The Digital Divide Within Education Caused by the Internet

Benjamin Todd
Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada

Key Words –Education, Internet, Technology, Society, Teacher, Classroom, Multimedia, Information.


This paper examines how Internet technologies are creating a divide between the skills individuals are using inside the classroom and in their daily lives. The data were collected using an online survey that highlights the need to revaluate how individuals are now learning and the new role of teachers in the digital age.


In the twenty-first century, it is becoming evident that the Internet is rapidly developed into more than just a communication tool. The Internet is minimally resulting in a significant change in the transferring of information and arguably has many more profound social consequences. It is profoundly affecting and becoming deeply embedded within the social, political, and cultural fabric of daily lives on a global scale. The consequences of modern communication technology were first identified by Marshall McLuhan in 1962 and reiterated by Alvin Toffler, an American writer and futurist, in 1980. Both theorists predicted that humanity was entering into a new technology and information age or what Toffler called the Third Wave. This paper examines how Internet Technologies (ITs), which are communication technologies that use the Internet, are creating a divide between the skills individuals are using inside the classroom and their daily lives.

Waves of Communication

For Toffler the invention of writing created the first wave of communication change. The second wave began with the industrial revolution in Europe, which led to the creation of innovative message structures, stimulating innovations in information transfer, and the invention of mediums such as the printing press, telegraph, and, eventually, radio and television. Using the patterns uncovered by the first two waves as a roadmap, Toffler predicted accurately, in 1980, that humanity was on the cusp of a Third Wave of communication change based upon information and technology. The avant garde of this Third Wave was the cable network that connected entire neighbourhoods. Toffler predicted the advent of “cable systems . . . designed for two-way communications so that subscribers may not merely watch programs but actively call various services.” In Toffler’s vision, cable systems would allow “entire towns [to] be linked to light-wave cable, enabling users to dial requests not only for programs but still photographs, data, theatre reservations, or displays of newspapers and magazine material” (Toffler, 1980: 162). Toffler’s prediction is now a reality, as multiple cable and wireless information networks around the world combine to create what we now know as the Internet.

Although the Internet provides users with an almost unlimited amount of information, the Third Wave does more than simply accelerate our information flows; Toffler argues it transforms “the deep structures of information on which our daily actions [and realities] depend” (Toffler, 1980: 156-159). Toffler defines these deep structures of information as the ways in which individuals gather and evaluate information, such as using the search engine Google to look for information, rather than using a book; information is then used by individuals to evaluate other information and make decisions.

One example of how shifts within the structures of information can affect people is the creation of a “digital native” (2010) as defined by Marc Prensky. Prensky argues that the youth of today are digital “natives not in the sense of having it all or of magically knowing how everything works at birth, but rather, in their attitudes toward technology;” they want to own and are confident in their ability to figure out the latest innovations (2010: 11). According to Prensky, the generation that has grown up with the Internet lives

parallel online lives with behaviour that is very different from and often puzzling or frightening to the generation that came before. They communicate via texting and instant messaging (IM), and email, they say, is for old people. They share via blogs, Facebook, MySpace, and wikis. They exchange music and other things with peer-to-peer software, such as Bit Torrent. They buy and sell on eBay and Craigslist. They learn from Wikipedia and YouTube. They meet in online places, such as multiplayer games, and in multiuser virtual environments, such as Second Life. They coordinate, collect, evaluate, create, search, analyze, report, program, socialize, transgress, and a large part of the time basically grow up online. (Prensky, 2010: 10)

This change in the patterns of communication results in a conflict between the old ways of teaching and the new, digital students of today.

Changes in the Contents of Information

ITs have not only changed the information sources on which individuals rely, but they are also causing changes in the content of information. One example of this shift in the content of information is that, previously, only important information was worthy of transmission. The transfer of information throughout much of humanity’s history involved a lot of time, effort, and expense. This type of transfer created an unintentional content filter, since it was not worth the time and effort required to transfer non-important information. For example, to publish an article or book through a publishing institution, writers are required to cite their sources, make corrections, and meet certain standards laid down by the publisher and referees. In contrast, the Internet is relatively cheap to access and allows for the publishing and transfer of information instantly. This development has changed the content of information because it no longer requires much time and effort and often does not go through any type of filtering process. With the removal of information filters, virtually any information is being transferred, from earth-shattering events to the most trivial. One example of the latter is a research study of Twitter undertaken by Pear Analytics (Van Grove, 2009), which studied the contents of our tweets to determine the intellectual content and usefulness of the information being tweeted. They discovered that 40 percent of tweets are pointless babble.

