Academic Exchange Quarterly     Spring   2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume 9, Issue 1

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Closing the Digital Divide with Service-Learning


Sally R. Beisser, Ph.D. Drake University, IA

Stuart W. Shulman, Ph.D. Drake University, IA

Teresa B. Larson, M.S.  Drake University, IA



Dr. Beisser is Associate Professor of Education with research interests in service-learning, pedagogy, and action research. She teaches doctoral courses in qualitative research and ethics as well as elementary social studies methods and pedagogy in teacher education.


Dr. Shulman is Assistant Professor in Environmental Science and Policy who will be in Information Sciences and Public Administration and a Senior Research Associate in the University Center for Social and Urban Research at the University of Pittsburgh in fall 2004.


Ms. Larson teaches a service -learning laboratory course at Drake University, has secondary public school experience, and has managed public library and television news operations.



Digital disparity exists among those who differ in socioeconomic status, educational background, gender, race, and age. As part of a digital citizenship course, students in a private Midwestern university participated in a semester service-learning lab tutoring senior citizens about Information Technology (IT). Students studied the ethics of volunteerism and the impact of digital citizenship. In a two-year study of student reflections (N = 67), data were analyzed with ATLAS-ti for Search Institute Internal Assets©. Findings reveal commitment to IT instruction, value of human interaction, new understanding of reciprocation, and the significance of an intrinsic motivation for volunteerism.



Digital disparity exists in access to and use of computer technology among populations who differ in socioeconomic status, educational background, gender, minority status, and age (Wilson, Wallin, & Reiser, 2003). Access to home computers is dependent on income and education with increased use among males (Beisser, 1999; NTIA, 2002, 2000; UCLA, 2000; Roblyer, 2000; Wilhelm, 2000). Educational level increases desire for technological skills (Shelley et al., forthcoming; Shelley et al., under review). Seventy-five percent of individuals with a college degree have a home computer, compared to only thirteen percent of those with a high school education or the equivalent. In addition, race, age, language, and disabilities are significant predictors of technological access and familiarity, even when the influence of socioeconomic status is accounted for (Cooper, 2000; Goslee, 1998; Novak & Hoffman, 1998). Computer ownership and Internet access have steadily increased for all racial and ethnic groups, yet African Americans and Latinos lag behind (NTIA, 2000). For instance, over half of Whites have home computers, compared to one-third of both African Americans and Latinos.


Most notably, senior citizens over the age of sixty-five, representing the “gray gap,” are unlikely to use digital technology. Older persons were less supportive of technology, desired less public access to IT, and were less likely to participate in e-politics (Shelley et al., under review). Reservations include concerns about privacy, irrelevance, cost, and perceptions of the steep learning curve required to use computers and the Internet (Lenhart, 2000; Seiden, 2000). Seniors are often an economically vulnerable group lacking disposable income to purchase hardware and software. Digital inequality is further compounded as new technologies transform exponentially. Elderly persons, not growing up in the Information Age, are unable to draw on the existing skills and competencies required to learn new IT applications. However, given an opportunity to learn, senior citizens in this study came forward.


Development of a Service-Learning Computer Lab

Students in the Digital Citizenship course had a challenge to confront the digital divide. Students initially explored the impact of digital communication and citizenship. They learned that political parties interact online, interest groups use websites and e-mail, and government distributes information via the WWW. As a group, the elderly are not e-citizens, but when invited to come to free computer classes, they arrived eager to learn from college students in the service-learning lab. Students studied the ethics of volunteerism, different types of service, and the meaningful delivery of service-learning (Conrad & Hedin, 1991; Beisser, 2002).


Service-learning is a pedagogy that promotes mutually beneficial partnerships between academic institutions and communities, requiring reflection on particular challenges posed in the delivery of service, in this case information technology literacy (ITL) to an underserved, elderly population. According to Jacoby, “Service-learning is a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs.” (1996, p. 5) Subsequent reflection invites a feedback loop linking the community intervention to an analysis of class-related theory and practice (Shulman, Beisser, Larson, Shelley, & Thrane, 2003).



