Internet Researcher John Horrigan on How Digital Illiteracy is Eclipsing Digital Divide

Broadband Data, Broadband's Impact, Education, NTIA July 29th, 2014

, Reporter, Broadband Breakfast News

WASHINGTON, July 29, 2014 – The internet equity facing the nation isn’t the digital divide, but is digital readiness, according to a panel last month by internet researcher John Horrigon at an event of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation.

According to Horrigan, digital literacy is rapidly overshadowing non-adoption.A half-decade ago in 2009, 83 million adults didn’t have broadband in 2009, he said. Today, 43 million now lack access.

The real problem is instead the 29 percent of Americans classified as having “low levels of digital readiness.” A total of 42 percent of people have a moderate understanding of the digital world and the rest have a high level of readiness. Those with lower levels of readiness tend to be older people, or lower income earners with little educational attainment, said Scott Wallsten, vice president for research and senior fellow of the Technology Policy Institute.

In addition to having a skills problem, there is also a trust problem, Horrigan said. “Being digitally ready is about having the skills to use online applications, but also trust in new ways of carrying out tasks that require people to share a lot of information about themselves and about their households.”

To assess people’s digital readiness, Horrigan surveyed people about their knowledge of basic technological terms. These included terms like: cookies, spyware and malware, apps, refresh, reload, and QR code. This is a reliable method, Horrigan said, because previous studies have shown that people’s knowledge of these terms track closely with their ability to perform online tasks.

Does that mean people are digitally illiterate if they don’t know what a QR code is? Wallsten said no, not necessarily. Digital readiness doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone.

“Not many people know what a QR code is,” Wallsten said. “Just because you don’t know these things doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not digitally ready. It means there’s a higher probability of you not being digitally ready.”

Subjects were asked to describe their comfort level with computers, or their confidence in finding content online.

Among those with advanced online access (households with several devices including smartphones hooked up to broadband), Horrigan said 18 percent have low levels of readiness, 46 percent have moderately good readiness, and 36 percent have very high levels of readiness.

Additionally, Horrigan’s surveys found that 10 percent of people with low digital readiness said they had used the internet to search for a job whereas 52 percent of people with high digital readiness said they had done so.

“I do not know anybody that has not used the internet for their job search and the idea that there’s this group of people who are not using the internet for their job search is something I cannot even comprehend,” said Larra Clark, associate director of the Program on America’s Libraries for the 21st Century at American Library Association.

In many cases, people might have access to technology, but the degree to which they’re underutilizing it is staggering, said Nicol Turner-Lee, vice president and chief research and policy officer at Minority Media and Telecommunications Council. For lack of a better phrase, she suggested that the problem may just fix itself because “at some point, everyone’s going to die off and it’ll be the young people who will [use technology] as part of habit.”

She wasn’t as eager, however, to dismiss adoption as a diminished problem. The 43 million people who are without internet is still a lot of people, she said.

“It’s sort of like when you were learning how to drive. You took your driving lessons and overtime you got better… The challenge is, if you don’t have a car, you can’t participate,” Lee said.

After all, the internet is the modern haven for free expression and democratic participation, said Laura Breeden, team leader of the Broadband Technical Opportunities Program at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

With technological change occurring so rapidly, digital literacy today might not mean literacy tomorrow, Lee said. The panel agreed that both the public and private sectors are going to have to double down on investments into educating people on literacy.

Horrigan said some policy steps to promote digital readiness include leveraging existing programs that focus on digital divide, like Comcast internet Essentials and BTOP. Community tech giants need to be bolstered and the philanthropic community has to be engaged as well.

Additionally, as the speed of technological change widens the gap between the digital divide and digital readiness, libraries could function as a remedy, especially in rural areas, acquainting people with devices and the web.

“As new applications emerge, fueled by the internet of things, big data and more, we’re going to have to continue to examine digital readiness in specific contexts such as education, workforce development, and health care applications,” Horrigan said. “We’re going to have to think of ways to make sure everyone has the skills and trust in our applications to take full advantage of them.”

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