Digital access a necessity not a luxury
Almost overnight, human activities across the world have moved online as people have been forced into lockdown. From the business world to shopping, intellectual life, friendships and family gatherings — not to mention remotely instructed fitness classes and even pub quizzes — all have migrated to cyberspace as part of the new normal amid the coronavirus disease pandemic. But this new normal is not for everyone.
More than ever, lockdown has highlighted the privileges of those with access to information technology — and nowhere more so than in the education sector. The already-damaging digital divide has revealed itself in full over the last few months, underlining that, in the 21st century, the demarcation line between the haves and have-nots is marked along access to the ever-expanding empire of cyberspace. Human interaction via information technology has increased exponentially and, to a large extent, now determines one’s career success and well-being, as well as the ability to become a fully immersed member of society and be a proactive citizen in all essential aspects of life.
Access to digital technologies is still not available to everyone, and this has created a digital divide. This gap mainly affects the underprivileged members of societies across the globe, especially the poor, rural, elderly, and disabled, who have very limited access to computers and the internet, if any at all, compared to the more affluent segments of society, which are usually concentrated in urban areas and have fast, round-the-clock access to information technology.
When it comes to education, the basic premise is that it enhances individual equality of opportunity, which leads to a fulfilling life and, with it, good citizenship. Following the introduction of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals two decades ago, access to education — especially the closure of its gender gap — has improved tremendously, but it is still far from the goal of reaching every child in preparing them to become lifelong learners. As education moves into cyberspace, there is a real danger that many without access to it will be left behind, to the detriment of their own futures and that of their societies. Evidence shows that more than 40 percent of the world’s population still has no access to the internet, and in some African countries access is limited to a very small proportion of the population; as little as 12 percent, and even then rather intermittently.
In the 21st century, access to information and communication technologies, whether this concerns hardware, software or connectivity, is no longer a luxury but is essential for the education of the next generation and for lifelong learning. Education in the age of digital technology requires knowhow about the use of the technology itself, which in turn opens the gates to a wealth of knowledge and communication with learning communities across the globe.
The digital divide existed long before the outbreak of the current coronavirus pandemic and was steadily widening, leading to growing disparities in terms of opportunities available for young people and compromising their education, future employment prospects, and social participation. Nevertheless, the pandemic has served to accelerate the role of digital technology in education and the need to equip learners from an early age with the knowledge of how to use it in the most effective and responsible way.
Out of necessity, teaching moved almost exclusively online in many countries as they went into a complete lockdown; and this has consequently exposed the schism between those with access to digital technology and those without it. Almost immediately, it became apparent that those connected to the internet are best positioned to maintain their studies, even if not at the previous level of intensity and attainment. It created some level of continuity for them, and things are constantly improving as both educators and learners become more accustomed to online teaching only. For those without internet access, studying has come to an abrupt standstill.
Online learning is not a silver bullet for better, more affordable, more diverse and more international education, and will not necessarily close inequality gaps. Nevertheless, if applied with consideration in terms of subject areas and demography, taking into account age, socioeconomic context, cultural diversity, health, and entry level in terms of pre-existing knowledge and learning skills, it can revolutionize education worldwide through blended learning. However, this must come with a serious caveat, derived from our experience with digital technology, whether it be social media, marketing and shopping, video conferencing or education platforms: These are usually a reflection of their developers, mainly in the affluent West, instead of the product of any genuine dialogue that takes into account end users’ diverse needs and cultural differences.
Instead, those who develop these technologies are doing everything in their power to impose their own ideas of how they should be used. And, in most instances, these are aligned with their commercial interests. One can hardly overemphasize the harm that would be done if the condition for closing the digital divide, especially in education, were to be conformity with the values of the affluent societies that develop such technologies and can finance access for those without the resources to do so. While the aspiration should be for universal access to digital education, the content and approach must be diverse.
While the aspiration should be for universal access to digital education, the content and approach must be diverse.
There is a further threat to a more equitable education in the digital age, beyond connectivity to the internet or the fact that there are still more than 900 million people worldwide who are not connected to electricity and many more who don’t have power around the clock: The inability to access content requiring a subscription, normally in prices unaffordable to many. This is a tax on education and access to knowledge, which is bound to affect the quality of teaching online and will determine whether the next generation can acquire the education that will enable them to have fulfilling careers while also becoming global citizens proactively involved in improving their societies.
Bringing down these barriers to education and information will require a concerted international effort on the part of international institutions, national governments, businesses, nongovernmental organizations and education sectors to work together to ensure a lifelong education for everyone — one that is global by nature.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg