Effective Technology Use in Low-Income Communities: Research Review for the America Connects Consortium

April 1, 2001

Awareness of technology, especially computer and telecommunications technologies, as a tool with the potential to improve people's lives, has been growing in the last decade. Computer and telecommunications technologies have become part of the daily functioning of businesses and educational institutions in the U.S. over the last twenty years. This rapid expansion of technologies into key sectors, while beneficial in many ways, raise's sobering concerns about equitable access to technology in underserved communities and sectors. This paper critically reviews strategies and research programs developed to address these inequalities and ensure the effective use of technology in less-advantaged groups.

The digital divide is more than digital. It is a sociological phenomenon reflecting broader contextual factors such as existing social, economic, cultural, and learning inequalities. Most of the studies reviewed in this report illustrate clearly that no single factor or contextual characteristic is responsible for these differences. Neither race alone, income alone, education alone, geographic location alone, or government policy alone sheds sufficient light to fully understand the access gap (see Wahl et al., 2000).

To date, the digital divide debate has turned on the concept of access, that is, providing access to those who have no computer or telephone and thus cannot enter the Internet realm at school or home. The concept of "access" encompasses the acquisition of hardware and software as well as complex uses of software for design and production. Between these two extremes, which represent both physical and expressive access, lie other dimensions of access: quality and affordable hardware and software, tools with rich educational content and/or fun activities, and technical and educational support.

This literature review specifically examines the research on the effectiveness of strategies to increase access in different U.S. communities. Issues include not only how different groups and communities access hardware, but also how they organize and interpret activities and social interactions around technology, their own perceived control over the use of advanced computer and Internet technologies, and why access to these technologies is seen to be important. The report also aims to understand barriers to, concerns about, and perceptions of technology use, and to identify viable research models for furthering our understanding of these issues.