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The digital use divide

The digital divide is about more than just having access to an Internet connection and a computer; it's also about how well you're able to utilize those tools.
Researchers find large differences in how effectively various groups of people can use digital technology. Those differences are often referred to as the digital use divide.

Digital literacy

Basic digital literacy includes the ability to use input and output devices (such as a mouse, keyboard, or touch screen), an understanding of the structure of the digital environment (what files, folders, scrollbars, links, menus, and buttons mean), and the ability to interact with digital information (knowing how to save, delete, open, or select).
Here's a mini quiz to test your basic digital literacy:
Computer keyboards
There are 4 keys highlighted on the computer keyboard below.
When you click each key, what does the computer do?
Click each dot on the image to select an answer.

🔍 Want a more comprehensive quiz? You can take longer assessments if you search the web for "digital literacy assessment."
A 2012 research study evaluated the basic digital literacy skills of US adults using a similar quiz. 1
Consider the results by age group:
Graph of digital literacy by age group: 8% were not digitally literate in the age range of 16 - 24, 11% were not digitally literate in the age range of 25 - 34, 14% were not digitally literate in the age range of 35 - 44, 20% were not digitally literate in the age range of 45 - 54, 28% were not digitally literate in the age range of 55 - 65.
The study found significant differences in digital literacy across age ranges, and also found differences across educational levels, country of birth, ethnicity, employment, and occupation skill level.
Basic digital literacy skills are a great start, but they may not be enough to fully utilize digital resources. Researchers studied a program that taught computer basics to participants and concluded:
" . . . future implementation of the Computers for Families program should not only include a ‘boot-camp’ basic computer training, but also ongoing and progressive trainings that will enhance participants’ skill sets. For example, those interested in working within an office setting could greatly benefit from typing classes as well as learning about software such as Microsoft." 2
Digital literacy is a spectrum. Once someone can navigate a computer, can they also . . .
  • navigate the Web?
  • send and receive emails?
  • use a word processing application?
  • use a spreadsheet application?
  • search for and apply to a job?
  • use social media safely?
  • research topics online?
🤔 Is it possible to be "100%" digitally literate? What do you think "digital literacy" will mean 100 years from now?

Increasing digital literacy

Many efforts to bridge the digital divide also include digital literacy training, and there are specific initiatives devoted entirely to teaching people how to use computers effectively.
One example is SFConnected, a government-sponsored program in San Francisco that connects senior citizens with free digital literacy classes in multiple languages, with a particular focus on using online tools to decrease social isolation.
Here's what one man said after participating in the program:
“You wouldn’t believe the freedom I felt — the handcuffs came off! A computer compresses distance: you can visit people without owning a car.” 3

Effective use of technology in the classroom

There's also a digital use divide in classrooms. Even though two classrooms may both have the same computer hardware and speed of Internet access, one classroom might report that technology is increasing their learning while the other classroom reports the opposite.
How can digital technology benefit classroom learning? It can:
  • Offer differentiated instruction (different materials for each student based on their strengths and weaknesses)
  • Provide a way to monitor students' progress to teachers and parents
  • Open up a portal to a vast array of knowledge for research projects
  • Give students more
    ways to interact with content
How can digital technology detract from classroom learning? It can:
  • Give students an easy way to distract themselves (with social media, entertainment, and communication apps)
  • Use up valuable classroom time to troubleshoot mechanical problems
  • Take time away from other forms of learning that may be more beneficial than the computer-assisted instruction
  • Take funding away from other areas that may improve the classroom experience, such as an additional teacher's aide
What is it that determines whether technology benefits or detracts? Hundreds of research studies have tried to figure it out.
One study looked at California schools that received funds to improve their Internet connectivity. The researchers did find an increase in connectivity rates at those schools, yet no effect on test scores or academic outcomes. Another study of Portugal schools found negative effects on learning for schools that were closer to the broadband provider (and likely had faster speeds). 4
Researchers are also interested in the effects of laptop programs, such as the Maine Laptop initiative that gave a laptop to every 7th and 8th grader. The standardized test scores of those students haven't increased, but their writing scores seem to have improved. A similar study of a laptop program in Peru found no effect on math or language skills, but some improvement in cognitive skills. 4
Internet-connected computers can be used in many ways, of course. The ultimate test of digital technology is whether a classroom using software specifically designed for improving learning does, indeed, improve learning.
One study in 2009 evaluated 10 reading and math tools across elementary, middle, and high school, and only found a positive effect for one reading tool. However, another 2009 study found positive effects for urban districts using software for pre-algebra and algebra, particularly in larger classrooms. 4
Studies of computer-aided instruction in developing countries tend to find larger positive effects. One 2010 study of students using personalized learning software in Ecuadorean schools found positive gains in their math scores, and a 2014 study in China schools using math-based computer games also found that students' math scores increased. 4
We're still just beginning to understand how digital technology can enhance classroom learning, but it clearly is possible. Hopefully, in the future, all classrooms will know how to use computers and the Internet effectively.
🤔 If you are a student in a classroom, what has been your favorite use of digital technology in the classroom? Were there any times where technology in the classroom wasn't conducive to learning?

