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Digital Divide

Jennifer Rowsell, Professor of Education, University of Bristol, United Kingdom
Ernest Morrell, Coyle Professor in Literacy Education, University of Notre Dame, IN


  • To highlight, illustrate, elucidate, and ideally eliminate digital divide issues for K–12 educators

What Is It?

Digital divide is a phrase applied to gaps in access and ownership of technologies and Wi-Fi access across populations.

Why Is It Effective?

The reality is that people living in poverty do not have the same technological affordances as their more affluent peers and, often, do not have access to or ownership of the technologies themselves. When students have limited to no internet and screen access, no technology or screen use, and no way of keeping up with other students in the class, a condition exists that Jones (2013) described as "normalized class-privileged lives" (p. 218). That is, there is a privileged class assumption that all students have access to Wi-Fi and technologies when, in fact, students from economically disadvantaged families do not.

By highlighting, addressing, and complicating digital divide issues, educators and administrators can start to put measures in place to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots or, as Dolan (2016) expresses it, the cans and cannots. Avoidance of technology and digital literacies only widens the gap between the haves and have-nots, or the cans and cannots. Moreover, when students have no access at home and no experience with the internet in class, the potential for an even larger disparity looms.

The most promising research focuses more on ways that schools are providing meaningful access (Morrell & Rowsell, 2019) and engaging in responsive pedagogical practices around multimodal texts and digital tools and technologies. These texts almost always have two or more modes in play (i.e., they are multimodal).

How Do You Do It?

There are several key areas that need to be addressed to bridge the divide:

  • Equitable access to hardware, software, the internet, and technology support within schools
  • How frequently students and teachers use technology in the classroom and for what purposes they are using technology
  • Whether student users know how to access and navigate Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for their personal empowerment (Ritzhaupt, Liu, Dawson, & Barron, 2013)

Multimodality is a belief that communication demands a broader conception of literacy using two or more modes of representation. As much as possible, have students use and design texts with two or more modes of representation and expression (Rowsell et al., 2018) and experiment with makerspace and problem-solving approaches to teaching and learning (Halverson & Sheridan, 2014).

How Do You Start?

Teachers and school and community leaders can encourage and promote involvement from families and caregivers in curbing the digital divide. This begins with sharing resources that people have in their homes and by providing programs that offer greater access to technologies and Wi-Fi. Ways to get started include the following:

  • Securing funding for more robust connectivity in public places and programs where families and caregivers can learn how to use technologies meaningfully
  • Providing family access to technologies through rentals for home use and in community center contexts
  • Envisioning digital literacy pedagogy as access to digital consumption, production, and distribution
  • Allowing students to become digital inventors, where they have space in their classrooms to invent new digital technologies (e.g., look at movements like #YesWeCode)
  • Working with and learning from other nations about innovative policies and practices that ensure digital equity
  • Engaging collectively with governments and technology corporations to provide access to tools and expertise for all students
  • Establishing a culture of shared research and practice

When families, schools, and communities work together to fight inequities and bridge gaps, meaningful and impactful changes can be made and realized.


Braverman, B. (2016). The digital divide: How income inequality is affecting literacy instruction, and what all educators can do to help close the gap. Literacy Today, 33(4), 16–20.

Dolan, J.E. (2016). Splicing the divide: A review of research on the evolving digital divide among K–12 students. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 48(1), 16–37.

Halverson, E., & Sheridan, K. (2014). The maker movement in education. Harvard Educational Review, 84(4), 495–504.

International Literacy Association. (2017). Overcoming the digital divide: Four critical steps [Literacy leadership brief].

Jones, S. (2013). Critical literacies in the making: Social class and identities in the early reading classroom. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 13(2), 197–224.

Kral, I. (2014). Shifting perceptions, shifting identities: Communication technologies and the altered social, cultural and linguistic ecology in a remote indigenous context. The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 25(2), 171–189.

Morrell, E., & Rowsell, J. (Eds.). (2019). Stories from inequity to justice in literacy education: Confronting digital divides. Routledge.

Prinsloo, M. (2005). The new literacies as placed resources. Perspectives in Education, 23(4), 87–98.

Prinsloo, M., & Rowsell, J. (2012). Digital literacies as placed resources in the globalised periphery. Language and Education, 26(4), 271–277.

Ritzhaupt, A.D., Liu, F., Dawson, K., & Barron, A.E. (2013). Differences in student information and communication technology literacy based on socio-economic status, ethnicity, and gender: Evidence of a digital divide in Florida schools. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 45(4), 291–307.

Rowsell, J., Lemieux, A., Schwartz, L., Turcotte, M., & Burkitt, J. (2018). The stuff that heroes are made of: Elastic, sticky, messy literacies in children's transmedial cultures. Language Arts, 96(1), 7–20.

Rowsell, J., Morrell, E., & Alvermann, D.E. (2017). Confronting the digital divide: Debunking brave new world discourses. The Reading Teacher, 71(2), 157–165.