CGE Vol.13 No.7 September 2007

It’s been 20 years since we started talking about the digital divide. What progress have we made?

The gap between those who have access and the skills to use technology and those who do not exists on different levels: between those in urban and rural areas; between the educated and the uneducated; between economic classes; and, between more and less developed nations.

Canada is a world leader in reducing the divide, touting an impressive array of initiatives. With the intent to be the most connected nation in the world, Canada has launched programs such as Schoolnet, connecting public schools and libraries to the internet; Computers for Schools, which has provided over 300,000 refurbished computers to schools; and Smart Communities, which uses information and communication technologies in new and innovative ways to empower communities.

The Broadband for Rural and Northern Development Program has focused on First Nations, rural, and northern communities, and is responsible for many new broadband sites. The National Satellite Initiative, a partnership with the Canadian Space Agency, has made affordable satellite capacity to communities in isolated and remote areas, where satellite technology is the only practical solution, including 140 First Nations communities.

The Community Access Program (CAP) provides Canadians with affordable public access to the internet and the skills they need to use it effectively. Working in partnership with community groups, libraries, schools, and others, CAP helps Canadians unlock the power and potential of the knowledge-driven world, whether in a downtown public library or a rural volunteer centre, through training and computer support.

For example, currently broadband service is available to 85% of Nova Scotians. The province says the remaining areas will have service by the end of 2009. They have 274 CAP sites. And that is not too bad.

However, the program is in real danger. After years of budget cuts, CAP is teetering on demise. While the original mandate may need to be retooled for the times, the value of what we are doing cannot be lost. In many ways, we need CAP more now than ever.

On a global scale other initiatives are underway. Microsoft recently announced it would build on existing efforts to bridge the divide worldwide by providing its Windows XP and Office Suite for virtually nothing to governments that subsidize computers.

The XO-1 ($100 Laptop) is set to start full production this month. The program from the One Laptop per Child Association (OLPC) provides laptop computers for children around the world, particularly to those in developing countries for $100.

World Information Society Day is now occurring each year on May 17, raising awareness about the divide, an outcome of the world summit on the information society.

These are all good news stories, but there is much to be done. Many First Nations are still not covered effectively. Many seniors have not integrated the internet into their daily lives. And there remain segments of our society without the means or ability to access broadband services.

To take advantage of ICT’s benefits, it is important to understand other issues. So let’s move from questions of access to questions of opportunities. Specifically, opportunities to participate and develop cultural competencies and social skills needed to participate in an online world.

It is known as the “participatory culture,” a culture of sharing, most often amongst teens. From blogging and podcasting, to collaborative work, to Wikipedia, to creative outlets like Mashups and Zines, to Facebook and MySpace – collectively referred to as online social networking. Did you know that 85% of online teens use MySpace, and that Facebook and MySpace are the most trafficked sites in the world? Do you know how to use them?

Many are now touting the potential benefits of these new forms of participation, including opportunities for peer-to-peer learning and the development of skills valued in today’s work world. In fact, access to this participatory culture functions as a new form of hidden curriculum, shaping which youth will succeed and which will be left behind as they enter school and the workplace.

How are young people acquiring these skills? Schools have been slow to react. The Ontario government and the City of Toronto have banned Facebook from the work environment, affecting youth in many ways.

In the United States, they are struggling with the Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006 (often referred to as the MySpace bill) which requires schools and libraries that receive government funding to protect young people when using social networking sites and chat rooms. In essence the act would prohibit schools and libraries from providing access to these types of websites for young people.

Libraries are firmly opposed. The American Library Association has drawn a clear line of opposition to DOPA contending that education is the best approach. They claim that the speed of technology change often leaves control mechanisms outdated and access to beneficial social networking environments unavailable.

Welcome to the Participation Gap. By differentiating the experiences of young people with access to the social networking world (on home computers) from those who rely on school and library access where social networking is often heavily controlled, a new gap is forming, leaving some young people less able to participate and involve themselves in the defining experiences of their generation.

So who is watching and who is doing something? In Canada, libraries understand the participation gap and are doing their best to enable a participatory environment. Halifax Public Libraries does not control social networking access and it shows. Their computer use skyrocketed 74% in the past year. Students often head to the library after school to avoid the restrictions of the school environment. Librarians are now learning new skills to help educate and protect these young people. Halifax Public Libraries will be launching training initiatives this year to educate librarians, youth workers, and other staff on the latest social software and their implications. It has also instituted wireless portable computer labs and designated more teen space so that young people can interact in an open, safe environment.

Government, schools and other agencies charged with developing young people must also embrace the importance of a participatory culture and the realities of today. This is the way young people are now interacting. These skills must be encouraged, developed and integrated.

It is important here to step back and acknowledge the wide spread concerns and fears the internet has placed on society. There are clear and present dangers on the internet. Young people are at risk. NBC’s Dateline: To Catch a Predator illustrates this very clearly. Cyberbullying is another serious problem. A recent study found that 42% of youth reported being bullied online.

Legislation and restrictions are designed to protect young people. However, we don’t want a culture where they are suppressed and miss out on opportunities to gain essential skills that will help them shape and participate in their generation and the work world they are entering.

So how are we doing? On the digital divide, we are rising to the challenge. Canada remains a world leader and the divide continues to shrink. Have we declared victory? Not yet; maybe not