digital access is growing among all racial and ethnic groups, black
and Hispanic households are far less likely to have access to the
Internet than white and Asian-American households.
Alvin P. Sanoff
illustrations by Ferruccio Sardella
phrase digital divide has become part of the lexicon.
It shows up in government reports, in political speeches, and in
statements made by such high-tech entrepreneurs as Bill Gates. The
phrase describes a nation that is dividing into two camps, one composed
of technology haves and the other of technology have-nots. The have-nots,
according to government statistics, are more likely to be black
and the Internet have become part of the fabric of daily life, those
on the wrong side of the divide are at a growing disadvantage in
everything from pursuing higher education to getting a new job.
Or, as the bipartisan, congressional Web-based Education Commission
put it in a report early this year: . . . the Internet could
result in greater division between those with access to the opportunities
of Web-based learning and those without access.
data document what is a troubling trend. Although digital access
is growing among all racial and ethnic groups, black and Hispanic
households are far less likely to have access to the Internet than
white and Asian-American households. According to a U.S. Department
of Commerce report, between December 1998 and August 2000 the proportion
of black households with access to the Internet from home more than
doubled, from 11.2 to 23.5 percent; Hispanic households showed a
comparable increase. But both groups' numbers are still much
lower than the 46 percent access rate of white households and the
57 percent rate of Asian-American households.
is the fact that even as access for all groups increased, in relative
terms black and Hispanic households lost ground. Between December
1998 and August 2000, the Commerce Department study found that the
gap in home Internet access between black households and the national
household average increased from 15 to 18 percent. The gap between
Hispanic households and the national average widened from 13.6 to
Out of the Loop
For the nation's
engineering schools, which are striving to increase the number of
underrepresented minorities who enroll, this is not good news. Without
ready access to computers and the Internet, say educators, students
are less likely to develop the skills and knowledge base that would
lead them to study engineering.
young people might not even think about pursuing engineering simply
because their exposure to the field has been limited by lack of
opportunity to work with computers. While virtually all K-12 schools
now have computers, they often have far fewer available than they
need. The Web-based Education Commission found that schools with
the highest percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price
lunches averaged 16 students per Internet-linked computer as compared
to a national ratio of nine to one. Schools serving youngsters from
affluent families have a ratio of seven to one. Poor schools,
the commission concluded, need a significant investment to
reach the ratio of four students per classroom computer considered
a minimum level of access for effective use.
Gregg Schoof, manager of engineering student programs at Cleveland
State University, has seen the difference between rich schools and
poor schools close up. Kids who come to us from a lot of inner-city
schools don't have the opportunity to work individually on
computers as much as kids from schools in the outer ring suburbs,
he says. Although many Cleveland schools are connected to
the Web, when I have been in them I see students working on a computer
in groups. But in the affluent suburbs, the students have modern
lab facilities and people have passed tax levies to make sure that
their kids have the best equipment. That is reflected across the
country in the differences between urban and suburban schools.
schools both rich and poor, many teachers are less than adept at
using computers in the classroom. James H. Johnson, Jr., dean of
Howard University's school of engineering in Washington, D.C.,
says that some school districts are well resourced and know
how to incorporate computers into school exercises, and so their
students come to college very well prepared. But in other systems,
teachers are under-prepared and are likely to use computers
for menial, repetitive activities. It is students who
come from these systems who are most likely to need help once they
get to college. Johnson worries that schools that do a poor job
of incorporating technology into their curriculum may, in fact,
turn students off to the study of math and engineering.
students with easy access to computers and the Internet have a substantial
advantage over those whose access is limited. A number of engineering
schools, such as those at historically black colleges and universities
(HBCUs), face special challenges because they serve large numbers
of students who have had limited access. A study of networking and
connectivity at the nation's historically black colleges and
universities published by the U.S. Department of Commerce found
that fewer than 25 percent of students owned a computer. By contrast,
the 1999 Campus Computing Study conducted by Kenneth Green of Claremont
Graduate University, which included all institutions of higher education,
showed that about one out of every two students had their own computer.
Burge, dean of the college of engineering, architecture, and physical
sciences at Tuskegee University in Alabama, says that institutions
such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California
Institute of Technology do not enroll many students who come from
the wrong side of the digital divide. Yet, when it comes to the
marketplace, says Burge, our students are held to the same
standards as theirs. In practical terms, this can mean that
Tuskegee undergraduates take more time to earn a degree. Students
spend five or six years rather than four because they have to do
preparatory things to get up to speed, says Burge.
Building a Bridge
schools that enroll a large number of students with limited exposure
to computers and the Internet often make special efforts to bring
students up to speed. When we see students with good grade
point averages and SAT scores who have had limited exposure to technology,
we will work to take them to the next step, says Howard University's
Johnson. Howard offers incoming engineering students the opportunity
to get a head start by enrolling in a summer bridge
program. Once classes begin, says Johnson, we force the issue
by throwing students into using computers and the Web. The
university has a computer laboratory that is open 24 hours a day
seven days a week where, says Johnson, a lot of self learning
with help from student assistants takes place. Students who
want extra training can work in the lab as volunteers. We
haven't changed the way we do business, says Johnson,
but we are sensitive to student needs that we have to address.
