Efforts to Bridge the Digital Divide and their Impacts
In the last decade private, nonprofit and public sector organizations have developed ambitious programs to increase information technology (IT) use and close the digital divide. This article describes these efforts to increase IT access and use for immigrants. Despite growing literature that describes differences in access and use of IT for immigrants, few organizations and researchers have studied the overall effectiveness of efforts to alleviate these disparities between native-born and immigrant populations.
On the other hand, the effects of increased access and use of IT are well documented. Access and use of IT are associated with expanded social networks, increased political knowledge, and strengthened parenting among other gains in social, cultural, and political capital (Ellison, Wohn, & Brown, 2014; Morris & Morris, 2013; Rivera, 2014; Hsieh, Jang, Hwang, & Chen, 2011). For example, one study found a statistically significant positive relationship between Internet access and knowledge of politics and that this relationship was more pronounced for groups with lower levels of education and income (Morris & Morris, 2013). Another study found a positive association between social media use and the development of higher educational aspirations for high school students whose parents hadn’t attended college. These students used social media to learn about colleges from the schools themselves and other students (Ellison, Wohn, & Brown, 2014). These examples point to the larger connections between technology and social outcomes. Some of the efforts we discuss explicitly address this connection as part of an effort to address inequities common in immigrant communities.
One-to-One Computer Projects. One-to-one computer initiatives are school-based programs that provide each student at a participating school with a computer. Some studies of one-to-one computer initiatives show improvements in standardized test performance, grade point averages, interest, attendance, and motivation for teachers and students as a result of the program (Prince, 2014). An important caveat to this approach is that one-to-one programs are not associated with positive improvements across all subject areas and may only be effective in areas like language arts and literacy while showing less robust improvements in math (Prince, 2014). In addition a lack of widespread Internet connectivity in schools and lack of instructor training may limit the effectiveness of programs (Cotten, Hale, Moroney, O’Neal, & Borch, 2011).
Computer Technology Centers. Early efforts to improve access and use of IT focused on access to computers and Internet connectivity (Modarres, 2011). In part this was implemented through computer technology centers (CTCs). CTCs are typically located in public spaces such as schools and libraries and offer computer and Internet access to communities with low levels of IT connectivity (Fairlie et al., 2006).
As efforts to increase access began to grow, concern over IT training surfaced. In response, community groups and nonprofits began providing training for the communities they served at CTCs (Modarres, 2011). Acting on the belief that people learn well when they are able to express themselves and engage with their learning, CTCs began training that allowed users to express themselves through digital media (Modarres, 2011; Fairlie et al., 2006).
The two examples mentioned below are programs catering to the needs of specific immigrant populations and are unique among CTCs.
One example highlights family-based curriculum through schools at the Community Learning Center or Centros Comunitarios de Aprendizaje (CCA) sponsored by the Mexican Institute. This curriculum fosters parent involvement in the education of immigrant children and is designed to be complementary to the curriculum taught at the child’s school (Rivera, 2014). Parents who participated in computer training increased their visits to teachers to discuss their children’s academic progress, according to an evaluation of the program (Rivera, 2014).
Another example involves culturally specific curriculum through computer centers located at the Hmong American Partnership Asian Community Technology Center funded by the University of Minnesota’s Broadband Access Project (Lee, 2011). Their technology centers provide training to Hmong immigrants who have limited experience with computers (Lee, 2011).
CTCs offer the only connection to IT for some, however there are also several significant drawbacks to these centers. According to one study immigrants and natives alike are unlikely to use computers at any public space, which means these efforts have been largely unsuccessful at erasing the digital divide (Ono & Zavodny, 2008). Within the youth population the reasons for this are tri-fold:
- CTCs often limit time allowed on computers;
- CTCs can have restrictions for computer use based on criteria such as course enrollment; and
- Hours of operation can conflict with other commitments such as school or work (Fairlie et al., 2006).
Thus, to be effective at increasing access to IT, CTCs should work to overcome these hurdles.
Internet Access Expansion. Offering broadband connections to immigrant groups is an alternative means by which to increase personal access. Several different models for offering broadband connectivity to disadvantaged groups exist:
One two-pronged literacy and access model offers broadband access and comprehensive computer literacy training. For example, the California Emerging Technology Funds (CETF) has given grants to local community development efforts in nine cities in the Southeast Los Angeles region to close the digital divide. CETF offers broadband access along with a comprehensive computer literacy program that works with faith-based organizations to educate families on the benefits of the Internet (CETF, 2011).
A second model offers broadband connectivity through Internet service providers. Comcast’s ‘Internet Essentials’ program is an excellent example of this. Launched in 2011, Internet Essentials offers low-cost Internet access to low-income families in the San Francisco Bay Area (Comcast, 2012).
A third model uses the idea of a “neighborhood cloud.” Using grants from the California Public Utilities Commission, Youth Policy Institute has successfully implemented this model, offering community-wide Internet access to residents, patrons, and customers (Youth Policy Institute, 2012).
Community Empowerment. Recognizing that there is no one-size fits-all solution to digital inequality, some community groups have engaged in community based and participatory models. These methods engage disadvantaged communities in the planning of programs designed to increase their access to technology. This approach tailors programs’ curricula to meet specialized needs, and creates a sense of personal ownership over the learning process (Mehra et al., 2004). One example is the La Clase Magica collaborative in Texas.
La Clase Magica at the University of Texas San Antoino (UTSA) is a collaborative between the university and local elementary schools. This partnership used technology to increase cultural awareness, bilingualism, science and math skills, and college preparedness for first-generation Latina/o students. The Talleres de familia de La Clase Magica (Family workshops of LCM), provided a space where families engaged in different technology activities from turning the computer on to sending emails or developing presentations and movies (Machado-Casas, Sanchez, & Ek, 2014). Family participants determined the approach to learning, sharing, and teaching as a community, choosing skills they deemed necessary to everyday life (Machado-Casas, Sanchez, & Ek, 2014).
About this project
The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, a university research center with the mission to address the challenges and opportunities of demographic diversity in the 21st century global city, has produced these featured digital publications using the USC Media Curator, an online publishing platform designed to bring together innovative research from across the University of Southern California and beyond. This project curates research relevant for immigrant service providers on the topics of Access & Use of Technology, Access & Use of Financial Services, Notario Fraud, and Driver's Licenses for the unauthorized.