Age, Gender, Ethnicity and the Digital Divide:
University Students’ use of Web Based Instruction


Zeev Soker


This paper focuses on the effects of social-structural factors (age, ethnicity and gender) on university students’ use of web based instruction – WBI. The study uses data from registration questionnaires of students at the Open University of Israel. During the period between 1995 and 2002 there has been a continuous increase in the proportion of students who use the Internet and e-mail for study purposes. However, a significant minority (1/3 of the students) are still not Internet users. Previous studies have referred to the digital divide in terms of differences in access to the relevant hardware and explained it mainly by social and structural factors. Current research tends to focus on the digital divide in terms of use rather than access and explains it mainly by micro, individual and situational characteristics. The present study shows that also structural factors such as age, gender and ethnicity play a significant role in the continuous existence of the usage gap. The social and educational implications of this gap are discussed.


One of the major concerns of modern societies today is to ensure increased access to higher education, and to include members of formerly under-represented social groups and categories, such as women, ethnic and racial minorities and people who live in distant rural or disadvantaged areas or who have to combine their studies with full or part-time employment. In order to achieve this goal many institutions of higher learning have been encouraged to diversify their methods of delivery. And indeed, today in addition to universities that specialize in extra-mural or distance teaching many “traditional” and even elite universities are teaching off-campus and even in the students’ work environment. In order to do so, these universities have added to their regular teaching methods a variety of advanced educational media technologies: audio- and video-cassettes, satellite transmitted lectures, video-conferencing and finally web-based instruction (WBI), which includes Internet-sites, discussion-groups, e-mail etc. In recent years WBI has become the most popular and widely used among these new methods of delivery.

The question arises whether WBI is indeed able to cater equally for all members of an increasingly heterogeneous student population. In other words, does WBI contribute to the “inclusion” of non-traditional students, that is facilitate their learning experience or does it on the contrary cause “exclusion”, i.e. create new barriers for these students. (Armstrong 2000; Attewell 2001).

Those who consider WBI as a means to reach formerly disadvantaged students argue that the different forms of information and communication technologies and WBI in particular provide easier access for these learners than more traditional delivery methods. Thus for example, WBI offers flexibility of time and space (Bentley 1998; Gell and Cochrane 1996) and therefore suits students who have to fit their studies into a crowded schedule that includes work as well as caring responsibilities (Laurillard 1993; McConnell 1998). Furthermore this delivery method helps many students to overcome some of the difficulties inherent in a classroom situation. For example, during a discussion students who are shy will not be stereotyped by visual clues, their comments can be “heard” in full, not being cut off by impatient fellow students (Spencer 1997). As one female student expressed it: “It’s easier to be yourself, when you are invisible…” (Sullivan 2002).

On the other hand, there are those who argue that because of the so-called digital divide (DiMaggio et al. 2001), the introduction of advanced delivery methods create additional barriers precisely for those potential students who more than others need an opportunity to acquire higher education (Selwyn and Gorard 1999): women (Spender 1997; Bimber 2000), mature students (Bucy 2000; NTIA 2000), those who live in the periphery as well as people from lower socio-economic strata (Katz et al. 2001; Attewell 2001), who can not afford the price of keeping up with the frequent innovations in computers and accompanying gadgetry. These non-traditional students are unable to take advantage of courses that are delivered mainly or exclusively by WBI, simply because they have no ready access to computers and the Internet (Holderness 1998).

However, recently it has been pointed out (Warschauer, 2003a, 2003b; van Dijk and Hacker, 2003) that the simple distinction between those who have and those who do not have access to the Internet does not address the essential issue. This distinction assumes that mere access to a computer, whether at home, at work or in a public library will automatically generate learning and development. But this is not always the case: one person may own a computer and have unlimited access to the Internet yet never use them, whereas another person will travel a great distance in order to use a computer at a public facility. Or as Warschauer (2003a) points out: “The key issue is not unequal access to computers but rather the unequal ways that computers are used” (p. 46).

And indeed, lately it has been noticed that differences in access according to gender, age and ethnicity are gradually disappearing (van Dijk and Hacker 2003; NTIA, 2000). This does not necessarily mean that differences in use will disappear at the same rate. Recent studies have pointed out that even if general access to computers and the Internet could be made available to all and instructional materials made more user-friendly there would still remain certain barriers that prevent the extensive use of WBI. Thus it has been argued that some students suffer from computer-anxiety (Scott and Rockwell 1997), others lack computer literacy or have no access to an informal network of advice and support (Golding and Murdoch 2001; Harper, 2003). Finally there are students who choose to refrain from using WBI due to personal motivations or predispositions (Haddon 2000; Williams et al. 2000; Tu and McIsaac 2002; Stanley 2003).

