E-learning could widen the social divide

April 28, 2000

Initiatives such as the e-university could further exclude students from the poorest backgrounds, a conference heard this week.

Leigh Keeble, a research fellow at the community informatics research and applications unit at the University of Teesside, said: "Merely putting a computer in every classroom and library won't narrow the gap between rich and poor. In fact, it may well widen the advantages and disadvantages faced by different sections of society and create a digital divide."

"Ideally, information technology should be inclusive but in reality, it is not," Dr Keeble said.

For example, middle-class professionals who are moving house use the internet to research school and health service league tables to ensure access to good facilities. These people would also have the easiest access to the online learning that the e-university aims to provide.

This week, the unit hosted a conference that examined how the growth of the internet can benefit the poor.

Sonia Liff of Warwick Business School, who spoke about community technology centres, said: "The digital divide isn't just about whether or not you have access, it's about whether you know the internet is there and what it can be used for. You can't put computers into any old place and expect people to use them.

"Putting information technology into libraries and schools effectively excludes the people who don't go there."

Dr Liff has studied the different approaches of community centres and cybercafes in attracting people who have not previously used the internet. She said: "Community centres have links to the community and can draw people in.

Cybercafes don't have the links, but they can make it easy for people to have a coffee and maybe use a computer."

But Dr Liff cautioned against imposing a single model. "Places that some people find appealing are terrifying to others," she said.

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