Can analogue skills bridge the digital divide?

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

The digital divide has shifted. Instead of (and in some places, in addition to) separating people with Internet access from those without access, it now cuts a wide chasm between those who know how to get the most out of the Internet and those who don’t. It’s no longer a matter of getting the tool into people’s hands; it’s a matter of getting people to understand how the tool can work for them.

This month’s issue of PISA in Focus reveals that the fault line at the bottom of this digital divide is socio-economic status. In recent years, there has been great progress in expanding access to the Internet for rich and poor alike. In Denmark, Finland, Hong Kong-China, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, for example, more than 98% of disadvantaged students have access to the Internet at home. In some countries and economies where disparities in home Internet access persist, schools try to compensate. For example, among the most disadvantaged students, 50% of students in Turkey and 45% in Mexico have access to the Internet at school. PISA results show that, given the wide availability of Internet access, disadvantaged students now spend about the same amount of time on line during the weekend as advantaged students do.

But as with any tool, the Internet is most useful when you know how to use it. Results from PISA 2012 show that just because students have access to an Internet connection, it doesn’t mean that they know how to use it for learning. And differences in how students use the Internet seem to be linked to socio-economic status, although the strength of that link varies widely across countries. For example, PISA finds that while disadvantaged students play videogames on line as much as advantaged students do, they are far less likely to read the news or search for practical information on the Internet than their more advantaged peers.

These differences also seem to mirror disparities in more traditional academic abilities – to the extent that once differences in the ability to read and understand printed texts are taken into account, students’ socio-economic status has only a weak, and often insignificant, relationship with students’ performance in the PISA test of reading on line. In other words, rich or poor, students who can read well are better-equipped to make the most of the Internet’s considerable assets.

So the best way to narrow this digital divide is to be sure that all students are given the same opportunities to acquire solid reading and Internet navigation skills – the equivalent of a user’s manual (and a driving permit) for what has become an indispensable tool.


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