Three research questions driving this study were: a) Do known building blocks for development of healthy, caring, responsible children (e.g., External and Internal Developmental Assets) manifest themselves in adult development of college students? b) As a result of a service-learning lab with a disenfranchised group, did participating university students reflect on social injustice? and c) In the context of a service-learning lab, what were unseen benefits of university students partnering with underserved populations?


All university students (N = 67) participating in the service-learning lab completed an end of semester reflection paper sharing multiple anecdotes and analytical examples to summarize experiences in the computer lab, offer explanations for the digital divide, and provide evidence of understanding principles of service-learning. After compiling two years of students’ reflective journals across four classes, reflections were analyzed with Atlas-ti qualitative software. Using the Search Institute 40 Development Assets (1996) as a lens for evaluating the reflections, researchers looked for twenty external and twenty internal developmental assets of healthy, caring, and responsible young adults. The framework of developmental assets offers a way of understanding the strengths young people need in order to be productive members of society. Criteria for analysis was built on core principles in the Search Institute’s research-based (1996) framework of 20 External Assets such as family, neighborhood, school, and community support and influence along with 20 Internal Assets such as commitment to learning through motivation and engagement, positive values through promoting social justice and caring, social competencies such as interpersonal competence, and positive identity through personal power and positive view of the future.  In addition, we We wanted to measure the presence, or absence, of assets in young people's lives as they continue in their postsecondary development. The developmental asset framework and terminology, first introduced in 1990, surveyed over 350,000 sixth- through twelfth-graders in over six hundred communities to learn about risks and resiliency. Findings suggest that these assets encourage pro-social behaviors and decrease risky activities (Lerner & Benson, 2003; Scales & Leffert, 1999). On one level, the forty developmental assets represent everyday wisdom about positive developmental outcomes. On the other hand, experiential learning through service provided a means of engagement for young adults to reflect on these assets.


While unable to critically evaluate external assets of college students’ backgrounds (e.g., support and empowerment from family, neighborhood, school, or peers activities) that remained unexpressed in the students’ reflective papers, narratives were scanned for representation of internal assets (e.g., commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, and positive identity) in response to their service activity. Almost 550 pages of electronic data were analyzed by multiple readers to categorize incidence of the following themes: commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, and positive identity. Because the Digital Citizenship course fundamentally focused on the digital divide, responses for equality and social justice, appearing under the positive values asset category, were coded separately. For the five categories, a total of 517 quotations were coded. Results indicate that sixteen percent of responses reflected general positive values; nineteen percent social justice; twenty-nine percent social competencies; twenty-four percent commitment to learning, and twelve percent positive identity. In their papers, some respondents demonstrated an appreciation of multiple asset categories.


Qualitative Analysis

The internal asset categories were collapsed into three areas of importance, as expressed throughout student narratives.


Human interaction: Nearly two-thirds (fifty-nine percent) of student responses focused on the power of human interaction through commitment to learning, positive values, and issues of equality and social justice. They demonstrated a commitment to learning about people different from themselves. Student comments are represented by pseudonyms.


Commitment to learning. Students were committed to learning. One person helped her senior citizen to learn to use email to “keep in touch with her grandbabies." Another helped her client understand the distinction between “.com and .net sites.” One senior asked for help with Internet and Photoshop while others learned to use spreadsheets and Microsoft Office©. Christy wrote, “When our session was complete, we had begun to use search engines. I suggested we meet after class, and I could continue lessons. Mary [the senior citizen] was ecstatic. I found by writing procedures for her, she could more easily use computer functions.” Andi wrote, “The concept that there were millions of other people online with the same first name [Edith] or last name [Smart] was unbelievable.” Doug’s client went home happy with new information. “I made sure she had my e-mail address in case she ever had more questions she wanted me to answer.” Mike said, “Dixie came back excited one week later and wanted to learn about copying Internet pictures for e-mails.” One client “wanted to look up public records to see who owned the house that she and her husband had owned for many years.” Rebecca helped her senior find websites in her own language, Chinese.


