Digital Divides & Participation Gaps

digital literacies
digital literacies

Wits has made it explicit in its vision 2022 that it would like to known as a “tech savvy” intuition. On our digitally equipped connected campus, academics and students do make regular and expert use of digital technologies to meet their communication, scholarship and teaching needs. Ability of staff to access and use the network satisfactorily is a given. Students skills with finding, evaluating, utilising, creating, manipulating and transforming digital material on the internet, within a virtual learning environment, on software packages, in digital textbooks, working on exercise software, listening to podcasts, participating in simulations or playing learning games etc. is generally assumed or remedied with a brief training session. However, for many students, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds, such digital fluencies are not automatic. A range of digital divides or ‘inequality of access to the Internet’ have limited these students opportunity to access and use ICTs’.

Within South Africa’s secondary education system, more traditional forms of literacy have been developed and while post matric students should be able to read for knowledge, write coherently, and think critically about the written word as undergraduate students, they have not necessarily been exposed to technology enhanced learning. For Wits “tech savvy vision” to be realised, the institution will have to take specific steps that will actively address the various barriers to access. Van Dijk and Hacker (2003) argue that there are four types of barriers to access:

  • The lack of ‘‘material access’’ means a lack of possession of computers and network connections.
  • The lack of ‘‘mental access’’ refers to a lack of elementary digital experience.
  • The lack of ‘‘skill access’’ is a lack of digital skills.
  • The lack of ‘‘usage access’’ signifies the lack of meaningful usage opportunities.

At present Wits runs specific projects to address material access issues. If Wits is to address the other three digital divides and assist its students to gain digital experience, practice digital skills and learn appropriate and responsible behaviours within a meaningful context, then as an institution, Wits will have to go beyond simply creating conditions for material access and systematically and deliberately prepare students so that they can indeed learn anything, anytime, anywhere.
eLSI (eLearning, Support and Innovation) is well positioned to assist academics and students with the development of such capacity. Although the unit are already involved in computer literacy and life-skills programs, additional resources are required to create a particular project that can meet the identified need for systematic digital literacy development. This digital literacy project will be designed to specifically to address the abovementioned issues and should have the flexibility to meet academic needs and build local capacity; It has three components

  1. Materials development: The development of a toolkit to facilitate digital experience. A series of professional development workshops that would introduce academics to patterns and techniques used to develop necessary skills
  2. Benchmarking: Ongoing progress with developing in class opportunities for student to practice their digital competencies within their specific discipline would be measured against a benchmark
  3. Community of Practice: The creation of a local network of expertise.

Marc Perensky’s mistake was to assume that because students were born within a digital era, that they are necessarily “digital natives”. The ability to effectively and critically navigate, evaluate and create information using a range of digital technologies is not inherent. To assist various stakeholders achieve digital literacies, it is essential that all members of the Wits community, academics, administration, library and other support services and students are offered opportunities to become sufficiently competent in the set of life skills that are necessary for full participation in our media-saturated, information-rich society.
With the number of students set to rise significantly in the next decade, this need for such digital literacies is magnified, as it will become imperative that Wits is able to adapt their traditional teaching methods and offer a mix of face-to-face and online learning possibilities and students will need to be technologically fluent to master this new mode.


Van Dijk, J., Hacker, K., 2003. The digital divide as a complex, dynamic phenomenon. The Information Society 19 (4), 315–326

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