2. Open Source in Computers and Composition
3. Defining Access
4. The Access Research Agenda
5. Access and Open Source Research
6. Conclusion: Directions and Challenges
8. A Note on Webtext Design
Several scholars, most notably Charles Moran, have stated that access to computer technology has been a low priority in computers and composition studies. While I would agree with this assessment, I would also argue that access has been high on the intellectual agenda for a vocal minority of scholars. The term "access" has more than one definition: one is the obvious matter of having a computer or not having one, having an Internet connection or not having one, having sophisticated software applications or not having them. Another is more subtle -- having equipment but not knowing how to use it except in the most basic ways.
When personal computers became available to consumers, the rhetoric of the computer companies was ominous: buy and learn computers, or be at a serious economic and educational disadvantage that can probably never be overcome. In 1987, Olson argued that
the middle class (parents, teachers, government), because of their acute sensitivity to the linkage between computers and vocation, and vocation and education, are exceedingly susceptible to threats about what will occur if various courses of action are or are not taken. [...] computers give you the edge [...] if work processes are being reorganized around greater efficiencies afforded by computers, then anyone not reskilling will move down and out, not up and in. (p. 194, emphasis in original).
The computer industry raised parents' and school boards' anxieties with "carrot-stick sales logics" (p. 195). While a common response to concerns about access was that prices of computers would drop as the technology became more mainstream, Helen Schwartz (1990) points out that “even at greatly reduced prices,” there will be students who cannot afford to own a computer (p. 29). Moran and Patricia Fitzsimmons-Hunter (1998) criticize the assumption “that the unequal distribution of technology is not important, or if it is important it will somehow take care of itself [...] the problem must be solved at the macro level; in our daily work-lives, we can only wait" (p. 25). They add that
the rhetoric of technology assumes that somehow technology will itself solve the problem of its own distribution, and the rhetoric of social revolution assumes that without the redistribution of wealth/technology across our society, the technologically rich will vault still further beyond the technologically poor and there is nothing that anyone can do to halt this process except actively call for the revolution (p. 25).
Access, for many, seems like a problem without a good solution.
Professors remained concerned with computer access for students who attended college throughout the 1990s; in 2001, with his contrast between home access and institutional access, Moran vividly illustrates on-the-ground situations facing students (2001, p. 218-219):
Home access is when you have your computer at “home,” perhaps a home office or a dormitory room. On this computer is your software, with your settings. The Web browser has your bookmarks, the word processor has your screen and page settings, and the cursor travels at a speed that you have chosen. On your computer's hard drive are your files: course notes, earlier papers written for this and other courses. On your email program is your personal address list. Your CD collection is nearby, your coffeemaker at hand. You have constructed a work environment that is productive for you.
Institutional access, on the other hand, is traveling across campus to a computer, bringing with you your floppy disk with your files. Maybe it is February, and, in New England, after 4:30 p.m. it is dark. Has the trip been dangerous? Is the campus safe? Once you are at the lab, perhaps you have to wait for a computer, or perhaps not: this depends upon the hour and the academic calendar. If this is the week when papers are due in all courses, you will certainly have to wait. A sign on the wall reads “User time one hour. Be considerate!” Another sign reads, “No Food or Drink in This Lab!” When you log on to the institution's terminal, you work with the institution's programs set in the way that the institution has determined. Perhaps in this lab the word processor's grammar-checker is on. If this disturbs you, you have to sort through “options” and “customize” menus to find out how to turn the program off.
The "institutional access" users, if they were anything like I was as an undergraduate in those computer labs, likely did not even know that they could turn off various features of programs, never mind how to do it. I had the lowest level of access in that the labs were open to me to use, but I did not have access to the user documentation manuals that came with the software, or access for a long enough amount of time ("User time one hour.") to allow me to explore the "options" and "customize" menus, something I did not do until I bought a computer in early 2000.
Access is a complex idea with subtle differences of degree, as prior research has explained. As early as 1987, Olson suggests that access does not only refer to ownership of computers, but how they're used. Fitzsimmons-Hunter and Moran include in their definition of “access” four additional ideas beyond the basic computers-per-capita ratio:
1. perceived access to computers
2. understanding of educational computing
3. resourcefulness with regard to the technology at hand
4. degree of advocacy, or the “willingness to fight for the technologies that they need to pursue their goals for their own teaching and learning” (p. 26).
Selfe (1999a) argues that people of color and of low income are less likely to have access to computers in their schools, less likely to use computers where they work, and less likely to have a computer in the home, but even when they do have access, it is technician-level access: “citizens of color and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds continue to have less access to high-tech educational opportunities and occupy fewer positions that make multiple uses of technology than do white citizens or those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds" (p. 423). When Selfe writes "multiple uses," I believe she is referring to the same notion as Grabill (2003), who explains that "access is deeper than simple infrastructure and that access is a moving target (p. 462). For Grabill, access includes "knowing how to use ICTs, knowing how to understand and use the massive amounts of information available, and knowing how to be productive with ICTs" (462). Specifically, Grabill claims that users must know how to use their computers to locate and use others' content in order to make their own content. Even having the latest data on how many people own computers and have internet connections, then, does not completely address the issues of access.
One extensive problem that access researchers have documented is the ways students learn about computers -- and how to use the computer to do various kinds of work. A common observation is that wealthier students are encouraged to use computers in the service of cultivating higher-order thinking skills, whereas students in low-income are more likely to use computers for drill-type exercises. Olson (1987) points out that "in middle-class schools," computer use is
general, emphasizing cognate skills, industry, generalizability, and language and programming skills. The usage tends to be specific in addressing the full technical content of a program but it also tends to have transferability across content. The use of computers in working-class schools, by contrast, tends to be rote and is either based on mechanical skills or involves operations of games (p. 195).
As recently as 2004, in fact, this "skills and use divide" (Goode, 2010) has been observed in schools. Warschauer (2000, 2004, as cited in Goode, 2010) found that more affluent schools used computers to "analyze data, carry out research, produce multimedia projects and create demonstrations with computers," whereas schools in low-income areas did not, or did less (Goode, 2010).
Of course it is difficult to draw a line of separation based on how computers are used -- to say that this student has access but this other student does not -- the difference would be arbitrary. As a writing program administrator with experience drafting outcomes, designing curricula, and conducting assessments, it's hard for me to set a benchmark: how much exposure to programming languages (and which ones?) would students have to have in order to truly have "access"? How many, and what kinds of, projects would students have to create in order to ensure that they are not at an intellectual -- and economic -- disadvantage? How many programs should they learn how to use, and which ones? How can knowledge transfer in the area of technology be measured? Still, despite the lack of clear ways to measure citizens' degrees of access, several researchers in computers and composition studies have devised thoughtful ways to work toward closing the digital divide. In the next section, I will describe these.