Security, prosperity, and even the environment depends on individuals accessing information and feeding their capacity to make informed choices while remaining agile and adaptable to accelerated change (Yang & Valdés-Cotera, 2011). When significant segments of a population do not have access to information and communications technology (ICT) Gross National Product (GNP) is negatively affected, which has prompted governments to find solutions and encourage people to embrace lifelong learning (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2010; Pachler & Daly, 2011; U.S. Department of Education, 2000, 2010b). ICT promotes network genesis as well as collaboration while at the same time promoting disruption (Sloep et al., 2011). The disruption wrecks hierarchies, allowing information to flow in all directions (Sloep et al., 2011). Digital divide was a term utilized in the past to identify the gap between those that have access to technology and the Internet and those that do not. That gap has narrowed significantly yet there are still segments of the population that are not digitally included (File, 2013).
Access to Technology and the Internet
Despite the significant gains in percentage of the population attaining access to the Internet since the 1990’s, in 2011 approximately 16% of the population reported that they were not connected (File, 2013). As society becomes increasingly connected, those that are not digitally included will be at a serious disadvantage. Industries like medical and health care, government services and even banking will increase in their online accessibility. Eventually, going online will be the preferred method of access for both the business (or provider) and the consumer. Those without online access will find it more and more difficult to interact with the services and programs they need.
Digital literacy, digital competency or technology literacy, according to Ricoy, Feliz and João Couto (2013) and Sloep et al. (2011), describes more than competence with the use of technology. It defines the ability to find, analyze and evaluate information, while being creative in the use of ICT to communicate and collaborate with others. To be digitally literate, people must be able to make decisions based upon their interaction with technology and others to add to our knowledge society (Ricoy, Feliz, & João Couto, 2013; Sloep et al., 2011). Before one can be digitally included, one must be digitally literate. Digital literacy is one aspect of the digital divide that must be acknowledged to help close the gap.
Lifelong learners must be capable and comfortable using technology. Mpofu and Chikati (2013) and Ritzhaupt, Feng, Dawson, and Barron (2013) see digital literacy as the second level in a pyramid structure like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, being obtainable only after satisfying the base need of digital access. It is critical for everyone to achieve digital competency so that they may take advantage of ICT, which will in turn support them as they take part in the global digital conversation. As educated and informed global citizens, they can help to mold their communities economically, politically and socially in a positive direction (Yang & Valdés-Cotera, 2011).
Digital Inclusion and Social Capital
Digital Inclusion is meant to replace the term digital divide so that the discussions are framed in a positive manor, and as a way to reflect the realities of access and understanding of ICT at more than just a fundamental level (Bernard, 2014). Angela Siefer (2012) (as quoted in Morrone & Witt, 2013) acknowledges the need to distinguish digital literacy from digital inclusion. It is not enough to have access to the internet or understand and utilize ICT. Chen (2013), Morrone and Witt (2013), and Peng (2010) all agree that to remain relevant in society today people must be digitally inclusive. Including oneself in the conversations expressed through social media builds up social capital. Lin (2011) (as quoted in Chen, 2013) defines social capital as an individuals’ investment in the digital conversations with expectations of return. These conversations are established through the connections made by individuals participating in social media (Chen, 3013; Peng, 2010). These networks encourage exposure to new technologies and also perform supportive functions to aid in the adoption of new technologies (Chen, 2013; Peng, 2010; Sloep et al., 20110). These peer networks may also acquaint individual’s the capability ICT has to assist them with personal empowerment that can bring about an improvement in their quality of life (Ritzhaupt, Feng, Dawson, & Barron, 2013).
The negative impact students might experience from not insinuating themselves into digital conversations might not be as readily apparent as it would if they did not have access to technology and/or the Internet of if they are not digitally literate. Not having access or being digitally competent has immediate and apparent effects and consequences whereas not participating in the various forms of social media will be detrimental to students, but in a less immediately identifiable manner. Becoming digitally inclusive is one of the foundations of being a lifelong learner, helping one meet and overcome life’s challenges (Yang & Valdés-Cotera, 2011). Not being digitally inclusive will hamper one’s ability to fully utilize ICT as a way to assist them in achieving personal empowerment, which in turn will bring about an improvement in their quality of life.
One way to engage people to build up their social capital would be to utilize the framework established by the Trinity Education for Excellence Program (TEEP) (Sommerfeld, & Bowen, 2013). A community could be established of consisting university teachers, alumni, business leaders and other learners. People could build up their capital through developing and maintaining a network with other community members. This network could help support the learners as they decide whether or not to pursue formal education, and as they progress through their chosen professions.
Access to technology and the Internet, digital literacy, digital inclusion, and social capital are all areas contained within the digital divide. While the gap in internet access has narrowed significantly, how it is accessed varies. The device utilized to access the internet could create a divide. There are segments of the population that only utilize a smart phone to access the internet, yet the smart phone makes filling out online job applications or editing a resume difficult. Once access to technology and the Internet have been attained, like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, learners are then able to focus on narrowing the gap at the next level up, digital literacy. Our society is becoming increasingly more connected. In order to remain relevant in society and be able to make informed choices and adapt to ever changing circumstances and the fluid environment, in which we live, work and play, people must become digitally competent. Once digital competency has been obtained, people can begin to join the digital conversation, become inclusive, and build their social capital.
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