As levels of computer ownership and Internet access are approaching saturation in the affluent Western societies and growing rapidly also in the developing countries the pertinent issue in the discussion of the digital divide and WBI is no longer one of differences in ownership or access, but more directly one of the individual students’ inclination and/or ability to use this educational technology.

The distinction between access and use is undoubtedly an important addition to the discussion of the digital divide and its implications for web-based instruction. Previous studies of “access” tend to have concentrated their analyses on structural factors (e.g. age, gender, ethnicity, social class etc.) while differences in “use” were generally explained in terms of subjective and personal characteristics. In other words, whereas the discussion of the digital divide in terms of access concentrated mainly on the macro, structural and societal level, the analysis in terms of use tended to focus on micro, situational and subjective factors. In our view the question which still deserves further attention is whether structural variables may also contribute to the explanation of differences in use. Do men and women, different age groups and people of different ethnic or class origin show different rates of Internet use?

In order to examine this issue within the context of a society undergoing rapid social, economic as well as technological changes, the empirical part of this study focuses on the Open University of Israel (OUI), an open admission, distance-teaching university. Distance teaching universities, which have been established in growing numbers in industrialized as well as developing societies from the 1970’s onwards, were from the outset intended to contribute to the above mentioned educational expansion. They were designed in order to be able to handle large numbers of students by means of a relatively cost-effective quasi-industrial process, utilizing mass-produced materials (Peters 1983) as well as advanced information technologies (Bates 1993). These universities were based on a conception that saw distance teaching mainly as a ’second chance’, offering a unique opportunity to acquire academic or professional skills to students who for various reasons had not attained them before. Today as these universities have become well-established academic institutions that teach undergraduates as well as graduate and doctoral students they attract a student body that comes from a variety of social strata and educational backgrounds. As a result these universities have had to develop instructional methods that enable them to cater to the needs of a highly heterogeneous student population (Guri-Rosenbliet 1999).

OUI has gradually introduced WBI into its academic courses since 1995. Recently, as part of its policy to ensure access to higher education to everybody who can benefit from it, the Israeli Council for Higher Education, has granted special funding to the OUI in order to further advance the use of WBI. And indeed today all OUI courses in all academic disciplines include WBI components, though none of the courses are taught solely by means of WBI. All of the courses have an Internet site where the students can find study-relevant information: summaries of bibliographical materials indicating important points and main ideas; model answers or solutions to questions from exams and assignments; video-taped lectures; discussion groups; chats; links to data banks, libraries and relevant Internet sites etc. Though all of these features supplement the printed course materials and face-to-face tutorials rather than replace them, it seems clear that students who use WBI have an advantage over those who do not utilize this option.

The paper therefore addresses the following issues:

  • What proportion of the students at OUI actually uses e-mail and the Internet?
  • Has there been a change over time in this proportion?
  • Is there a difference in this respect between men and women? Between young and mature students? Between students who belong to different ethnic groups?
  • Have these differences (between the age, gender and ethnic categories) increased or decreased over time?


The data dealt with in the present study was collected in 2003 from the university’s files and based on the questionnaires which all students fill in at registration. As part of the registration process, the OUI offers its students the possibility to sign up for instructional materials delivered via the computer: the Internet and e-mail. These optional materials are offered in addition to the printed materials which are automatically provided to all registered students and the face-to-face tutorials they can choose to participate in. In order to receive the additional materials (e-mail messages, passwords to specific Internet course-sites, discussion groups, digital libraries and data-bases etc.) the students are requested to list their e-mail address. Those students who respond positively and voluntarily sign up for these optional services will be considered in this study as actual “users”. This operational definition of “users” is based on the findings reported in NTIA (2000) according to which e-mail is the most widely-used Internet application in the USA as well as the fact that also in Israel anyone who has access to the Internet can open an e-mail account without additional expense. Though this definition does not enable us to distinguish between passive and active users or between occasional and heavy users it enables us to analyze data concerning a very large student population (tens of thousands) over a large time span (nearly a decade) rather than studying a small sample at one given point in time.

The data collected relates to students who have completed at least two courses of a degree program and who enrolled at the OUI between 1995 and 2002 (N=36,430). We focused on these students because we assumed that at this stage of their studies they are already fully aware of the advantages offered by the digital means of instruction, mainly by WBI.

In addition to these data, basic demographic information, such as age, ethnicity and gender was collected from the same questionnaires.

Age: Within the student population we distinguished between four age groups: “Young” students are those aged 19 and below, “regular” students were those aged 20-24, “adult” students aged 25-29, and finally “mature students” who were defined as all students aged 30 years and older. It should be noted that though in the literature students who are 25 years old and above are usually considered “mature students” slightly different definitions are appropriate in the Israeli context, where due to compulsory military service followed by an almost institutionalized yearlong trip around the world, many “young” students enter higher educational frameworks only around the age of 23-25. Thus only students aged 30 and over are indeed “mature learners”, seeking higher education for career development, career change, personal development etc.

