The Digital Divide

In a survey released Thursday, the Commerce Department shows dramatic gains in the number of Americans embracing technology. But the report, called Falling Through the Net also cites money, education, and proximity to an urban center as key factors affecting use of computers and the Internet. In this recent Cover Story for the CBS Evening News, Sunday Edition, Correspondent John Roberts visits teenagers on both sides of "The Digital Divide."

Sam Newnam has been playing with computers since he was about 7 years old. "Over the course of my life I've slowly grown to love computers," he says. "It's become my hobby."

It's a hobby Sam puts to good use. A senior at Southwest Guilford High, he uses sophisticated software to turn out projects that include elements like animation. That kind of software "opened new doors," he says, adding, "I knew I was going to get an opportunity to play with new technologies, things I haven't done before."

Teacher Roy Kimmins says many of the school's top students, including the class valedictorian, take an advanced computer course. They believe the knowledge will come in handy, even if they're not yet quite sure how. "These students are going to be entering jobs that, for the most part, have not even been created yet," the teacher notes.

Sam Newman has four computers at home and, he says, he uses them all. But fewer than 40 percent of Americans own even one personal computer.

This gap between the haves and the have-notes, sometimes called the "digital divide," troubles teacher Kimmins: "The more affluent students, they're going to have the Internet, they're going to have computers at home. We must make absolutely certain that every single student in America has equal opportunity to technology so they can compete."

That's a goal that has the support of the White House. President Clinton wants all schools connected to the Internet, and all students to be computer literate, by the year 2000. As Mr. Clinton put it, "All students should feel as comfortable with a keyboard as a chalk board; as comfortable with a laptop as a textbook."

Meghan Griffith lives only 70 miles from Sam Newman, but they are separated by more than distance. Griffith lives in a county that is less affluent and more rural. Those differences, her chemistry teacher says, accentuate the digital divide. "Students who have access to a computer at home seem to feel like they have an edge above those that don't," says teacher Harriett Tillett.

Meghan doesn't own a home computer, but she's comfortable using one. She credits her confidence to the computer class she has been taking. "I would feel totally out of place if I didn't have the computer experience here at Person High School and I was just forced to go to college and just thrown into things and given things to do. I think I would feel overwhelmeand just lost."

For classes studying subjects other than computer applications, access can be a real problem. When science teacher Tillett wants to use software to illustrate a difficult concept, she has to move her class to the computer lab--if it's available. Tillett says, "We would love to have technology here but it hasn't quite filtered into the chemistry lab yet."

But the digital divide has started to narrow somewhat, particularly in the area of vocational training. "I could not teach this class without technology," says auto mechanics teacher Gordon Powell. And, architectural drafting student Scott Talbert says, "It just made me so interested in doing this architectural stuff, it's just amazing. I just love it."

Students are eager to get their hands on computers any way they can. Scott Newman knows how much it has helped him: "I think I'm going to be a step ahead of people going into college, going into school, going into the workforce," he says, "because I'm already going to have the basis of understanding computers and understanding how software works."