Probably, however, the same thing could be said about talking, and there is still almost 60 percent of Twitter content that is apparently not babble, even if it is not useful information. Postman argues, however, that there is still a problem with this potentially more significant 60 percent because of the narrow time-frame of the information most students know: “They have continuous access to popular arts of their own times—music, rhetoric, design, literature, architecture, but they know little of the form and content of these arts” (Postman, 1992: 196). More importantly, they are largely unaware of the form and content of the past, which leaves them with no basis for evaluating and critiquing the arts of the present.

The Collision of the Written Word and Images within Education

The gap between popular art, and what might be defined as popular culture, and the past was recognised by Postman in his quest to understand the relative ignorance of students about their cultural history. This concern led him to recognize the conflict between print-based learning and image-based learning, caused by a cultural lag within formal education. The old text-based pedagogies clash with the images students have become accustomed to use for learning since the invention of the television and other image-based mediums. As proposed by Postman, television and school, rather than being mutually exclusive, were in truth two competing systems of learning (Postman 2006). These two competing systems resulted in a cultural “collision” as the emerging technology and their accompanying ideologies begin to challenge the cultural dominance of long-established practices (Postman, 2006). Postman’s primary concern is for the young victims of this collision. In his view, the casualties are children who cannot or will not learn to read, “children who cannot organize their own thoughts into a logical structure even in a single paragraph, children who cannot attend to lectures or oral explanations for more than a few minutes at a time. They are failures . . . because there is a media war going on, and they are on the wrong side” (Postman, 2006).

What Does it Mean to be Educated.

One of the examples Postman discussed is technology’s effect on education and our way of life, as “new technologies alter the structure of our interests; the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community, the arena in which thoughts develop” (Postman, 1992:20). One example he uses to portray the way “new technologies change what we mean by ‘knowing’ and ‘truth’” is the education system and how the creation of standardized testing and the invention of marks and grades for the regurgitation of information completely changed what it means to be educated. Prior to standardization, an educated person was not measured solely by the information they could regurgitate. Instead, he or she was judged by experiences, skills, and abilities, as well as by the ability to think critically, including uncovering and questioning biases and filtering relevant information.

Postman addressed this transition by redefining what it means to be educated, so it reflects the potential contribution the Internet can make to education:

[T]o become educated means to become aware of origins and growth of knowledge and knowledge systems; to be familiar with intellectual and creative processes by which the best that has been thought and said has been produced; to learn how to participate, even if as a listener, in what Robert Maynard Hutchins once called The Great Conversation, which is merely a different metaphor for what is meant by the ascent of humanity. (1992:188)

This broad definition of education is pertinent to this essay, but it is supplemented by Postman’s belief that information is useless unless you can do something with it.

The New Role of Teachers

Given the changes being brought on by ITs, one possible solution is the creation of a new type of teacher. Teachers throughout history could often be separated into two categories. The first category consists of teachers who teach lessons by requiring students to regurgitate information, with very little thought to the lessons usability or practicality; in other words, traditional teachers who taught a lesson, not the students. The second type of teacher, or progressive teacher, teaches the required information but in such a way that it is usable to their students. Both of these types of teachers were common before the invention of the Internet, but given the changes in how students can access information, the role of teachers must once again be evaluated to emphasize the importance of the progressive teacher in the digital age.

The key characteristic of the new knowledgeable society being created through the Internet is that it inevitably challenges the traditional notion of schooling. Given the shift in accessing of information, created through ITs, educational researchers are now arguing that the premises of schooling may have changed and schools should be remodeled to fit how the society is learning, because “the continuous evolution of Internet-based technology and its accompanying effects on all aspects of modern life has changed what students should learn, how learning should happen, where and when learning can happen” (Chai & Lim, 2011: 4). I undertook to survey a sample of individuals and university students to understand how students and others learn outside the setting of formal education and contrast this style with classroom practices.

