Social media: Digital divide, digital access and digital literacy

Today, I taught a class on digital divide, digital access and digital literacy in my New Media Management class in Maxwell’s MPA program. The goal was to make the students aware of the traditional viewpoint of the dichotomous value of digital divide (you either have access or you don’t) and the difference to continuous digital access. Access in the US has mostly to do with convenience, such as the time, location and speed of access: instead of working on your own laptop, people might have to to go to a community center or library to get access; they have a dial-up connection instead of a convenient T1 connection; or access is limited based on their agencies’ or department’s rules of access to their private social networking accounts.

I decided to start the class today with glasses: Each student received a pair of plastic glasses that can be found in the birthday isle at Target (or any other department store – thanks to Steve Sawyer at SU’s ischool) for this idea. I gave them Qtips and Vaseline to smear the front of their glasses and asked them to read what was recently posted on our class Facebook group. While this felt like a kid’s birthday party to them at the beginning, it seemed as if they were stunned when I asked them what they were able to read. Answer: Nothing. Then I asked them where the button is on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube to help them read or hear the content. Answer: Don’t know? Is there one? The point I was trying to make was that none of the most popular social networking sites seems to be compliant with section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act to give people with disabilities equal access to digital information that government is posting online.

To drive my point home, I gave the students a short article about my former student Alexander Williams to read, who is studying in the Disability Studies program at Syracuse University. He was recently featured in a campus publication telling his story and work he is doing in Ghana. You can watch the video about him here:

A Light In the Dark from Christine Mehta on Vimeo.

Alexander came to the New Media Management class today to talk about how he is using Web 2.0 tools to connect teachers in his organization who are teaching blind kids to use technology. He was inspired by the topics we talked about last semester in my Government 2.0 class and created a Ning platform to bring the teachers in Ghana together on a joint platform. Alexander is a true champion lobbying for acceptance and equal opportunities to include disability access into the considerations of public managers early on. One of the points my students made was, that governments usually operate with limited resources and do whatever they can to cater to the majority of citizens and that unfortunately there might not be enough resources to find solutions for minorities. A true “developing country” perspective. Alexander was kind enough to patiently point out that it will take much longer (and is more costly) to close the gap if we leave people behind instead of working together to go through the process step by step. And of course: Resources will always be scarce.

Then the question about numbers came up – “So how many people are we talking about here” – which is completely irrelevant in the U.S. context at least, because the Rehabilitation Act says specifically that federal employees and members of the public have the right to equal access of digital information.

The main take-away from this course section was:

a) Most of the popular social networking sites that are promoted in government right now are not compliant with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and it is extremely difficult for screen readers and other aids to navigate Facebook (Twitter is an exception because it’s solely text-based).

b) What seems to be highly convenient for students on University campuses (24/7 free wireless access), is not the reality for most citizens.

c) Social networking sites might increase the digital divide, leaving people behind who could hugely benefit from tapping into networks that can help them connect to government, help themselves and share information.

Please leave your feedback: Did I hit the mark? Is anything missing? Did I interpret the law and the reality correctly?

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About Ines Mergel

I am Full Professor of Public Administration at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at University of Konstanz, Germany. Previously, I served as Assistant and then Associate Professor (with tenure) at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, NY. In my research, I focus on informal social networks in the public sector and the adoption and diffusion of digital service innovations in government organizations. I teach classes on social media management, digital government, public management, and social network analysis.

6 thoughts on “Social media: Digital divide, digital access and digital literacy

  1. This post is an excellent example of alternative approaches to discussing the digital divide and also an innovative teaching method! I’m going put a link to this article in the extra resources wiki for our Library Foundation Degree and Application of ICT in Libraries students if that’s ok? We have a keen interest in information literacy and access to information for all of our students and are always trying to find out new ways to enable students of all abilities. Great Work!

    1. Yes, of course! It good to hear that it might be helpful for others as well. Would love to hear about other people’s experiences teaching these topics!

  2. Professor Mergel,

    I really like your article, and regret missing out on the opportunity to take your web 2.0 course during my time as an MPA student last year. This is a very interesting article.

    However, I am not sure 508 applies to government use of social networking applications. My understanding of the law, is that so long as the same information being provided to social networking sites by the federal government is also provided in accessible formats on federally controlled or contracted websites, that federal agency will be deemed in compliance with section 508. Otherwise, since Facebook and Twitter are not government contractors, they have no obligation to provide the same accessibility tools that the federal government requires.

    It seems like a bit of a loop-hole to me, but so does the Federal Register. I’m sure if we looked, we could find that many agencies are satisfying federal accessibility requirements by placing all of their information in some obscure, dark corner, of their website. Meanwhile, their main page prominently displays their facebook and twitter announcements.

    Best,

    -David

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