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Closing the gap between those with access to computers and the Internet, and the skills to use those tools to best advantage is important for promoting economic opportunity: as more and more jobs rely on computer skills, the computer illiterate are closed out of more and more economic opportunities.
As more information and services are transmitted online, computer illiteracy will push those on the downside of the digital divide further to the margins of society. Similarly, some argue that the use of the Internet would lead to a more democratic society as public participation in election and decision making processes increases. If already underrepresented people continue to be unable to participate in such forums, the digital divide will reinforce a socio-economic and socio-political divide. Such factors translate to the lesson that closing (or at least bridging) the digital divide will have huge advantages for both the current digital disadvantaged, as well as for society at large.
Donating to and working with organizations that promote computer and technology education as well as general literacy and work skills is worth considering as you choose nonprofit organizations and charitable causes to support.
Talk to your employer, local schools, libraries, and even churches to identify opportunities for you to support efforts to bridge the digital divide through promoting computer literacy.
There might be opportunities for you to go work in classrooms or workshops, or you could suggest organizing such programs and take a lead in creating them. There are also nonprofit organizations dedicated specifically to promoting computer literacy, such as the Center for Media Literacy or CML (www.medialit.org).
CML provides leadership, public education, professional development, and educational resources nationally. They are dedicated to helping citizens, especially the young, develop critical thinking and media production skills needed to live fully in the 21st century media culture.
One critical component of computer literacy is general literacy: people need to know how to read and write to really interact with online media. Donating your time and money to literacy programs will help lay a foundation for closing the digital divide.
The digital divide is a socio-political concerned with the economic gap between communities that have access to computers and the Internet and those who do not. The term also refers to gaps that exist between groups' abilities to information technologies due to differing levels of literacy and technical skills, and to the gap that exists between groups who have access to useful digital content and those who do not.
The problem is often discussed in an international context, indicating that certain countries, such as the United States, are far more equipped than other developing countries to take advantage of the Internet and other information technologies. While this is true in many cases, the digital divide within the United States and other developed countries is quite significant, too.
Researchers report that disadvantages affecting people on the downside of the digital divide include both a lack of access to computers and the Internet, as well as lower-performance computers, lower-quality or highly priced connections, scarce technical assistance, and less access to subscription-based contents. Even these are become less of an issue, however, as broadband Internet penetration continues.
A divide in computer skills and literacy remains, as does a need for people to step up and address the problem. This creates opportunities for both nonprofit organizations and computer literate individuals to promote computer education and work to close the digital divide.
While many nonprofit organizations recognize the need to educate individuals and get them better access to information technology tools and infrastructure, many (if not most) nonprofit organizations could also be said to be on the downside of the digital divide.
Whereas the Internet and other information technologies can help nonprofit organizations slash expenses, extend the reach of their programs, and transform the way they work, increasingly complex hardware and software and a lack of technical expertise are frustrating organizations' efforts to take full advantage of the information age. To some extent, falling prices and rising donations from computer companies and other grant makers have placed high-tech equipment within reach of all but the poorest organizations, but the disparities between how well prepared groups are to use these tools effectively persist.
To help bridge the nonprofit digital divide, companies and foundations are underwriting efforts by technology-focused nonprofits, such as CompuMentor, NetCorps, NPower and TechSoup, to help charities identify their technology needs and implement plans for improvements. With their expertise and guidance, nonprofits are able to consider a suite of options and choose a technology solution that can help them improve the efficiency and effectiveness of such tasks as accounting, payroll, and donor record management. Sometimes the answer is their own system and training their staff; sometimes the answer is outsourcing to an application provider.
Regardless of the route a nonprofit takes to climb the IT ladder, there are many opportunities for the tech-literate to identify needs and help out a nonprofit. If you have the expertise, or work for a company that could offer help, start a discussion with local organizations and see how you can help.
Data entry is a classic volunteer role at many nonprofit organizations. While this is a critical activity, it might not be the best use of your time and talents. If you have more advanced technical skills, make sure that make them clear.
Talk to the organization with which you work, and make some suggestions about how you might use your expertise to improve their technology systems and processes. It may be the case that they are not even aware how much more effective their organization could be! Your knowledge could make a world of difference so broadcast it!
|Jennifer Mathes, Ph.D.|