Methodology & Study Design

The data for this study were collected using an online survey comprised of a questionnaire consisting of both structured, multiple-choice questions and open-ended, short-answer questions conducted over a three-week period. The survey was distributed to a convenience sample. To maintain participants’ anonymity, the survey was conducted through a website hosted by Acadia Technology Services, which made the survey accessible to the general public and Acadia students. The question of technology use in the classroom was addressed primarily to students at Acadia University, which, in 1996, pioneered the introduction of mobile computing in secondary education with a programme that wired classrooms and other on-campus sites and required students to own or rent laptop computers. There is a difference, however, between making Internet-based instruction possible and actually realizing the potential. Permission to administer the questionnaires was obtained through the Acadia University Research Ethics Board. On a voluntary and anonymous basis, participants filled out a self-administered questionnaire online.

Although the sample cannot be considered representative of students at Acadia or elsewhere, or present an accurate portrayal of the complex societies in which individuals are living, exploratory research such as this will hopefully help to highlight the conflict between the way many individuals are receiving information and learning through the Internet and the cultural lag within formal education. This study used a questionnaire to access a potentially large number of people in the expectation that it would provide a better understanding of how a reasonably large range of individuals use the Internet in their daily lives and their education. All of the statistical results quoted within this essay are subject to a confidence interval of 13 percent, at a confidence level of 95 percent. Of particular interest for this essay are the results from the open-ended questions on educational practices and experiences.

Fifty-three respondents completed the survey. The age of the participants in the sample ranged from 18 to 46 years, with a mean of 22.6 years. Over two thirds of the sample (82%) were between the ages of 18 and 25 and 17 percent were 30 or older. The vast majority of the participants (86%) stated that they were currently students, while 14 percent of the participants were not students. Out of the 38 participants currently attending university full-time, 50 percent of them responded that they were studying a science, 42 percent were studying the arts, and 8 percent said they were studying education or other fields.

Results & Discussion

Internet Influence in Our Society

This study begins with the assumption that humanity is now living in the Third Wave, a wave of change created through the evolution of information technology. Although individuals may not notice on a daily basis the massive change the invention of the computer and the Internet are bringing, change is taking place. First, computer and Internet use is becoming ubiquitous. All 53 participants answered that they owned a computer. Of these 53 participants, 52 (98%) could also access the Internet at home, and 28 (52%) could access the Internet from their work. All 44 current students could access the Internet from their school. The one participant who did not have access to the Internet at home or work did have access to the Internet at school.

The major claim of this essay is that technological changes, especially Internet technologies, is not merely changing how people access information, but that, as suggested by Prensky, the Internet is causing people to live parallel online lives. This argument is reflected by the survey responses, which shows that, during an average day, 4 percent of the participants claimed to spend over 12 hours online, 26 percent spend between 6 and 12 hours online, while the majority (49%) stated that they spend between 3 and 6 hours online a day. Only 19 percent stated that they spend less than 3 hours a day online.

Another major shift can be seen in the strategy people use when they seek information. Just over two thirds (76%) of the participants stated that the first strategy they used when they needed information was to look it up online. Only 13 percent said that they would ask someone and 11 percent said they would look it up in a book.

As students spend a large amount of time online, for entertainment, communication, and learning, the cultural gap grows between informed learning and the pedagogy of formal education. Table 1 demonstrates this cultural lag. Participants were asked what forms of technology teachers use in their educational practice. About two-thirds (68%) of the participants’ teachers use power points to complement their lectures, which is still the dominant form of teaching (70%). Only 13 percent reported that their teachers use the Internet. This finding suggests that, rather than incorporating ITs into their classrooms, for the most part teachers are merely using technology to support the older teaching pedagogies. They are not creating new pedagogies using the combination form of medias ITs offer.

Table 1 How often do your teachers use these communication mediums in class?

Participants’ responses to the short-answer questions demonstrate that the effects of IT use are permeating every aspect of our society as more and more people are becoming dependent on the Internet. Half (49%) of the participants stated that their computer was critical for their education and 92 percent gave it an importance rating of six or higher out of 10. In addition, this study highlights how individuals now feel pressured into taking more formal education in order to succeed in life, even though 16 out of 42 participant responses did not define being educated through the lens of having completed some kind of formal education.