At North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in
Greensboro, students taking the introductory course in engineering
learn to use computers as a tool and to surf the Internet. If the
college of engineering finds that a student has a problem due to
lack of exposure to computers, it is remediated immediately,
says Dean Joseph Monroe. You have to be comfortable with computers
and the Net just to survive in engineering today.
The North Carolina
school, which is moving into wireless access to the Net, has developed
relationships with corporate partners such as IBM, Dell, Microsoft,
and Motorola, for whom it does beta testing of products. Those relationships
have enabled the university to provide students with state-of-the-art
equipment on which to train. We aggressively pursued firms
to form these partnerships and are looking at forging more,
says Monroe. As our graduates train on the systems of these
companies, they recruit them.
college of engineering at Southern University and A&M College
in Baton Rouge has also found that establishing relationships with
corporations has enabled it to acquire needed equipment for training
students, a majority of whom come to campus without their own computers.
Engineering dean Ernest Walker says that one of the first
courses students take prepares them to be computer literate.
The course, which includes intensive exercises in using computers,
has a 75 percent passage rate. We are still leaving behind
25 percent, says Walker, and that needs to be significantly
the vast majority of historically black colleges and universities,
those with engineering schools are in relatively good shape when
it comes to computing and Internet access. While some 25 percent
of HBCUs, says Walker, lack Internet access, those institutions
with engineering schools all have access and the dorms at many of
these institutions are either fully wired or are in the process
of being wired. Southern University has been connected to
the Net for four years and the college of engineering drove that
process, says Walker.
the 1999 Campus Computing Study, among all institutions of higher
education 62 percent of dormitory rooms had Internet connections.
But at private HBCUs only 48 percent of dorm rooms were connected.
The Commerce Department study of networking and connectivity at
HBCUs concluded that at approximately 50 percent of HBCU campuses,
on demand' student access to computing resources is not
available at a critical locationthe campus dormitory.
For those students
who lack computers, that may be academic since they must depend
on campus computer labs rather than dorm hook-ups for Internet access.
To accommodate their needs, many engineering schools operate computer
labs around the clock. At Tuskegee, the engineering school houses
15 computer labs that at any given time can accommodate up to 400
studentsabout half the undergraduate engineering enrollment.
The college of engineering at the University of Detroit Mercy, a
Jesuit institution with a minority enrollment in engineering of
about 30 percent, operates a lab that accommodates 40 students at
a time, fewer than 10 percent of the undergraduate enrollment. But,
says Dean Leo Hanifin, I have never seen every seat filled.
a school such as Detroit Mercy, where many students are commuters
who lack computers, the lab provides their only link to the Internet.
Dormitory students just need to put on their coats and walk
to the lab whenever they want, says Hanifin. Commuting
students don't have that possibility. To try to narrow
the digital divide, the engineering college is considering offering
students the opportunity to purchase computers at a special price,
structuring the arrangement in a way that will make it possible
for the cost to be included in a student's financial aid package.
With many engineering schools equipped to close the divide once
students enroll, the most serious problem, say some deans, exists
in the years before college. I was once quite worried about
the digital divide because some minority students came to the engineering
program not well versed in computers, says Ching-Jen Chen,
dean of the college of engineering at Florida A&M-Florida State,
a program that brings together students from a public HBCU and a
large state university and has a minority enrollment of about 50
But, says Chen,
he sees less of a problem today because more students come to campus
with their own computers and experience in using them. Where
the digital divide is still a problem, says Chen, is
in grades K through 12. where students do not get the exposure
to computers that might lead them to consider engineering.
With that in
mind, the college is planning to build a high-tech learning center
on campus that will bring in 10,000 middle school students a year
from 68 different counties for a program that will expose them to
all facets of technology.
For the better
part of a decade, the college of engineering, technology, and computer
science at Tennessee State University in Nashville has been working
on closing the digital divide among younger students. The college,
with the assistance of several corporations and the U.S. Army Corps
of Engineers, has set up a computer lab at a nearby elementary school
that has a substantial population of students from low-income families.
Students from Tennessee State regularly visit the school to tutor
youngsters. In addition, on Saturdays youngsters from throughout
the community come to campus to work in a computer lab. We
have to start exposing youngsters to computers in the elementary
schools, says Decatur Rogers, dean of the college. And
while they should have formal training, they also need time to investigate
on their own.
Up to Speed, Speedily
has found that all you have to do is expose them to computers
and let them go. They get literate very fast on their own.
He tells of bringing in a group of middle-school youngsterswho
did not know how to use computersfor a two-week summer program.
By the end of the first week, he recalls, one of the youngsters
became so adept that he was able to hack into the files of other
students and by the end of the program he was able to wipe out everybody's
of Detroit Mercy college of engineering also runs programs for young
students. The college brings 1,200 students from Detroit area schools
to campus throughout the academic year. There the students learn
not only the basics of computing, but also how to use computers
to design things. Says Dean Leo Hanifin: If we are serious
about diversifying engineering, we need to look at how to support
those who are economically disadvantaged.
represent small, but significant, steps toward closing the digital
divide. Nonetheless, the gap between technology haves and have-nots
promises to confront engineering schools and the nation as a whole
for years to come.
P. Sanoff is a higher education consultant and freelance writer
living in Bethesda, Md.