The three divides: The digital divide and its relation to basic skills and employment in Portland, USA and London, England.

The context of this comparative study was the rising importance of digital competence and access to computers as part of contemporary employ-ability. Recent studies have consistently shown that individuals who have ʻdigitalʼ accessʼ have had more education and higher status occupations. This study capitalised on the availability of comparable longitudinal research resources relevant to the target populations – in the UK, the 1970 British Cohort Study and in Portland, Oregon, the Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning.
Resource URL:
Author(s): 
Bynner, J.
Reder, S.
Parsons, S.
Strawn, C.
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation: 
Portland State University
University of London
Published: 
2010
Number of Pages: 
42
Abstract: 

The context of this comparative study was the rising importance of digital competence and access to computers as part of contemporary employ-ability. In turn the ʻdigitalʼ skills also connect with the basic skills of literacy and numeracy. There are consequently ʻdividesʼ between the ʻhavesʼ and the ʻhave notsʼ in relation to digital skills, basic skills and employment. Recent studies have consistently shown that individuals who have ʻdigitalʼ accessʼ have had more education and higher status occupations. Absence of those attributes, including digital competence increases the chances of social exclusion. The World Internet Project (WIP)1 reports this divide within nations as well as cross-nationally. This study set out to investigate these divides in a North American and British context. UK government policy is directed at giving the UK a lead position in the digital knowledge-based economy and includes new occupational standards for IT use, a new Level 1 certificate (ITQ for Life) and the development of a national strategy for ICT as a skill for life. At the core of the processes creating the three divides is the educational record. Those on the positive side of each divide in both countries tend to show the higher levels of educational attainment. Those on the negative side tend to show the lowest levels, in which poor literacy proficiency is the crucial factor. A major concern is the increasing difficulty such young people often have in gaining and sustaining employment in the labour market, typically characterised in UK terms as six months or more between the ages 16 to 18 – ʻNot in Education, Employment of Training (NEET)ʼ. The study capitalised on the availability of comparable longitudinal research resources relevant to the target populations – in the UK, the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) and in Portland, Oregon, the Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning, (LSAL). The part of the BCS70 sample living in Greater London and the urban parts of the South East of England (referred to for convenience as the ʻLondon studyʼ) was compared with the metropolitan area of Portland.

What the Experts Say: 

Based on this comparative study, the authors suggest that, generally, employment and ICT seem to help adults increase literacy proficiency, but that literacy proficiency may not help adults increase skills in ICT or gain employment.  While this conclusion is not written in stone, it seems to have significant ramifications about how to most successfully help adults cross all three of the “divides:” literacy proficiency, access and skills in ICT, and employment.  The size of the respondent samples in the U.K. and the U.S., the longitudinal nature of the two studies, the rich comparison of the two studies, and the conclusions the researchers draw make this an important resource for the field of adult education. The Three Divides does not give the final story on these complex and interrelated issues, but it is an auspicious beginning.

The research described in this resource provides a lot of supporting evidence and documentation for the long term benefits of digital access and skill building to educational achievement levels and employability. However, the information is dense; one must make their way through preliminary data and background information in order to get to relevant conclusions.  The complexities of the statistical model that researchers used, as well as the differences in British and American data sets, makes this a challenging document to understand.  At the same time, understanding and full appreciation of the represented conclusions require at least some level of exposure to how the data was gathered and interpreted. 

The report is a highly detailed, 56 page analysis of these two groups of people and their skills at the beginning of the study up to 2004. It was written five years ago with reliance on data complied 10 years ago.  Researchers might find some merit in comparison of these two groups. Other stakeholders in adult education probably would not.

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