Measuring the digital divide

The term "digital divide" is now commonplace. Where it was once taken simply to denote the gap between those who owned a computer and those who did not, it has now taken on a more complex and subtle set of meanings. The ICT "have-nots" may indeed have never seen or touched a computer, but also include those who have physical access to technology but for a range of reasons lack the support, skills or social or cultural context to make full and comprehensive use of it.

While economics within the UK are key - individuals in the higher income brackets are five times more likely to have internet access at home than those in the lowest - the divide also exists at the level of whole groups or even countries. An OECD study, published in 2000, looked at the issue of the digital divide at an international level. In particular it focused on the "learning digital divide", identifying the nurturing of competence to exploit digital technologies as part of the job of schools and colleges, and underlying the whole notion of lifelong learning. Thus individuals who have not acquired the necessary competences to use ICT to support their own learning by the end of their formal education continue to be disadvantaged, possibly throughout their lives.

At this point, it would be easy to be complacent about the UK situation. We have invested heavily in ICT infrastructure for schools; ITICT has been part of the compulsory curriculum for some 13 years. Surely we have the foundation of a thriving workforce ready and able to act as lifelong learners in a rapidly changing world, and drive the economy forward? The reality is a little different. The recent Science and Technology Select Committee pulls no punches: "Current GCSE courses are overloaded with factual content, contain little contemporary science and have stultifying assessment arrangementsI Students lose any enthusiasm that they once had for science."

This is alarming enough, given the dependence of a technologically rich culture on science and scientists, but more so if it is true of the GCSE system as a whole. Is science alone in having coursework which is "boring and pointless", or frustrating students and teachers alike with its "lack of flexibility"?

Where in the current 14-16 curriculum is the space or opportunity to work on the development of information literacy or adaptive literacy - the abilities to discern the quality of information and develop new skills along the way? Are we now in a position where pupils at the age of 14 see learning as something they do to pass a test - memorising content to reproduce on demand with no possible use or relevance beyond? If that is so, then no amount of skill in operating computers, nor any number of machines in bedrooms, will bridge the digital divide. Being a digital "have" is as much about attitude as access - having the ability to find, recognise and use information, and to understand that learning is not always fun but rather hard yet ultimately satisfying. When measured against this model - which side of the digital divide do our school leavers fall?

For more information on the digital divide see the OECD report Learning to Bridge the Digital Divide, and the BECTA discussion paper at www.becta.org.ukresearchreportsdigidivide.html. The Science and Technology Select Committee report on science education 14-19 can be found on the Parliament website, www.parliament.uk.

Angela McFarlane is professor of education and director of learning technology at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol

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