Access to computers and the Internet and the ability to effectively use this technology are becoming increasingly important for full participation in America's economic, political and social life. People are using the Internet to find lower prices for goods and services, work from home or start their own business, acquire new skills using distance learning, and make better informed decisions about their healthcare needs. The ability to use technology is becoming increasingly important in the workplace, and jobs in the rapidly growing information technology sector pay almost 80 percent more than the average private sector wage.
Technology, used creatively, can also make a big difference in the way teachers teach and students learn. In some classrooms, teachers are using the Internet to keep up with the latest developments in their field, exchange lesson plans with their colleagues, and communicate more frequently with parents. Students are able to log on to the Library of Congress to download primary documents for a history paper, explore the universe with an Internet-connected telescope used by professional astronomers, and engage in more active "learning by doing." Students are also creating powerful Internet-based learning resources that can be used by other students -- such as award-winning Web sites on endangered species, the biology of sleep, human perception of sound, and an exploration of the American judicial system.
Access to computers and the Internet has exploded during the Clinton-Gore Administration. Unfortunately, there is strong evidence of a "digital divide" -- a gap between those individuals and communities that have access to these Information Age tools and those who don't. In some instances, this divide is actually widening. A July 1999 report from the Department of Commerce, based on December 1998 Census Department data, revealed that:
- Better educated Americans more likely to be connected. Between 1997 and 1998, the technology divide between those at the highest and lowest education levels increased 25%. In 1998, those with a college degree are more than eight times likely to have a computer at home and nearly sixteen times as likely to have home Internet access as those with an elementary school education.
- The gap between high- and low-income Americans is increasing. In the last year, the divide between those at the highest and lowest income levels grew 29%. Households with incomes of $75,000 or higher are more than twenty times more likely to have access to the Internet than those at the lowest income levels, and more than nine times as likely to have a computer at home.
- Whites more likely to be connected than African-Americans or Hispanics. The digital divide is also persistent and growing along racial and ethnic lines. Whites are more likely to have access to the Internet from home than African-Americans or Hispanics have from any location. African-American and Hispanic households are roughly two-fifths as likely to have home Internet access as white households. The gaps between white and Hispanic households, and between white and African-American households, are now more than six percentage points larger than they were in 1994. However, for incomes of $75,000 and higher, the divide between whites and African-Americans has narrowed considerably in the last year.
- Rural areas less likely to be connected than urban users. Regardless of income level, those living in rural areas are lagging behind in computer ownership and Internet access. At some income levels, those in urban areas are 50% more likely to have Internet access than those earning the same income in rural areas. Low income households in rural areas are the least connected, with connectivity rates in the singles digits for both computers and Internet access.
In addition, data from the National Center for Education Statistics reveals a "digital divide" in our nation's schools. As of the fall of 1998, 39 percent of classrooms of poor schools were connected to the Internet, as compared to 62 percent for wealthier schools.
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