Although the role of ITs within education is still being debated, the findings of this study reinforces the necessity argument that the Internet is becoming so entwined and integral in today’s society that society is being transformed by it, as individuals are able to share information faster and work more efficiently. ITs help to break down potential language barriers through programs like Google translator, as people within different countries interact with each other and geographical distances become irrelevant. 

The educational importance of the Internet may be overemphasized, but it is inaccurate to state that it detracts from the real issues by implying that it hinders students learning the more important skills of reading, writing, and math. The Internet is not really a new medium; rather, it is the remaking or synthesizing of the mediums of images, reading, writing, and math. Individuals need to be able to read and write in order to type in website addresses, comprehend the information they are accessing, or even just chat with friends. Numbers are also used for a variety of activities such as online shopping, playing games and figuring out the time and date. Although the Internet may not specifically teach students how to read, write, and do math, students exercise these basic skills through the playing of computer games and other online activities.

Participant 8 summarized this argument, stating that, “the Internet, computers, Twitter, Facebook, and cell phones are only tools, and, depending on how they are applied, [they] can 'make' a person more or less educated.” The Internet does not simply take away from the basic skills of reading, writing and math, and may in fact enhance these skills by providing a new framework with which to bridge the gap between the old lecture and text-based pedagogies and the new image-based environments in which students are growing. As one student claimed “it is nearly impossible to force my sixteen year old sister to read, but she will gladly spend hours playing digital reading games.”

The Creation of a ‘New’ Teacher

The invention of ITs brings with it new challenges and opportunities when it comes to teaching. As suggested by Chai and Lim, teachers are now required to have more than just content knowledge within their particular field because students can access this information on their own. If the same information is accessible to everyone, at the click of a button, then the role of teachers will have to evolve. When asked how they would improve their classes, several participants offered some insight into what this new classroom could look like and the new role of their teachers:

Have professors and students learning together, researching together, and using their research to create a better and more just society. Deconstruct classroom hierarchies, subject hierarchies, and paradigm hierarchies within subjects. Limit the number of students in a class to sizes that are small enough for productive discussion. Train students and professors in facilitation methods. Implement a progressive facilitation process in the classroom that hears from the voices of women, racial and ethnic minorities before those voices who are traditionally privileged. No more 'lectures' – we would learn as a collective. Re-evaluate the content of our textbooks. Students design syllabus, assignments, and grading schemes. Profs must be honest about their biases and stop acting impartial or 'all-knowing.' Make university and classes more inclusive and available to those of all economic statuses. (2011, 8)

Respondent 11 said that classes should teach applicable skills because “application is a more important skill than reciting a textbooks worth of knowledge that you learnt the day before.”  For respondent 29, classes should be “structured so we would have pre-class reading and then have it followed up on in class, rather than professor spending time telling us what the text book says.” These changes would also coincide with another of the participants’ suggested improvement of having more in-class discussions, as expressed by participants 4, 7, 37, and 38, who advocated for more student participation and direction in discussion. 

Incorporating these improvements into the classroom would place more demands on teachers today than anytime throughout history. Teachers have always been required to have an excellent content knowledge base. The invention of ITs has placed a heavy burden on teachers because they are now required to not only have strong content knowledge, but also be technologically knowledgeable in the use of different mediums and have the pedagogical knowledge necessary to combine content knowledge with technological knowledge in a way that engages their students in IT-enhanced, problem-based learning.

In addition, the findings suggest that many students are dissatisfied with the way classes are being taught, especially when it comes to their teachers’ modeling and use of technology. Another important finding was that it might not be just the current teaching pedagogies that are outdated but the teachers as well, a theme highlighted by students commenting on how their teachers appeared to lack the digital knowledge necessary to properly model responsible digital behaviour to their students. This deficiency will have to be addressed before any successful integration of ITs into the classroom can be achieved.

