Clarence Anthony, executive director of the National League of Cities, speaks at the National Press Room Tuesday during a panel on Digital Readiness.

May 08 2014

Educators Face ‘Silent Dilemma’ in Digital Skills Divide

Nearly a third of Americans have trouble navigating the Internet, says one researcher.

A new challenge is emerging from the cracks of the digital divide: digital readiness — helping those who have Internet access, but lack the skills to use it effectively. And librarians could play a huge role in turning the tide, some experts say.

On Tuesday, the American Library Association hosted a panel of four experts in Washington, D.C., who pooled their research to address the growing problem.

The Internet’s integration with society has reached a tipping point, said Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director of the D.C. Public Library. A growing exclusivity in Internet aptitude is leaving those with less technical know-how in the dark.

“The world has lost its patience, I think, with those who cannot navigate the online world,” Reyes-Gavilan said. “There’s not a conspiracy around this. It’s just easier for people to work in this exclusive online environment.”

Some libraries have attempted to bridge the digital divide by increasing the availability of Internet-ready devices. But ensuring that everyone has the skills to browse the web is the next emerging issue, according to technology consultant John B. Horrigan.

Nearly a third of Americans have a low level of digital readiness, Horrigan said.

The figure comes from a national survey taken in 2013 that measured respondents’ understanding of Internet terms and their confidence in retrieving online information. Naturally those without access to a connection displayed a low level of skills, but even among those with access, an estimated 18 percent possess a low level of readiness, Horrigan said.

A Silent Dilemma

Barbara Stripling, the president of the American Library Association, said educators are beginning to recognize a disconnect between modern curriculum and students’ digital access.

An estimated 75 percent of K–12 teachers assign homework that requires the use of a digital device, but only 54 percent of teachers say students have sufficient access to the digital tools they need, she said.

“This is a silent dilemma,” Stripling said.

Without being well-versed in the online world, students fail to identify valuable sources, instead turning to the top hits on a quick search. Beyond that, some students lack the ability to assemble information from multiple sources, to recognize bias and other critical thinking skills, Stripling said.

Public libraries could also take the initiative in giving a competitive edge to those without online skills, says Reyes-Gavilan.

Before coming to Washington, D.C., he facilitated the opening of the Shelby White & Leon Levy Information Commons at the Brooklyn Public Library. The commons is a new approach to the concept of the computer lab, designed to help people learn digital skills. Other libraries could take a cue from it, Reyes-Gavilan said.

“How many public library computer labs exist in a basement?” he asked. “Who wants to learn in this oppressive environment?”

Horrigan said states could help bridge the divide by mandating state-certified librarians at schools. These individuals have a track record of increasing achievement, literacy levels and developing connections with students.

Time for Change

But expanding services like these means expanding budgets. And these needs come at a time when public and school libraries have been on the chopping block of the recession.

As testing becomes more valued in some states, school libraries are being converted to testing centers, which Stripling said infringed on children’s needs.

“By shutting down these spaces for learning, we’re shutting off our kids from opening the doors to discovery,” she said.

Horrigan suggested libraries look to public-private partnerships and philanthropic communities to raise funds. Reyes-Gavilan said libraries should cultivate a change in their public perception.

Clarence Anthony, executive director of the National League of Cities, said it was time for librarians to become vocal about the need for additional state and federal funding.

“We must make the argument and be more vocal about using media to show the value of libraries,” Anthony said. “We must get some federal legislation … to make sure that we get all these issues up front.”

<p>D. Frank Smith</p>

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