Positive values. Students exhibited positive values toward human interaction. It was clear that this wasn’t about teaching technology to a group of elderly people. This was about getting in touch and keeping in touch. One student said, “My client asked me about my hobbies.” Kathryn said, “We keep in contact. ‘I’ve e-mailed her, and she e-mails back.” Abby writes, “An important role I played was to build her self-esteem through encouragement.” Rebecca declares, “The great thing about e-mail is that if they have future troubles with computers, they are able to reach me to matter where my career takes me after graduation!” Jake says, “A very important part of the digital citizenship lab experience is relationships between student and client. It is crucial that students treat the senior citizens with the respect they deserve.” Jason sums it up, “I feel as though I have a better understanding of a whole new population of people within the community I already live in.” Vern states, “The bottom line is service learning is an amazing experience for anybody, and it's more than just teaching—it's improving lives.”


Social justice. Students better understood equality and social justice. Trisha begins, “We were to actively engage in the improvement of those disenfranchised--those most affected by the digital divide.” Tosha notes, “This was the first time that I had really reached out to the senior community. It seems like we’re always trying to improve the lives of our youth, but we never take the time to help the people who helped us.” Allie says, “This semester cemented my beliefs that senior citizens are, indeed, under-resourced in the area of information technology.” Amber helped her client with job skills. She states, “I was teaching her a skill that was keeping her from getting a job to better herself. I helped narrow the gap.” Christy hopes, “Wherever I end up after graduation, I hope to find a program similar to ours to assist people in becoming better citizens and bettering themselves while opening my horizons about groups I incorrectly stereotype.” Allie reveals a deeper understanding. “I see now more clearly that there is a digital divide. However I am not convinced everyone on the other side wants to cross over.”


New understanding of reciprocation: Nearly one-third (twenty-nine percent) of the responses expressed surprising social competencies based upon what students gained personally as individuals, not what they gave as technology tutors. Kathryn said, “We cared about many of the same things. I taught them computer and Internet skills in exchange for their life experiences and further training in communication and teaching.” One student said, “It was not only his first experience with a computer, it was my first experience tutoring. I was quite uncomfortable at first, not sure exactly what to say or do. I was overly conscious of our age difference and afraid of offending him. By the end, however, I worked up to a level of comfort.” Another student mused, “I learned a lot about the lives of people who are a couple of generations older than I. I learned about the history that these people experienced before I was even born!” Remarked Alex, “I doubted the importance of students' role in community building. I didn't think spending time with people in the community would promote social oneness. I was wrong.” Another student said, “I have formed relationships that I would have otherwise never sought. I was able to influence their lives in a small way just as they have influenced mine.” One student said, “Service-learning was not about just putting a smile across a face, but rather meeting someone from a different walk of life and actually growing together in the experience.” Amber says, “Ideally service learning is a two-way street, with both student and client gaining.” Vern reflects, “He even indirectly taught me how to be calm yet focused. I taught him about computers, and he taught me a better way to behave.” Says Rebecca, “Not only did students teach senior citizens, but the senior citizens were partners in showing us how the community needed a project like this.” Nicole shares, “These six people and their life stories have changed the way I think about technology, and they have changed me. One of the only things I was hoping to get out of this experience was patience. I got all that and more.” Tosha says it best, “The best thing that I got out of my sessions with MaryAnn [the client] was a friend.”


Significance of intrinsic motivation for volunteerism: More than one-tenth (twelve percent) of responses provided evidence of positive identity through comments such as future intentions to serve. Tosha sums up the collective voice by stating, “Ghandi said, ‘Be the change you want to see in this world.’ This experience was one of the most rewarding times in my life. I not only learned what service learning is, I made a difference in the world and grew as an individual.”



Our study supports the need for college students to engage in service-learning in order to build internal assets that strengthen healthy adult developmentpost-secondary student engagement in service associated with coursework and study in order to continue development and self-recognition of internal assets that strengthen healthy development of young adults. In summary, we recommend other educators not only consider volunteer service as a component of their coursework, but provide service to disenfranchised populations such as the elderly. In addition, through specific service to disenfranchised populations in combination with intellectual discourse, Our findings conclude that students were not only committed to closing the digital divide through direct instruction of needed technology skills, they better understood complex issues influencing such gaps, when service took place in combination with intellectual discourse.



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