Does Digital Technology Encourage Data Democratization?

big-dataA recent classroom discussion regarding digital technology–more specifically, who has access to this technology–has been lurking in my head over the past 24 hours. Here’s why.

My interactions with digital technology during my time in high school (2002-2006) were fairly unremarkable for someone who was raised in Midwest Suburban-town, USA. There was no such thing as a SMARTboard and, with regards to my Social Studies classes, we never utilized digital technology in any capacity whatsoever. All tests were done on paper and all educational material came in the form of big, bulky textbooks written circa 1995. Yet my school did have a computer lab (which was greatly utilized by the science teachers, but hardly anyone else, which is telling) and I was encouraged at home to use computers, the internet, and all digital technology to my advantage.

It was interesting hearing some of my classmates share their experiences during high school, which were not the same as mine. One person remarked that they went to a fairly affluent high school that will be completely eliminating paper textbooks and giving all of their students iPads next year. Conversely, another person told us they went to a rural high school that had next to nothing in terms of technology and history textbooks that were written in the 1960s. Considering that we’ve all graduated from high school within the past seven or so years, I would surmise that this digital divide remains a fixture in our educational landscape today.

To be sure, digital technology has provided the impetus for some remarkable efforts to democratize data, by which I mean the ability for all people in society to have access to voluminous collections of data (books, articles, graphs, and perhaps most importantly, information). In their book Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig point out on page 4 that:

Online accessibility means, moreover, that the documentary record of the past is open to people who rarely had entree before. The analog Library of Congress has never welcomed high school students–its reading rooms, no less its special collections, routinely turn them away. Now the library’s American Memory website allows high school students to enter the virtual archives on the same terms of access as the most most senior historian or member of Congress.

This is great and truly exciting for those of us who have grown tired of solely relying on a bland, passive textbook to guide our lesson plans in the classroom (although I think the textbook itself should still be used, albeit in a different role). Yet I feel that my ongoing discussions with students and teachers around the country suggest that perhaps digital technology is widening the gaps between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” The schools that had the money years ago had the nicest classrooms and the newest textbooks. We are now seeing today that the schools with money are the first ones to get SMARTboards, iPads, and easy access to these online resources. Meanwhile, the poor schools continue to rely on old textbooks from the 1960s and are lacking funds to buy digital technology now or in the foreseeable future. Thus, as we increasingly rely on digital technology as an integral part of our lives, those who grow up without access to or education in these technologies end up being thrown into a workforce in which their skills fail to match those desired by employers in all types of fields. Furthermore, it doesn’t help when websites with valuable research and information put up paywalls that restrict access to a limited number of “paying customers” who can afford the frequently excessive fees these sites charge.

This discussion on the digital divide is particularly relevant right now. Several states are considering the possibility of dropping the General Education Development (GED) exam amidst great changes in the test format and cost. The creators of the GED want to remove the pencil and paper aspect of the test and go completely digital. The cost of the test will be doubled in many states to $120, and in Missouri the test will cost $140. The President and CEO of the GED Testing Service has rationalized this by stating that, “the GED was in dangerous position of no longer being a reflection of what high schools were graduating,” which is true to a certain extent. Yet an employee of the Missouri Career Center aptly summarized the challenges of digitization by replying that for many GED students, “Transportation is a challenge. Eating is a challenge. For them, coming up with $140 for an assessment, it’s basically telling them, ‘Forget about ever getting this part of your life complete.'”

I’ve been reminded this semester that we must look at books as a technology as well. I don’t know a lot about the history the book, but I can imagine that many hours of study have gone into questioning whether or not the advent of the book and the Gutenberg press in the 15th century has contributed to a democratization of access to data and information throughout history. We’re having that same discussion with digital technology now, and there are no easy answers. More than anything, I’ve been taught to study and understand the power interests behind the creators of digital technology. Textbook companies have adopted digitization and are now creating textbooks for iPads, but these companies can now charge exorbitant fees every year to the schools that buy this software, rather than having the schools buy paper textbooks every five or ten years. Likewise, companies that created standardized tests for our students have a financial interest in going paperless and offering their tests on computers exclusively, which leads to increased costs and jobs for people with computer and programming skills, which are often filled by people who had access to computers when they were younger.

Who, if anyone, loses out in this process? Are we actually using digital technology as a tool for democratization, or is the opposite actually occurring?

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5 responses

  1. Hi Nick,

    For my upcoming ebook on digital technology, I would like to use the image in your post. If you are the copyright owner of this image, may I use the image in a modified form as book cover? If you are not the copyright owner, I would appreciate if you can point me to the source.

    Thanks.

    1. Hi,

      Unfortunately, you caught me behaving badly with this one. I typically make sure to mention photo credits or use my own photos when blogging, but I grabbed this image in haste from this website (http://www.greenbookblog.org/2012/03/21/big-data-opportunity-or-threat-for-market-research/) without giving due credit, and I’m not sure who actually is the rightful owner of the image. I apologize profusely for not being more helpful, and it reminds me that I need to take that extra minute to figure out where my images come from before publishing them. Thanks for the comment.

      1. No problem. I will look into the other website.

        On your post, indeed, digital technology has opened up new possibilities. For my book research, I was able to access library material halfway across the globe without even leaving my room. This is democratization in one sense but in another sense there is a divide between those who have access to technology and those who don’t. This difference is acute in developing and underdeveloped countries.

        In Indian villages for example, a computer is a rare device. Basic access to the Internet is possible via mobile devices but only those who are able to afford it can avail this. Where even basic education is a challenge, computer education is not even considered. It appears that while technology has enabled democratization, true democratization is often held back by economic and social considerations.

  2. Hi,

    Thanks for the excellent and thought provoking comment. I think you cogently express the exact sentiments that I aimed for with this post. Those that have access to digital content are able to enjoy the benefits of data democratization and now have access to millions of items at their fingertips. Yet those who are unable to gain access to this digital technology are put at a serious disadvantage and, in the case of the GED exams, may be prevented from taking the next step in their careers. The digital divide leads us to a very strange paradox.

  3. […] 19th and 20th century methods of information dissemination? (a question I attempted to address here) If we “go digital,” who might we be leaving out of the discussion? What are the […]

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