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New Media

This article is reprinted from the New Media website.

 
 
TECHNOLOGY/COMMERCE
In Depth: Crossing the Digital Divide
by Leora Harling and Claire Keaveney

With all the talk of pervasive, ubiquitous computing, anytime/anywhere access, and personal networks and digital assistants, it's easy to forget that a lot of people in this country have no access to the Internet at all.

A recent study by Jupiter Communications projects that whereas 93 percent of households with incomes over $75,000 will be online in 2005, less than half of those with incomes less than $15,000 will be. These low-income households represent 19 percent of the U.S. population.

Without computers and Internet access, these families are cut off not only from the dubious benefits of 24-hour shopping but also from employment and educational opportunities that may help them change their low-income status.

In public schools, for example, teachers and administrators have found that the digital divide also is creating an educational divide. Although a student in the suburbs (where more than 76 percent of families are online) has access to the limitless resources on the Internet when researching a report for school, a child in the inner city (where less than 4 percent of families are online) most likely does not. This difference in access translates into a massive difference in the ability of children to succeed in school.

Exploiting the corporate surplus

In New York, a nonprofit organization called Computers for Youth has come up with a novel solution to the digital divide: It refurbishes castoff corporate PCs and gives them to low-income families. Co-founder Elisabeth Stock came up with the idea when, as a White House fellow, she helped create a similar program, Computers for Learning, which facilitated the donation of surplus computer equipment by federal agencies to schools and educational nonprofits.

Stock and corporate attorney Dan Dolgin thought that a similar model could work in the private sector. So, with funding from companies such as Siemens and institutions such as the Louis Calder Foundation, they acquired surplus PCs from offices on Wall Street, loaded them with browsers and educational software, and delivered them to Knowledge Is Power (KIP), a magnet middle school in the South Bronx.

All the students at KIP--and their teachers--were provided with home computers as well as classroom computers. The results have been striking, both educationally and socially. "With computers in their homes, a whole new world has opened up for [the students]," says Josh Zoya, technology coordinator at KIP.

For children of low-income families, living in the city can be an isolating experience. They are often at home alone at night while their parents are working. Via the Internet, they can chat with their school friends who are in similar situations. "This is the beginning of a movement¸They don't have to be alone in those isolating situations," Zoya says.

The computers have made a dramatic difference in the classroom as well. "It's incredible," says Rene Harling, a seventh-grade teacher at KIP. "It's like they have a newfound love of learning. They love sitting in front of computers doing work."

Code and mentoring in San Francisco

With more than 50 percent of jobs in this country based on computers--and most all of them requiring some work with computers--the educational divide translates directly into an employment divide, closing the circle that traps generations in poverty.

On the other hand, E. David Ellington, founder of NetNoir, a community, news, and entertainment site for African Americans, and Dan Geiger, president of Geiger Associates, a firm specializing in business planning, fund raising, and organizational development, saw significant opportunities for low-income young adults in the new media industry. They founded OpNet to prepare these young people to enter the Internet workforce.

Based in San Francisco, OpNet recruits young people into its program, trains them in HTML and Web design, places them in paid internships, and offers lifetime career support and mentoring. The employer has the benefit of hiring a prescreened, trained, and motivated employee, and the trainee increases his or her annual income by approximately 165 percent, from $11,500 to $30,500.

Since it opened its doors in 1997, OpNet has trained 130 young adults from low-income families. Eighty percent have completed or are completing internships, 50 percent now are employed full-time in the Internet industry, and 10 percent have pursued further education.

Tracy Johnson, a single mother of three, was unemployed and homeless when she entered the OpNet program last summer. After her training, OpNet placed her in a four-month internship as an assistant Web designer at Miller Freeman. After her internship, the company offered her a full-time position as a Web developer at a starting salary of $45,000 plus benefits.

Money changes everything

The Jupiter report, titled "Assessing the Digital Divide," found that although ethnicity remains a factor in access to the Internet, the overwhelming differentiating factor is income. The ethnic gap is expected to close significantly by 2005: Whereas now there are 60 percent more Caucasian than African American households online, this gap is expected to shrink by two-thirds, with only 18 percent more Caucasian than African American households online.

The generation gap also is expected to narrow. Internet access by kids and seniors is expected to grow from 32 percent to 62 percent and from 16 percent to 48 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, low-income households online are expected to increase from 15 percent to 45 percent.

In a society and an era so focused on money and success, it is perhaps not surprising that the have-nots among us tend not to have Internet access. But as that access becomes key not only to education, employment, and commerce but also to participation in civic and social life, we are fortunate that some people are taking steps to bridge the gap.

Newsbytes.com also contributed to this report.

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