The Digital Divide: Information Competency, Computer Literacy, and Community College Proficiencies

Cathy Cox, Member, Counseling and Library Faculty Issues Committee

For over fifteen years, since the popular explosion of the Internet in the early 1990's, computers and online information resources have been evolving from cutting-edge instructional enhancements into an essential aspect of lifelong learning and daily life. It is no longer enough for students to know how to find resources for assignments by using a library catalog to locate five or six books on a topic for their paper. A student writing a paper on contemporary politics, for example, might cite an Arabic news website, link to a video clip of the President's inaugural ceremony, and quote blog entries discussing the effect of an African-American president on Middle Eastern diplomacy. "Information competency" covers far more than traditional "library instruction", which focused on use of the card catalog and reference books.

There's not much disagreement on the need for information competency anymore. In 1998, with the adoption of the paper Information Competency in the California Community Colleges, the Academic Senate defined information competency:

Information competency is the ability to find, evaluate, use and communicate information in all its various formats. It combines aspects of library literacy, research methods and technological literacy. Information competency includes consideration of the ethical and legal implications of information and requires the application of both critical thinking and communication skills.

In 2002, the Board of Governors was poised to take action implementing Title 5 changes that would have required information competency as part of the Associate degree, when a letter from the State Department of Finance halted the process and declared the requirement to be an "unfunded mandate". In spite of this setback, numerous colleges and districts around the state have moved forward to include information competency as a critical part of their instructional programs, either as a required class, by infusion into existing curriculum, or in other creative ways to meet locally determined needs. (The Academic Senate Educational Policies Committee has just administered a survey on information competency to local senates and the results shall provide a clear picture of the current status of information competency across the state.)

However, in order to become competent users of information in the digital age, students must first be able to use the basic tool of information retrieval, the computer. To many faculty it seems as if our students are born knowing how to use technology. Online chat is a part of many classes, "to google" is a verb that everyone understands, and we are inundated by student emails with the message "Sent from my BlackBerry". We offer courses via distance education, we expect students to register for classes online, and we pride ourselves on the number of computers on campus or the availability of wireless access to faculty and students alike.

With all that, it's easy to forget that not all students entering our colleges possess the computer skills they need to participate fully in the digital age. Many faculty assume that students have access to and will be able to use the Internet. However, Internet use is not a given for the entire population. According to a report issued by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in 2007, almost a third of Americans do not use the Internet. They note that "non-internet users as a group are disproportionately old and poor." (Horrigan, 2007). While that report looks at Americans nationwide, it's probably fair to conclude that even in California a significant percentage of our most vulnerable students do not use the Internet on a regular basis-and without basic computer literacy skills, they never will.

Computer literacy includes a set of skills which are much more basic than the critical thinking and research skills included in the definition of information competency. Without the ability to cut and paste text, import data into a spreadsheet, format a document, copy files to a different directory, etc., successfully navigating an online registration process or retrieving specific assignments from a class website becomes overwhelming. Simply signing up for a free email account on Yahoo can be a daunting task!

There are many reasons students lack the necessary computer literacy skills. One simple fact is that many students may not have access to computers in their homes. Although many students have used a computer at work, even someone with experience using computers for data entry or retail sales may have learned only the rote steps necessary to carry out a specific routine task. Age is another factor that plays a role in computer proficiency; while younger students may have learned computer basics in school, re-entry students even a few years older are much less likely to have had significant exposure to computers in their elementary and secondary classrooms. Immigrant students also have wide variations in their previous exposure to computers-some are extremely proficient, while others have never used a computer until they are required to do so for college related activities in the U.S.

As a system, we can't afford to overlook computer skills and assume that locally-imposed information competency requirements will magically lift students across this "digital divide". While information competency is a critically important skill for students, teaching information competency presupposes that students have the ability to use computers well enough to focus on critical thinking and evaluation of the material they find. Computer literacy is a far more basic proficiency and one that is important to all students, whether they are planning to complete a transfer degree, taking classes to improve their English, or working on a certificate or degree in a career technical education (CTE) program. Data exists from statewide CTE advisory committees, which include business partners of the California community colleges, showing that lack of computer skills results in lower student success rates in their chosen career paths.

Now, more than ever seems to be the time to begin discussions as to whether we should establish technological proficiency-"computer literacy"-requirements for both certificate and degree programs. What would such requirements involve? Where in the curriculum should they be placed? How would proficiency be assessed? Faculty should be asking these questions at the local level and developing answers in order to provide our students with the tools they need to succeed in the modern, ever increasing digital world.

Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. Counseling and Library Faculty Issues Committee. (1998). Information competency in the California community colleges. Retrieved from

Horrigan, J. B. (2007, August 1). U.S. lags behind: Why it will be hard to close the broadband divide. Retrieved from Pew Internet and American Life Project Web site:

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