Digital Divide versus Digital Inequality

How does one define the “digital divide”?  From the current web definitions it is difficult to see why there is both confusion and debate surrounding the term.  In my opinion the well accepted classical definition refers to the gap between people with effective access to digital and information technology and those with very limited or no access at all.

At present there is no web definition of digital inequality, so what is the all the confusion about? Well perhaps that itself is causing the confusion: people, scholars, academics and politicians cannot agree on what “digital inequality” encompasses. DiMaggio et al have listed 5 main factors in moving towards a definition: (i) equipment; (ii) autonomy of use; (iii) skills; (iv) social support; and (v) use patterns.  These factors are all complex social and educational issues themselves, which makes “digital inequality” even more difficult to pin down.

The Internet is an evolving resource with various political regimes trying to control it, and others trying to free it from the rule of law.  It is important for scholars and governments to agree on these ‘digital’ definitions and the differences between them.  This is required in order to properly allocate resources and funding, to help bridge the digital divide and eradicate digital inequality.

In my opinion the classical definition of the digital divide is valid but should simply apply to “the ability to access” the Internet in terms of software (browsers, ISPs) and hardware (computers, wireless technology, fibre networks). As long as governments can ensure that greater than 90 percent of citizens have the ability to connect to the Internet using a computer in their home to a ISP for a reasonable cost, then they have bridged the digital divide.

In terms of digital inequality, DiMaggio and others, are asking too much. Inequality derives mainly from socio-economics and this impacts all five factors in their definition.  If the first factor, equipment, is moved in to the digital divide definition then the other factors could simply become “time spent online/online usage skills” etc.

Below is my interpretation of these definitions in a graphical sense. It is meant to illustrate the relationship between the DD and DI and how people’s use of the Internet as a resource changes as they break down these barriers and spend more time online.

The positive result of my definition for digital inequality is that it primarily becomes an educational issue.  That means that schools, universities and other educational institutions have the opportunity of addressing and reducing digital inequality in our society.  If we develop courses on how to best use the Internet; for research, gaining knowledge, managing our time, employment, and networking, then it becomes a tool and resource to enrich and enhance our lives.

The impact of the Digital Divide on the Association of Educational Communications and Technology (AECT) can be seen from the first three elements in section 1 of their Code of Professional Ethics.  Here the “Commitment to the Individual” is directly challenged, as it states:

In fulfilling obligations to the individual, the member:
1. Shall encourage independent action in an individual’s pursuit of learning and shall provide access to varying points of view.
2. Shall protect the individual rights of access to materials of varying points of view.
3. Shall guarantee to each individual the opportunity to participate in any appropriate program.

How can a teacher ensure that our students have access to “varying points of view” at home?  At least at school we can ensure they have access to the Internet and the variety of sources it provides to gather “varying points of view”.  However the third element is much more difficult for a teacher to fulfil. If, as our profession and many students, are now demanding increased number of course online than how can a teacher “guarantee to each individual the opportunity to participate in any appropriate program?”  According to the AECT it is part of our code of ethics, and ironically by creating courses online we may be guaranteeing access to bridge a geographical divide at the same time as making the digital divide just that little bit larger.

In summary, the digital divide is about access to the technology and schools have already closed that divide.  It is not the school’s nor the teacher’s responsibility to also close that divide in the home, that falls to the government of the day.  As DiMaggio and Hargittai state in their Princeton research this digital divide will inevitably close as Internet penetration increases. I agree and believe it is not a ‘how’ but a ‘when’ issue, and possibly access to it may even become a basic human right as was recently reported in the Washington Post.

Digital Inequality is of much greater concern and can be better addressed in our schools starting tomorrow. Policy makers, scholars, teachers and educators all have a responsibility to make sure that students are not only safe on the Internet but they know how to use it maximise its potential.  Teachers talk, write and plan daily to help their students “reach their potential” – but do they consider that how their students use the web is now a major part of the process?  Perhaps Librarians in schools have a larger role to play in educating students about how to search, qualify and reference information they gather from the Internet.  However I think, like most educational issues, it comes back to the classroom teacher, or the teacher who has the most influence and best relationship with a child to teach those skills.  Teaching is a multi-specialist profession: we cannot just be an expert in one discipline, we must be a master of many, including educational technology.


AECT: Code of Professional Ethics. (n.d.). . Retrieved February 6, 2011, from

Barzilai-Nahon, K. (2006). Gaps and bits: Conceptualizing measurements for digital divide/s. The Information Society, 22(5), 269-278. (PDF file)

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Cooper, M. (2004). Expanding the digital divide and falling behind in broadband. Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union. Retrieved from

DiMaggio, P., & Hargittai, E. (2001). From the ‘digital divide’ to ‘digital inequality:’ Studying Internet use as penetration increases. Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, Working Paper Series number, 15. Retrieved from…gittai.pdf

DiMaggio, P., Hargittai, E., Celeste, C., & Shafer, S. (2004). From unequal access to differentiated use: A literature review and agenda for research on digital inequality. Social Inequality, 355-400. Retrieved from…uality.pdf

Hargittai, E. (2003). The digital divide and what to do about it. New Economy Handbook, 821-839. Retrieved from…divide.pdf

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