Ethnicity: The Israeli society consists of a Jewish majority (80%) and an Arab-Palestinian minority (around 20%). The Jewish majority can be divided into a number of ethnic groups, characterized by their countries of origin. The social relevance of ethnicity in the Israeli society still persists, (CBS, 2002) even though a growing proportion of Israelis, including all the Arab-Palestinians, are today native born. Therefore the student population was divided into three categories according to the country where the student’s father was born:

“Israelis”: Jewish and Arab-Palestinian students whose father was born in Israel.

“Ashkenazim” Jewish students whose father was born in Europe or America;

“Sephardim”: Jewish students whose father was born in Asia or Africa;

Gender: The student population was divided into male and female students, according to the information from the registration questionnaires.


1. The General Student Population

In the following we summarize the main findings from our analysis of the data pertaining to the entire student population in a computerized learning environment. We examined which proportion of students had listed their e-mail address with the intent of using it for their studies. We followed the changes in this proportion over the years.


As may be seen from table 1, there has been a steady and significant increase over the years in the proportion of all OUI students who submit an e-mail address, that is, in the proportion of WBI users. Thus in 1995, only 19.6% of the students were Internet users, while in 2002 this proportion had increased to around 70%. As a point of comparison we might mention that the average figure for internet connection in 2002 by households in Israel was only 22.5%, while the proportion for the top three deciles of the population was 42% (Central Bureau of Statistics 2003). Thus the rate of Internet use among the students far exceeds that of the general Israeli population. This difference is to some extent a result of the fact that the student population is on an average younger than the general population and that younger people in general tend to adopt new technologies faster than the rest of the population. Also, it is not unlikely that the growing variety of WBI offered by the OUI during these years has been a contributing factor in the increase of Internet users among the students.

However, at this point it is essential to notice, that despite the significant increase in Internet use during the period under consideration, around 30% of OUI students (in 2002) are still not Internet users. These students do not take advantage of what WBI has to offer. Assuming that WBI indeed facilitates the learning process, and was intended to contribute to the narrowing of existing educational gaps between students from different social backgrounds, these students are in fact increasingly disadvantaged as a result of the ever growing supply of WBI-courses at academic institutions. The question therefore arises, who are these disadvantaged students? What are their social characteristics? In order to answer these questions we examined the rates of use of advanced technologies (Internet/e-mail) for students from different social categories: age, ethnicity, gender.

2. Age

In the following analysis we compare between students who belong to four different age-groups: “Young” students are those aged 19 and below, “regular” students are aged 20-24, “adult” students 25-29, and finally “mature students” who were defined as all students aged 30 years and older.


As can be seen from table 2, the trend found above for the entire student population applies here as well: a significant increase over time in use of Internet and e-mail in all age categories. These findings are similar to those reported in NTIA (2000) for the general population in the U.S. Thus for example, the rate of Internet users among the youngest age group increased from 32.8% in 1995 to 79.5% in 2002, while the rate for the mature students increased from 14.2% in 1995 to 63.5% in 2002. However, it should be noted that despite this increase there remains a steady and significant gap between the youngest, the intermediate and the oldest age groups. Whereas only 20% of the young students in 2002 are not Internet users 36% of the mature students belong to this category, while the figure for the intermediate age groups is around 27%.

Thus it appears that as the OUI increases its efforts in the development and application of advanced technologies, the younger students tend to profit from them while many adult students do not avail themselves of the a growing proportion of study activities available on the net.

3. Ethnicity

Israel is a fairly heterogeneous society, having absorbed immigrants from different countries and cultural backgrounds. As a result, one of the important divisions in Israel is that between two major ethnic clusters: Ashkenazim – persons of European or American descent and Sephardim – persons of Asian or African origin. By and large the socio-economic status of the Ashkenazim is higher than that of the Sephardim. Over the years there has been an increase in the proportion of “Israelis”, a category that consists of native born Arab-Palestinians as well as Jews who are third generation immigrants, many of them children of “mixed” (Ashkenazi and Sephardi) marriages. The socio-economic status of this ethnic category tends to be somewhere between that of the two others.


Comparing the three ethnic categories we found that for each of them use of Internet has increased over the years. However, similar to the findings by Katz et al. (2001); Korgen et al. (2001); NTIA (2000), the differences between the ethnic groups remain. The most advantaged ethnic group (Ashkenazim) has a higher rate of Internet use than the “Israelis” who in turn have a higher rate than the Sephardim. In 2002 the difference between the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim amounts to 8.5%.

Is this difference mainly motivational, that is, have the non-users deliberately chosen to avoid the Internet? Is it related to differences in computer skills? Or is it perhaps a reflection of general economic and social class differences in access to the Internet?