This means that the role of teachers will have to change from the suppliers of information and knowledge to the explainers, filterers, and appliers of information. Participant 12 claimed that the role of teachers is shifting from being the presenters of information to becoming a bridge: “teachers work with both traditional knowledge mediums, books and so forth, and must also be fluent in using computers and other new media; in essence [they] bridge the gap between the two.” This illuminates the need for teachers to not only bridge the digital gap, but they must also teach their students proper information literacy; defined as the ability to access, evaluate, organize, and use information from a variety of sources. In essence, information literacy is the ability to take raw information and transform it into useful knowledge.

Although two-thirds of the respondents referred to an educated individual as being a person who had engaged in some post-secondary education, the attributes, which comprise an educated person, are not restricted to classroom credentials or traditional educational pedagogy. Participants suggested through their responses that an educated person is someone who has a wide foundation of experience and knowledge, which they can express clearly through writing or talented oration while asking critical questions about the world. This interpretation was shared by John F. Kennedy, who said: “let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation.” Kennedy suggested that to be educated simply means to engage with and care for others, while asking questions about the world and developing ways in which to share your discoveries with the rest of humanity; it is an ideal that challenges the more traditional ideas of what it means to be educated. Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Graham Bell who were both homeschooled exemplify this non-traditional interpretation of being educated.   

These historical figures illustrate that the problems within traditional education go beyond a failure to properly integrate ITs. The technologies with which students are interacting result in a more fast-paced society, which clashes with the more demanding mediums of reading and writing. This is resulting in a conflict as individuals are required to use technology because of society’s dependency on it. Requiring individuals to process large amounts of information often means that they have to look for and filter information that is immediately useful or risk becoming overwhelmed. The work of Postman, McLuhan, Prensky, and Toffler suggested that this change in instant access to information is resulting in behaviors that are frustrating students, because the skills they are using outside the classroom conflict with the more traditional methods of memorizing information and reading and writing, a theme that was also reinforced by the responses to the questionnaire. If ITs are not successfully integrated into the classroom, the result could be a divide as suggested by Postman: Students are completely immersed within popular culture and have access to a huge amount of information, but lack an appreciation of where this information comes from and how it is all interconnected. Such an educational divide would have drastic consequence for humanity, because all the information in the world is useless if people lack a solid foundation of knowledge upon which to develop and ground their own and others’ ideas. To paraphrase a Future Shop advertisement for a smart phone: in the end information does not really matter unless it does something that really matters.

The objective of this study was to highlight the cultural lag taking place within educational establishments within North America. This study also began to address some of the common misconceptions around ITs, while focusing on some of the challenges in integrating ITs into traditional classrooms and helping to address the current absence of knowledge around the Internet.

This essay demonstrates that, given the challenges and opportunities generated by ITs and their transformative role in society, it is important to evaluate the role of teachers and attempt to depict a vision of what these new teachers should be able to do. As foreshadowed by Toffler and Postman, there is a bitter struggle raging within formal education between the old ways and those who seek to supplant them, and the victims of this collision are the children and youth presently in the system. If the emergent civilization is to be successfully deemed educated, in the sense that Kennedy used the term, the first step is to close the gap between the pedagogies of the informal and formal educational milieus.


Chai, Ching. Sing., & Cher Ping Lim. (2011). The Internet and teacher education: Traversing  between the digitized world and schools. Internet and Higher Education, No 14, pp. 3-9.

Kennedy, John. F. (1917-1963). Retrieved February 4th, 2012, from proverbial Website: http://en.proverbia.net/citastema.asp?tematica=377.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, Marshall. (2003). Understanding Media: the extensions of man, edited by W. Terrence Gordon. Los Angeles: Gingko Press.

Postman, Neil. (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Knopf.

Postman, Neil. (2006). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of show Business. New York: Penguin Books. 

Prensky, Marc. (2010). Playing games in School: Video Games and Simulations for Primary and Secondary Education. Edited by Atsusi “2c” Hirumi. Washington, DC: International Society for Technology in Education. 

Toffler, Alvin. (1980). The Third Wave. New York: Morrow.

Van Grove, Jennifer. (2009). TWITTER ANALYSIS: 40% of Tweets Are Pointless Babble. Retrieved October 12, 2011, from Mashable Social Media Website: http://mashable.com/2009/08/12/twitter-analysis/


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