Forum: Digital Divide Could Leave Latinos Further Behind in Education, Jobs

Panelists at a Tuesday morning workshop held by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) suggested that lack of broadband Internet access could hinder the progress of Latinos living in the United States. The panelists, drawn largely from the world telecommunications, warned that Latinos and other minorities risk falling behind in educational and economic attainment if the so-called “digital divide” is not bridged. 

The workshop, “Latinos and the Internet: Jobs, Education, Empowerment and the Digital Economy,” was part of the final day of NCLR’s “Embrace NOW” conference at the Washington Marriott-Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Henry Rivera, board chairman of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Partnership, cited a 2011 survey from the Federal Communications Commission which found that one-third of people in the United States do not use broadband Internet. This statistic is more pronounced, he said, among minorities and non-English speaking Latinos.

“If you don’t have Internet access in your home, you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities,” he said.

Rivera said that, by and large, Latinos feel that they simply can’t afford broadband access. Thirty-six percent of those surveyed cited cost as a major problem. A fewer amount of those surveyed cited a lack of digital literacy. They simply don’t feel comfortable using a computer, he said.

A smaller, though sizable percentage—19 percent—said that they did not feel that the Internet was relevant to their lives.

“Nineteen percent of folks said that, ‘There’s nothing on there that I want, it doesn’t mean anything to me, so why should I give money to the company?’ ” Rivera said.

Rivera said that this misperception about the Internet’s value is one of the main reasons why simply tackling the problem of cost is not sufficient. Reaching out to rural areas, where Latinos tend to gravitate because of jobs, is essential.

“We need to look for solutions at the local and community level to cultivate a social infrastructure for net adoption,” he said. 

Rivera said that as the U.S. moves to a more Internet-centered economy, critical services—such as health care access, paying bills and even the ability to contact family and friends—will be offered online.

“If you don’t know how to use it, you should learn,” Rivera said.  “You simply cannot afford not to be online,” he said. 

Forty percent of Hispanics in the U.S. were born elsewhere, and they are beginning to use smart phones, Facebook, and Skype to contact relatives or even seek entertainment in their native language, said Jason Llorenz, executive director of the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership.

“We’re a mobile population to begin with,” he said. “The Internet has allowed Hispanics to be extremely mobile.”

But Llorenz said that Latinos have yet to take advantage of the Internet’s potential as a tool of mobilization and outreach. He alluded to the Arab Spring, which gestated on social media sites like Facebook, as a possible model.

“Hispanics will organize using technology, and when we do, we will be a force to be reckoned with,” he said.

During the workshop, an English-language version of a public service announcement co-sponsored by NCLR, BBOC and LULAC was played.

In the ad, the camera pans to a common scene in a typical middle class household: a girl staring down at an open book as she is about to do start her homework, a mother licking stamps ready to mail envelopes  and a father speaking on a landline phone while holding a once-ubiquitous yellow phonebook.

But the characters aren’t moving. The scene is immobile as if petrified in stone—the relics of a vanished era.

The camera pans away to reveal that this tableau is part of a museum exhibit about the “pre-Internet” age.

Llorenz said that the PSA offers an apt illustration of the growing importance of digital communication. Snail mail is rapidly being replaced by e-mail, and at least 53 percent of Latinos now use mobile phones—not land-line phones—as their primary source of communication.

Much in the same way, the Internet is rapidly changing our approach to education, he said.

Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, elaborated on this concept.

The Internet is now an indispensible source for college students of all ages: 75 percent of students use the Internet as their primary source of information-gathering, he said.

“If you’re adult and you want to get better at your topic to prepare for the workplace, and even if you’re in college and you’ve missed a lecture, you can be able to use the Internet to make sure you get through those rough spots that you didn’t catch the first time around,” he said.

The biggest challenge for educators as well as regulators would be to find a way to provide more universal access to the Internet, said Wilkes. The contentious atmosphere over budget cuts, he said, has created uncertainly about whether their will be enough funding for education.

Wilkes suggested that the Department of Education, which sets aside billions for student loans and Pell Grants, should set aside funds for a curriculum that provides free college courses.

This curriculum could “transform” the education system, he said.