Beware The New Digital Divide

In the 1990s, talk of the “digital divide” in education revolved around the haves and have-nots.The majority of concerns centered on lack of access to hardware, such as desktop or laptop computers and connectivity via high-speed Internet via cable, DSL, or wireless.

That was the “old” digital divide. Today, broadband access to the Internet is ubiquitous. Initiatives such as the Connecticut Education Network (CEN) have brought high speed connectivity to the doorsteps of our K-12 schools and colleges. We have WIFI hot-spots in our homes. Students who complain about not being able to afford an expensive cell phone data plan can step ten feet forwards, backwards, left or right to glom onto any of the growing number of free public access points (or illegally onto an unsecured router). Who among us has not occasionally ventured into a Dunkin Donuts, Star Bucks or pulled into a neighbor’s driveway, expressly for this purpose?

Low cost mobile technologies in the form of netbooks, cell phones and i-Pods/Phones/Pads have largely ameliorated the hardware access issue. Anyone who regularly upgrades his cell plan probably owns bagful of Internet-enabled throwaways.

Prensky tells us in the preface to Generation Text of a five-year old who, when informed by her grandfather that “when I was in school we didn’t have cell phones,” asked him, “Well then, how did you get on the Internet?” While hardware and connectivity concerns are largely anachronistic, the digital chasm is ever-widening.

The new digital divide is the problem of exclusionary access to online databases. The move to digital libraries, while posited at the outset to have a democratizing effect, has grown despotic. In Jesse Shera’s words, the library as the “brain-trust of society” is no longer free nor open to the general public.

It’s the price of admission to access online information resources that’s to blame. Highly endowed institutions such as Harvard (the largest academic library in the world) have become walled gardens. Only those lucky enough to afford a ticket or smart enough to earn a scholarship get in.

A simple experiment underscores the disparities. In conducting a typical literature review recently, the Harvard On-Line Library Information System (HOLLIS) yielded over 90% of the desired titles via full-text download. It was not necessary to physically set foot in Harvard’s Widener Library; the literature was available worldwide via a single mouse-click.

Attempt the same search on any but the best academic library networks falls short on results. Logging into a local CEN affiliated school library and using the same database (EBSCO) yielded less than 30% of the titles via full-text. Worse, the remaining titles were only available full-text for a fee–ranging upwards of $32 each–or via interlibrary loan in 10 to 14 days.

A lag-time like that is not sufficient to qualify a lithe researcher in the race to publish or perish. Worse, after filling-out several requests for interlibrary loan, the library sent-out an automated notice a month later announcing there were insufficient funds in their budget to cover reciprocal rates for postage. A personal phone call added insult to injury–the librarian bluntly stated he’d found Google links to the very articles that the author had sought (vainly) on the web, but neglected to forward them. Imagine having to wait a month in the midst of mission-critical research to find-out that a candidate journal article is irrelevant, let alone having to pay for it. Connecticut K-12 and university students in CEN affiliated schools are likewise debilitated in their attempts to complete coursework.

Full-text access to online databases like EBSCO or JSTOR is available via subscription only, and the price of admission is steep. Libraries that purport to have access to these resources may only have low-end subscriptions that tempt you with abstracts, like a kid peering into a candy store. Funny how accreditors never ask about that (in this writer’s experience). Parents scoping-out colleges are more impressed with the grand physical edifices of libraries or towering stacks of books than with their contents (or discontents, as it were).

You are invited to try the above experiment at home, for you are more likely to succeed in repeating it there than in most public or private Connecticut schools. At home, you may have upwards of a 22 megabit connection unto yourself, or maybe in competition with your spouse and kids. In schools, that wonderful CEN connection is subdivided concurrently among hundreds of competing teachers and students. Actual rates of access from the desktop are reduced to a snail’s pace measurable in kilobits on aging network infrastructures. Moreover, in this era of declining enrollments and crippled state budgets, computer labs are at best in neglect, if not totally useless.

Low-cost or free “open source syndication” (and post publication review, for that matter) might be one solution to this problem. The disparity between the costs of print and digital forms of distribution was evident to this author at a recent college reunion, where in perusing the book store, the latest edition of his undergraduate organic chemistry text was priced at $179.93 in 2012, up from $20 in 1977. Amazon claims to have sold more lower priced ebooks than printed texts in the past year. Apple Computer’s iBook initiative, with textbooks fixed at $14.99 should help. Until the backs of the big publishers are inevitably broken by the diseconomies of print, and there is an end-run around the online database monopolies, the problems engendered by the new digital divide will get worse.

Even the esteemed ivies are caving under the costs of high priced journal subscriptions. As reported on the front page of the Boston Globe on April 28th:

Harvard may be the world’s wealthiest university, but fees for its academic journal subscriptions have gotten so steep–some as much as $40,000 a year–that an advisory council is encouraging faculty to submit their work to “open access”online journals that are available for free.

If Harvard’s in trouble, what are the rest of us going to do?

If this concerns you, contact your state representative or the Commissioner of Education and request a plan of action.

When it comes to digital libraries and the new digital divide, it’s what you don’t get that can hurt you.

Comments are closed.