The digital divide in education: Essential data

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Written by: Raquel Zurita
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The digital divide is a reality that affects a large part of the world’s population. We have all experienced significant changes over the past few months, owing largely to the Covid-19 pandemic and the measures which have been put in place to manage our day-to-day activities, such as working from home and teaching online. Although these may be temporary solutions, these changes have made this digital divide all the more evident.

But what exactly does this concept mean and what consequences does it have, specifically in the area of education? To answer these questions, and many more, we were lucky to have the opportunity to sit down with three experts in the field of education in Latin America and Spanish-speaking countries:

Denise Danielle Bourne

Denise Danielle Bourne
CEO of Grandes Genios

Fernanda Montes de Oca

Fernanda Montes de Oca
Education Sales Manager, Google Latin America for Education

Cristina Araya

Cristina Araya Morales
Education Manager at the Telefónica Foundation in Chile

Below we will summarize some of their answers. 

What is the digital divide? 

As our guests tell us, the concept of digital divide, or technological divide, can be defined as the inequality that people experience in accessing information, knowledge, and education through new technologies.

Although the term digital divide is related to internet access, it is also important to point out that the concept also includes other factors, such as access to devices or tools, or the level and quality of digital competence of the person. The digital divide varies hugely on a global level and has a greater impact on more vulnerable communities. “This access is a very important requirement to be able to participate in this new society of knowledge”, Cristina tells us, “and in the future, access to technology, or reducing the digital divide, is going to be a standard, basic commodity”.

Causes of this inequality

Although the causes of the digital divide vary, some of the factors which have a much more profound effect are socioeconomic, geographic, or relate to age (as it frequently affects older adults) or gender. As we know, access to the internet varies by country, and even by geographic region within a country. Lack of access to the internet is one of the most prominent causes of this digital divide and is currently a fact of life for many people.

It may be due to geographic reasons, where there is little infrastructure and therefore little connectivity, or socioeconomic reasons, where people do not have the necessary resources to acquire this access, or, quite frequently, a mix of both. This absence of connectivity acts as a barrier and widens the digital divide by perpetuating the very situation it causes.

Another decisive factor is access to devices. Although the use of smartphones or phones with internet connection is fairly widespread, quite often these devices are not optimum for learning. Students who do not have access to computers or tablets, in their homes or in their schools, face added difficulties. This problem is even more complex if they have no device at all or if the devices are obsolete.

However, even those who do have access to the internet and to digital devices and tools can suffer the effects of the digital divide. This occurs when they lack the knowledge and training necessary to use them properly, or, in other words, if their level of digital competence is low.

Digital gender divide

Our guests in this conversation are unanimous about the existence of a digital gender divide. They also confirm that even though cultural changes, the universalization of education, and the democratization of technology have created a favorable atmosphere for big changes in this area, there are multiple studies which show that the digital divide still affects women more than men

Perpetuation of gender roles, a lack of role models, and the perception of ICTs (information and communication technologies) as predominantly male fields are some of the obstacles to be overcome in order to guarantee gender equality and to encourage women to adopt a more active role in the use of technologies in education. “Digital inclusion is a competitive advantage that contributes to people’s wellbeing, and women should not be excluded from that”, says Cristina. Here, Fernanda adds that “we could stand to make some changes in early education, as there are several studies that show that from an early age, girls don’t receive that education that encourages them to promote or have a positive perception of themselves”.

Consequences of the digital divide

According to our guests, technological exclusion has consequences that impact both the present as well as the future lives of the people affected by it. This divide has a more significant effect on people from less well-off socioeconomic backgrounds, which makes them more vulnerable to its consequences.

One of the main consequences of digital exclusion is the inequality in access to education. The digital divide limits access to the resources necessary for individual training and therefore limits employment opportunities for these people. It also has an effect on their future earnings, thus perpetuating their exclusion. We can see how in more vulnerable communities this is a common problem which frequently repeats itself and has a devastating effect on these communities.

Another notable consequence of digital exclusion is social division. Given that the digital divide impedes access to information, training, and communication, this creates growing differences between communities. As Fernanda mentions, referencing situations she herself has witnessed in Mexico, “these difficulties end up separating and segmenting the country’s population”. 

Steps to reduce the digital divide

During this interesting conversation, we ask ourselves: how can we solve this problem that affects the most vulnerable, isolated, and excluded communities? Our guests seem optimistic and highlight that, although the digital divide is large and requires that we work together to make it decrease or disappear, in recent years there have been lots of public and private initiatives which are improving the situation in their respective countries.

They all agree that the effort should begin with a focus on three key areas: public organizations, private companies, and civic responsibility. It is the duty of private companies to accompany the public sector to guarantee access to tools, infrastructure, and training, while citizens ensure demand and adopt the measures that are provided. “It’s not just about waiting for the public sector to do what they should do”, Denise points out, “the private sector is extremely important. We want to provide valuable learning materials; we want to support the communities.”

Among the measures that have been successful in the short term are access to low-cost devices and tools through international trade agreements, the increase in connectivity in schools, providing internet connection to students and teachers, access to free, good-quality digital tools, and providing training and technical support for teaching and training staff.

Educational strategies and digital tools

So, is technology essential for students’ development? “We see technology as the means rather than the end; as a tool that helps students develop 21st-century skills, which are more and more in demand in the modern working world, such as critical thinking, communication, creativity, and collaboration,” Fernanda tells us.

Cristina adds that “these days, our focus is on using tools that help us think about thinking, where the school is transformed into a space for learning experiences”. Our guests agree on this point: the key is in making good use of what we do have access to, connection, devices, etc. and implementing an educational strategy that takes full advantage of those things, rather than letting ourselves be limited. “We have to push forwards; although we may not have the best connection in the world, we make the most of the tools we have,” insists Denise.

Another point our guests are in agreement on is the decisive role that educators play, which is why teachers’ professional development and the improvement of digital competence are fundamental in reducing the digital divide. Some of their suggestions include: evaluating the competencies of teaching staff, putting in place a scalable ITC training process which takes into account individual strengths and weaknesses, as well as exchanging best practices in the field of education. Denise also reflects that “we should stop trying to teach and start concerning ourselves with helping people learn.”

The future

The digital divide won’t disappear overnight or of its own accord; we need to make a joint effort. “Much of this responsibility is in our hands, so we must work together with companies as well as different members of the community to turn technology into an ally which helps us reduce these divides and give more opportunities to all students,” says Fernanda. Cristina adds, “We are building the foundations for the education of the future, and for this great opportunity that we have to grow as people in this space of wellbeing”.

We hope you enjoyed this post in which we examined a situation that many people are all too familiar with: the digital divide. We’ve talked about what it is, what causes it, some of its consequences, and what steps we can take to overcome it.

If you have any questions or suggestions, don’t hesitate to contact us on social media using the hashtag #AskGenially or by commenting on this post.

Greetings from the Genially Team. See you soon!

Raquel Zurita
Raquel Zurita
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