Closing the Digital Divide


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.

by Alvin P. Sanoff
illustrations by Ferruccio Sardella


The 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 Hispanic.

As computers 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.”

Government 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.

More disturbing 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 17.9 percent.

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.

Many 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.”

Moreover, in 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.

Clearly, those 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.

Legand 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

Engineering 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.”

The 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 improved.”

Compared with 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.

According to 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 location—the campus dormitory.”

Laboratory Links

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 students—about 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.”

At 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 percent.

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

Rogers 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 youngsters—who did not know how to use computers—for 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 files.

The University 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.”

Such initiatives 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.

Alvin P. Sanoff is a higher education consultant and freelance writer living in Bethesda, Md.