Ten years ago, public schools nationwide were teaching students about looking up information in encyclopedias, following the Dewey Decimal System, and interpreting atlases. All these skills, the students were told, were necessary to their future lives. Teachers enforced this methodology as doctrine, punishing students for pulling information out of that newfangled series of tubes called the "internet." Sure enough, if a book report even hinted at "Wikipedia" as a source, something would hit the proverbial fan right there.
Now, none of this is the case anymore. If you don't have access to Wikipedia, you are handicapped, lacking a valuable resource. The entire face of academia has changed. It's moved forward about a hundred light years, and the internet is at the center.
The truth is that information is the key that unlocks any door. Knowledge is power, as the old adage goes, and the result of this new technology boosting information gain is this: those that can use computers have an immense advantage over those who cannot. Whether you just want to know the score of last night's football game, or you're looking to get an online master degree to improve your employment appeal, you've got the option with the net.
There hasn't been much research into the trend of computer ownership in the last half decade. However, the U.S. Census shows that in 1997, only 18% of Americans had internet connections. This number skyrocketed to 50% in 2001, and continued upward to 55% in 2003. It's a safe estimate that this trend continued upward, but the disturbing part is the discrepancy between ownership among wealthier Americans and needier Americans. Rebecca Lieb of ClickZ.com reports that, in 2003, 95% of wealthy Americans (income >$100,000) were connected to the web, compared to only 41% of those in lower income brackets (<$40,000).
These statistics mean that the age-old social divide in our country is evolving into a huge, problematic digital divide. Keeping the poor ignorant is nothing new, but with the availability and amount of information rising so rapidly, the sphere of ignorance among those excluded is about to get much denser. Lack of internet has the potential to handicap people more detrimentally than ever before. A wealthy individual will be able to pursue that online master degree. A needy individual will have trouble even acquiring a college application. Unable to go to college, that individual may search for a low-level job, maybe stocking shelves for a company like CVS Pharmacy, a company rated by Fortune magazine in 2008 as the 80th largest in the country with 180,000 employees. Oh, wait. That's out of reach too. CVS has completely phased out paper job applications. You want a job? Gotta get on the web.
Bridging this gap is a challenge that needs to be addressed. The importance of computers in education is paramount. We need to make them available to younger students, and college-goers today need to do their best to supplement any education they pursue with computer knowledge to keep on top.