Our data do not provide conclusive answers to these questions. However, as the direction of the differences between the ethnic groups are quite consistent or even increasing it seems likely that a combination of different factors relating to use (motivation, skills etc.) as well as access are at work here.

With reference to the increasing use of WBI at the OUI this means that members of the more affluent ethnic group (Ashkenazim) who use the Internet tend to profit from the new delivery methods, while the less affluent (Sephardim) are somewhat less likely to take advantage of them.

4. Gender

Do male and female students make equal use of WBI or is there a digital divide between the genders?


As can be seen from table 4 there has been a continuous increase in use of the Internet for both female and male students. However, the differences between the two gender categories are still significant and quite large. Thus for example in 1995 23.2% of the male students and only 16.6% of the female students reported an e-mail address. These figures had increased to 76.6% of the male students and 67.3% of the female students in 2002.

Thus, contrary to the findings for the U.S. (Bimber 2000; Katz et al. 2001; Losh 2003) the fact that the differences between female and male students are persistent over time indicates the existence of a gender-based digital divide among Israeli students. As a result of the digital divide between men and women, students from the dominant (male) group are able to profit from the new delivery methods which are increasingly implemented at the OUI, while students who belong to the subordinate group (women) are less likely to benefit from them.


In recent years a growing number of colleges and universities have introduced computer-based technologies. This was done not only as a means to improve teaching and learning but also in order to increase the proportion of students who belong to marginal groups, whether socially or geographically and who find it difficult to acquire a higher education in a traditional university setting. The findings from the OUI show that a large and increasing proportion of all students have access to computers, Internet and e-mail and are willing to use them for study-purposes. Hence, students who due to other responsibilities (work, family) find it difficult to utilize the facilities of the university, such as traditional lectures and tutorials, libraries, laboratories etc. are able to supplement or even replace them by the use of WBI.

While the introduction of WBI at the OUI has played a significant part in the expansion of its student base it has at the same time, inadvertently of course, brought about the exclusion of certain students. These students could, in principle, quite easily gain access to a computer and the Internet but apparently they have reservations when it comes to using the modern technologies for study purposes or have not acquired the necessary skills to use them. Who are these students, what are their social characteristics?

Our findings suggest that though Internet and e-mail use has greatly increased between 1995 and 2002, there remains a steady and significant gap between the different age groups and in particular between the youngest and the oldest students. The introduction of WBI seems to favor the younger students while the mature students who in fact were intended to be an important target group for WBI are more reluctant to use the new media.

Furthermore, though there has been a significant increase during the period under consideration in the use of Internet by students from all ethnic groups, the gap between the different ethnic clusters (Ashkenazim, Israelis and Sephardim) has largely remained. In our view, this persistent gap is at least to a certain extent a reflection of the relative position of these groups in the stratification structure of the Israeli society, since there is no evidence to suggest the existence of cultural differences between the different ethnic sub-groups in relation to Internet use.

Finally, contrary to our expectation, we found that despite the continuous increase in overall use of WBI technologies for both genders, the gap between male and female students has remained fairly constant. The existence of this gap in the context of a modern, dynamic society like Israel is intriguing, especially since studies from the U.S. relating to the same period found that the gender-based digital divide has almost disappeared.

The Israeli case demonstrates that adult as well as younger students, men as well as women and members of all ethnic groups are able to profit from the use of WBI, because access to the Internet has become so prevalent. However, a significant minority (around 1/3) of the students still do not take advantage of this opportunity. The existing literature on Internet use tends to explain the continued existence of this minority as a result of the individual student’s reluctance to tackle the new information technologies because of lack of computer skills, the absence of a support network, insufficient motivation etc. However as our data indicate the group of non-users is characterized by a number of structural factors: age, gender and ethnicity. In other words, non-users tend to be older, female and of Sephardic descent.

While we do not claim to rule out the explanatory contribution of personal or situational characteristics, there is no doubt that also structural factors play an important role in the prediction of non-use. Only further research which will include interviews with users as well as non-users from the various structural categories will enable us to examine the relative significance of structural and individual factors.

In view of the above colleges and universities should consider, at least during a transition period, to offer the same courses simultaneously in a variety of delivery modes in order to ensure equality in learning opportunities for all categories of students. This practice would enable each individual student to choose which kind of technology to use, for which type of course and at which stage during his/her studies. It is likely that diversifying delivery modes will involve increased expenses for the universities, but also contribute to the enlargement of their student base and ensure that a larger proportion of students will be able to complete their degree successfully.

However, colleges and universities should also continue to make a conscious effort to promote the use of WBI, for instance by offering brief introductory sessions or workshops for the benefit of students who are still unfamiliar with the new media or are hesitant to use them. Special attention should be given to students who belong to those structural categories that tend to be over-represented among non-users. The acquisition of computer literacy and Internet skills will be of importance to these students also outside the academic sphere by improving their life-chances in the fields of work, health, leisure activities and political participation.


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