Sandra Kikuchi, Distance Education Coordinator
University of Utah Graduate School of Social Work
395 South 1500 East
Salt Lake City UT 84112-0260 USA
Internet-based education, Social work education, Digital divide, Diversity and Internet-based education
Social work educators should be aware of social justice issues regarding teaching courses via the Internet. Income, ethnicity, gender, or disability may have an impact on students’ ability to access on-line courses. Sensitivity regarding access issues may assure that social work education does not widen the “digital divide” for students.
The utilization of technology-mediated (TM) systems such as interactive television or the Internet to deliver curriculum continues to increase by institutions of higher education (Conklin & Osterndorf, 1995). Courses delivered via the Internet have demonstrated the fastest growth from 28 percent of institutions offering on-line courses in 1995, to 60 percent in 1998 (Thomas, 1999). According to a 1998 national survey, 16 percent of social work programs in the United States reported utilizing television and TM distance education (Siegel, Conklin, Jennings, & Napoletano Flynn, 1998).
Proponents for utilizing Internet curriculum delivery refer to the ease of accessibility (Burgstahler, 1997; Varnhagen, Drake & Finley, 1997); the flexibility of asynchronous instruction (Hufstuter & Fields, 2000); and, the exercise of choice by students regarding the time, place and pace for learning (Locatis & Weisberg, 1997). Further, proponents extol the Internet as the "Great Equalizer" (LeRoux-Hernandez, 1998) because, "the absence of face-to-face communication erases the prejudices associated with assorted 'isms': sexism, racism, and classism" (Wolf, 1998, p. 15).
The author argues blanket acceptance of the Internet as the “Great Equalizer” is a serious issue for social work education with implications for social, gender, and economic equity. Rather than erasing divisions within society, the Internet may ultimately reinforce these divisions (Yang, 1999). This Internet inequality is referred to as the “digital divide,” a term popularized during the last decade. The digital divide is defined as "those who have access to online information and opportunities and those who do not” (Lazarus & Mora, 2000, p. 8).
A digital divide still exists between income and education (Novak & Hoffman, 1998), “different racial and ethnic groups, old and young, single and dual-parent families, and those with and without disabilities” (DOC, 2000, p. XVI). While women are narrowing the digital gap (Bredin, 1999), there are still some gender-specific concerns regarding access and use (Bimber, 2000; Yang, 1999). Ebo (1998) uses the term, “cyberghetto,” to describe digital biases of race, class and gender, and says Internet critics “argue that the idea that the Internet as an emancipatory technology is untenable because the architecture of the technology harbors innate class bias and other nuances of power entitlements” (p. 6).
Social work educators must be aware of digital divide issues when considering the use of on-line instruction. Courses offered only on-line with no other options may create a digital divide for students who prefer traditional classroom settings to the digital world. Fyock and Sutphin (1995) maintain some students have difficulty adapting to learning without a classroom instructor present or other students with which to interact. All students/learners do not own a computer, have Internet access or are not suitable for on-line courses.
As the boundaries of TM education and on-line course offerings continue to expand, it is imperative for educators to constantly monitor and evaluate the impact of technology on students. By adhering to the basic tenets of good social work practice such as social justice, advocacy, and empowerment, the Internet may become the “great equalizer” regarding on-line social work course delivery rather than a catalyst for the “digital divide.”
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