The digital participation gap

Internet-connected computers aren't just devices for consuming content, they're also devices for creating content. In fact, the web showcases the digital creativity of millions of creators. But who are those creators? When we dig into the statistics, we discover a participation divide: differences between who is consuming digital content and who is actually producing it.
OpenStreetMap is a crowd-sourced effort to create a map of the entire world, free for anyone to use and to update. In theory, its contributors could reflect the diversity of the general Internet population.
After signing up, you can edit the map using a free online interface, no download needed:
Screenshot of the OpenStreetMap interface for editing a feature.
OpenStreetMap's interface for editing a map feature.
But researchers have found disparities in who edits the map and what parts of the world get attention from editors.
A 2019 study found that edits aren't evenly distributed geographically by gender.5 All US counties were edited by at least one male "power editor," but only a fraction of counties was edited by one of the female power editors:
Map of the USA, split into counties colored based on whether a female power editor made an edit in that county on OpenStreetMap. Most counties in the midwest are not colored, indicating no contributions by the female power editors.
The counties shown in red are those that had at least one edit from the female power editors. The non-colored countries may have been edited by female non-power editors or female editors that did not identify themselves as female.
The researchers also found that only 5% of the editors overall were female, a statistic that correlates with other studies on OpenStreetMap. 5
Another study examined the differences between urban and rural content in OpenStreetMap. They measured the quality of content by counting the number of additional tags on each feature (e.g. "highway=residental", "maxspeed=50") and found that "urban peer-produced content appears to be of significantly and substantially higher quality than rural content." They discovered a similar difference in quality between Wikipedia articles describing urban versus rural areas. 6
🤔 Why might there be differences between contributions based on gender or where people live? If you were a researcher, how might you investigate the factors behind the differences?

Narrowing the participation gap

How can an online collaborative project like OSM bring in more diversity so that every part of the world is mapped to a consistently high standard?
GeoChicas is one group that is actively trying to discover women’s barriers to participation and increase their contributions. Its members organize trainings, attend conferences, and work on special projects such as Las Calles de Las Mujeres.
Photo of a group of sixteen women wearing State Of The Map conference lanyards.
GeoChicas members attending State Of The Map Latam 2016. Image source: OSM Latam, Flickr.
Missing Maps is a project that focuses on mapping the most vulnerable areas of the world in OpenStreetMap so that humanitarian agencies can use the maps to help them during crisis situations.
Screenshot of a map of Mozambique, with 13 colored markers. The color of each marker indicates a priority of "urgent," "high," "medium," or "low".
The markers indicate Missing Maps humanitarian mapping projects with varying levels of urgency. Image source: HOTOSM
The organization encourages mapathons to get a large number of people working on a project at one time. Mapathons can also bring new people into the community, since they include training and a welcoming social setting.
Photo of a person happily editing a map, surrounded by two other people on laptops in the background.
Participants at a mapathon in London. Image source: Missing Maps, Flickr
Online crowd-sourced content often reflects the bias of its contributors. As long as there's a difference in who contributes and how they contribute, online content will not reflect the diversity of the web.
🤔 Do you participate in any online communities? Even a short post on social media in support of your favorite politician is a form of digital participation. Are there some groups of people that participate less in that online place? How could you reduce the participation gap?

🙋🏽🙋🏻‍♀️🙋🏿‍♂️Do you have any questions about this topic? We'd love to answer—just ask in the questions area below!

Want to join the conversation?

  • eggleston orange style avatar for user Martin
    Can someone explain this sentence from the reading:
    "As long as there's a difference in who contributes and how they contribute, online content will not reflect the diversity of the web."
    What is the diversity of the web?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • stelly blue style avatar for user Elle
      I think the diversity of the web is supposed to mean the differences in all the people who use the internet. As in, people from different cultures, people who speak different languages, people that live in different places, and, in general, people that have different day to day experiences that could give other people different perspectives on topics they aren't familiar with. Hope that helps :)
      (10 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user PrasharJaagat1
    Hey! I had one question:

    "Online crowd-sourced content often reflects the bias of its contributors. As long as there's a difference in who contributes and how they contribute, online content will not reflect the diversity of the web."

    How would a difference in who contributes and how they contribute NOT reflect the diversity of the web?

    I interpreted this in two ways:

    1) Difference as in a wide variety of users with different perspectives. (Thus reducing bias and endorsing diverse approaches)

    2) Difference meaning that one given group based on gender, ethnicity, etc... was contributing to a project.

    However, I believe that this is referring to the latter interpretation...
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • marcimus purple style avatar for user Ice Bear
      I think both of your interpretations are valid. Diversity of the web might refer to the purpose of the Internet itself (as Web is a part of the Internet) - connecting as many people as possible. However to do that, all people must have equal access to do so, and then utilize that access to equally PARTICIPATE in this network. If there's a difference in who contributes and how they do it, it means that either Internet access is unequally distributed, participation is unequally laid out, or both - which is not the goal.
      (2 votes)
  • cacteye purple style avatar for user Groter,Charlie
    Imma cry if my teacher makes me read more of these articles..😭
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • winston default style avatar for user Jcim Grant
    Does every country use the Digital use Divide?
    (0 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • spunky sam blue style avatar for user Alexis Rd-m
      Hi, the Digital use divide is a consequence, so it can't be used by a country per se. However it can be used to target trainings, see what and where does a country lack data (with the exemple of OSM), etc.
      I hope I understood your question correctly and that my answer is enough for you.
      (4 votes)
  • piceratops tree style avatar for user Justin Ussery
    "The counties shown in red are those that had at least one edit from the female power editors. The non-colored countries may have been edited by female non-power editors or female editors that did not identify themselves as female."

    Isn't that supposed to be, "The non-colored 'counties'..."?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user