies the importance of the students' use of their social media in learning:

Instruction is currently largely housed in courses and other artificial constructs of information organization and presentation. Leaving this theory behind and moving towards a networked model requires that we place less emphasis on our tasks of presenting information, and more emphasis on building the learner's ability to navigate the information (i.e. connectivism).

Blogs, wikis, and other open, collaborative platforms are reshaping learning as a two-way process. Instead of presenting content/information/knowledge in a linear sequential manner, learners can be provided with a rich array of tools and information sources to use in creating their own learning pathways. The instructor or institution can still ensure that critical learning elements are achieved by focusing instead on the creation of the knowledge ecology. The links and connections are formed by the learners themselves.4

The Hope

If the country's Digital Educational Apartheid is to be eliminated in order for our country's have-not learners to finally have an opportunity for equal access to safe digital learning resources and full participation in networked educational collaborative platforms, then as a country, we must develop and test new and innovative systemic solutions that address:

Lower cost or community subsidized at-home learner Internet access
Low cost or community subsidized learner handheld educational multi-media learning devices providing safe targeted learning & communication functionalities
Volunteer virtual community mentoring empowered by a virtual tutoring solution providing a targeted eContent mastery system
Free or low cost at-school and at-home digital learning resources including instructor and learner user generated eContent
Alignment of the formalized learning environment of the schools with the informal learning environments (Personal Learning Environments) of the millennial students

An educated and informed citizenry are essential elements in maintaining a free and democratic society. With the current barriers to equal opportunity, at school and at home, the future of our democracy is at risk.


1The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts, (PDF here) A report by Civic Enterprises in association with Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation By: John M. Bridgeland, John J. DiIulio, Jr., & Karen Burke Morison, March 2006


3Digital Divide Network Discussion: MySpace and Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), May 30th, 2006, Author: Henry Jenkins, PhD, co-director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT Media Center

4Connectivism: Learning as Network-Creation, August 10, 2005, Author: George Siemens

About the Author: Charlie Guy's unique educational technology vision is based not only upon his past traditional and e-commerce private sector business experiences, but also upon his initial professional educational training and teaching experiences coupled with his volunteer economic development experiences in Tampa's inner city. This compilation of personal experiences fuels his passion for educational change and the patience to conduct it properly.

Other ePluribus Contributors and Fact Checkers: JeninRI, kfred, GreyHawk, cho, roxy, standingup

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