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Digital Equity: Reflections on MLK Day

I’ve written a bit about digital equity in education (see e.g., but mostly in academic journals.  So, I thought I’d take some time on MLK day to throw some data out there upon which we can collectively reflect. 

In homes, there are significant disparities in computer access and use by race.  Fairlie (2005) found that African-Americans and Latina/os are much less likely to have access to home computers than are white, non-Latinos (50.6 and 48.7 percent compared to 74.6 percent), and those differences are more pronounced for children than for adults.  Using advanced statistical analyses, he concludes that, “[e]ven among individuals with family incomes of at least $60,000, blacks [sic.] and Latinos [sic.] are substantially less likely to own a computer or have Internet access at home than are whites.”
In the following table, we see, graphically, some of those differences.

Within schools, disparities are less pronounced, but digital inequities persist.  Here are some selected statistics from an NCES report:

  • In 2005, the ratio of students to instructional computers with Internet access in public schools was 3.8 to 1, a decrease from the 12.1 to 1 ratio in 1998, when it was first measured. However, schools with the lowest level of minority enrollment had fewer students per computer than did schools with higher minority enrollments.  Specifically, according to my own analyses, schools in rural areas and schools with higher percentages of African-American students are more likely to have lower levels of computer access (boo!!!).
  • In 2005, 94 percent of public school instructional rooms had Internet access, compared with 3 percent in 1994. There are no differences across school characteristics (hooray!!!).
  • In 2005, schools with the lowest level of minority enrollment were less likely than schools with the highest level of minority enrollment to use the Internet to provide assessment results and data for teachers to use to individualize instruction (81 vs. 92 percent) (hooray!!!).

Thus, Internet access in schools and classrooms is consistently good and equitable.  And, while access to computers is inversely related to the percentage of students of color in schools, schools with higher percentage of students of color are more likely to be engaged in data-driven decision-making using Web-based tools.

So, it’s a mixed bag across schools, but it does seem like the institution of public schooling is doing its part to level the digital playing field.  The problem is that the significant inequities that exist within homes present a huge barrier to using technology to extend the learning day and to bridge a home-school connection.  How, it at all, can schools help to overcome those inequities?

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