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Technology has become a crucial part of our lives today, paving the way for a large window of opportunities for all people. And in recent years, our eyes have opened to its impact on students and schools. Students can now learn, work, research, collaborate, and independently develop knowledge largely because of the advent of the internet and information technology.
However, although technology has offered many benefits, it does come with its problems. In the case of education, that includes the digital divide.
The digital divide refers to the inability of all to have equal access to technology in order to experience learning, where the wealthy have this access, and those from middle- and low-income backgrounds do not. This technology includes hardware such as mobile devices, televisions, and personal computers, as well as connectivity to the internet, such as access to data and Wi-Fi.
It also includes the inequality in being able to use technological equipment and resources in the first place.
Every student is entitled to have adequate access to educational resources and support services to improve their academic performance. Recently, however, the education sector has felt the immensity of the digital divide, with half of the 1.5 billion students affected by the COVID-19 pandemic lacking access to computers and the internet. This is despite a global need to adopt remote learning in order to adhere to social distancing protocols.
As of September 2021, according to UNESCO, about 117 million students were still out of school due to mandated lockdowns. The impact of the digital divide continues to be felt globally, as 1.3 billion school-age children around the world do not have internet at home to access learning resources. This is especially evident in low-income communities, like those in sub-Saharan Africa — where 71% of teachers are unable to access tools, resources, and internet for remote learning and 89% of learners do not have a computer at home.
Students who lack access to digital tools and connectivity are more likely to miss out on up-to-date information from the web, essential education milestones, and access to resources, tools, and edutainment.
This lack of access has the potential to affect children for the rest of their lives, as according to Business Insider, without quality remote education, they will not have the same access to quality jobs.
The increasing gap in the digital divide has significantly undermined access and delivery of education. As we start a new year, here are six initiatives that can help improve — and even possibly eliminate — the technology gaps in education globally.
According to the United Nations, governments can become powerful instruments in bridging the digital divide by ensuring affordable, easy-to-use technologies. The high cost of internet connectivity, the price of technological devices, electricity tariffs, and taxes are major contributors to the digital divide for both teachers and students.
With the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting global economies, it is projected that aid to education may drop by an estimated US$2 billion by 2022, according to UNESCO.
In the coming years, based on recommendations from American University’s School of Education, educational leaders and policy makers need to continually liaise with governments and big corporations on ways to improve financing to help schools, learners, and teachers afford access to digital technologies for learning. This will help boost the expansion of information technology infrastructures, and reduce the cost of internet access.
With digital competence becoming increasinly intertwined with our lives, an alarmingly high number of people still lack basic level technical skills and competencies, putting them at a disadvantage, according to the Digital Divide Council.
Teachers and students need to be fully trained on how to effectively use what the internet and modern technologies have to offer. The less students can use these tools, the more the digital divide widens. This is why the United Nations is launching a new global initiative focused on improving the digital learning and skills of children and youth — some 3.5 billion by 2030 — in marginalized communities.
Going forward, educational leaders can also actively help by surveying the needs of stakeholders, formulate action plans with policy makers, provide skills acquisition training, connect with potential digital resource partners like telecoms companies, and assign appropriate resources to continuously bridge the gap, according to American University.
The general public needs to be enlightened on the economic and social development benefits of integrating technology into the education space. The World Bank reports that there’s value in many people seeing a need to become digitally active.
To fully reap fruitful results, governments should also create opportunities for feedback through which the masses can share their views, needs, and opinions about how they wish to see improvements.
Creating more awareness for digital literacy by building user confidence, explaining the benefits of utilization, and understanding security and privacy constraints have a proven positive impact on education outcomes.
Educational online content creators should aim to make information available in as many languages as possible. According to the World Bank, when users are confident that they can see content in their native or local languages, they are more inclined to use similar tools that provide personalized benefits.
Content creation tools and language translation resources can cushion the language digital divide, and at the same time create opportunities for better and more accountable support to all categories of learners needing it most.
Specially designed assistive and adaptive technologies — such as screen readers, magnifying devices, augmentative, and alternative communication devices that aid persons with difficulties in verbal communication, telecommunication relay devices, interactive white boards, close captioned videos, and more — can boost independence, participation, technology equity, and access to quality education for learners with disabilities.
These technologies make education easily accessible to all categories of learners.
According to the World Bank, there is a special need to reduce the gender digital divide in 2022 and beyond. For example, in South Asia, there are 26% more male mobile phone users than women. Barriers and constraints in accessing the internet impede women’s and girls’ full involvement in the social and economic progress of their communities and countries. In 2021, we witnessed long-standing development gaps between men and women moving online, with about 1.9 billion women not having access to the internet globally.
To achieve definitive success in bridging the gender digital gap, we need a comprehensive action plan to enlighten decision makers about the burdens it poses. And according to the World Bank, systems need to be put in place to analyze available data, implement the results, and measure progress made.
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