COVID-19 Magnifies the Digital Divide Across the Globe

Schools have long been attempting to join the digital age.  Ideally, our educational system will not only mirror society but also prepare students to successfully shape the 21st century economy.  We are one-fifth of the way into the 21st century already, and the internet age has transformed every sector of society – business, medicine, religion, entertainment, public works, relationships, everything.  Everything that is, except education.  

For three solid decades, schools and educational systems have been trying everything from “instructional technology” to “flipped classrooms” to “discussion threads” to “online learning” to “wiki spaces” to … the list goes on and on.  These strategies and modes of teaching and learning have had varying degrees of success.  This is not the space to debate the merits and discuss the pros and cons of each technological idea in education over the years.  It is to say that the conversation is only relevant in certain parts of the world.  Not certain geographical parts of the world, mind you, but certain socio-economic parts of the world.  The digital divide is so vast that the majority of benefits of increased technology make the rich richer, not only economically but also educationally.  Nowhere is this stark reality seen so clearly as right now, during the COVID-19 global pandemic.

What is the Digital Divide?

When we talk about the digital divide, we are talking primarily about the gap between those with access to the internet and those without.  Consider the following statistics related to technology in the United States:

  • 94% of households are connected to the internet in America
  • The average number of internet-connected devices per household is 11 in the U.S. 

Now consider these statistics related to technology in rural sub-Saharan Africa, which describes the context of Christ School Bundibugyo:

  • Less than 10% of people are connected to mobile internet 
  • Only 34% of sub-Saharan Africa is covered by 4G
  • It costs 68% of one’s monthly income to purchase a device on average
  • 1GB costs 7% of one’s monthly income on average

These are averages, and of course averages don’t tell us the whole story.  But they don’t tell us nothing either.  In terms of internet access, the digital divide is extremely wide – somewhere around an 85% gap between the U.S. and rural, sub-Saharan Africa.  Only about a third of this region of the world is covered by 4G.  And even for those people who have access to the internet, the cost of a single device is exorbitant for many.  Furthermore, and this is perhaps the most startling, even if you lived where there was access, and then somehow found a way to purchase a device, simply pay for a modest amount of data would likely be prohibitive.  Imagine someone in the U.S. who earns $4,000 a month.  Now imagine that same person having to pay $280 … per GB of data!  

Why students benefit from online learning resources:

Regardless of COVID-19, the internet provides a rich array of resources for students, and ways of learning that enhance the in-class experience.  The following list shows just a few of the crucial benefits that technology brings to the teaching-learning dynamic in schools:

  • Dissemination of information from teachers to students, which can be readily accessed and requires less printing costs
  • Two-way collaboration and discussion, between students and teachers, between students and students, and even across schools and contexts
  • Access to other learning resources, such as interactive maps, archived and newly released articles, virtual museum tours, images, videos, and MUCH more
  • Access to fiction and nonfiction books, primary sources, textbooks and other reading materials
  • Opportunities to build essential 21st century skills
  • Interactive apps for learning in a variety of fields – from engineering to economics, medicine to music, architecture to accounting, communications to coding

How is COVID-19 exacerbating the digital divide problem?

By April 14, 2020, 188 countries had closed schools according the the Brookings Institute.  That means that 1.5 billion learners worldwide are unable to attend school, or 91% of the global student population!  This is an enormous challenge.  Just as our global healthcare systems and workers are being stretched to the max, so too is our ability to educate the children of the world while they are at home.  As the Brookings Institute put it, “Although a majority of governments are making substantial efforts to ensure continuing education opportunities, their capacity for quality learning—especially for the most disadvantaged populations—varies enormously”.  The discrepancy lies primarily along income lines, as “less than 25 percent of low-income countries currently provide any type of remote learning, and of these, the majority are using TV and radio. In contrast, close to 90 percent of high-income countries are providing remote learning opportunities, nearly all of which are provided online”.

The data suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic will have huge impacts on student learning across the world, but students in low-income countries and those in sub-Saharan Africa will be the most negatively affected. In these countries, governments have been less able to provide remote learning opportunities and guidance to teachers to address student learning needs during the crisis.  The learning gap between rich and poor will likely grow during the pandemic, not just between high- and low-income countries, but also between high- and low-income regions and communities within countries.

In Uganda, the Ministry of Education and Sports has provided a plan during this school closure.  That plan includes, among other things: national television and radio broadcasts, self-study package materials, online resources, and encouragement to parents to help their children continue learning.  Uganda is a microcosm of the global digital divide.  Many students in and near Kampala, the capital city, may be able to access these opportunities, whereas most of the students in the many places like Bundibugyo simply cannot.  At least not in any substantial way to continue learning.  The vast majority of citizens here do not own a television, so that resource is accessed in a very limited way amongst our students.  Radio is by far the most readily accessible medium, so students can and should be listening to the radio for a bit each day to continue some learning.  However, this still has noticeable limits.  Since the Ministry of Education is attempting to provide time for each grade level and course, and radio has limited time slots, it means that a given subject may only get 1 or 2 lessons … a month!  This is not substantial continued learning.  This does not provide the benefits that online learning does, while students are away from schools.  If students and teachers were able to be online, every course and every level could be taught and learned simultaneously, as well as daily.  The gap continues to widen.

At CSB, we are doing our absolute best to regularly provide self-study packet materials.  This allows the opportunity for students to review their previous notes and learning, apply what they’ve already learned, and attempt to learn some new material.  It is better than nothing, in fact it is very helpful and we are the only secondary school in Bundibugyo providing this ongoing learning resource.  But it is very limited in the long term, if these stay-at-home orders continue for months and months. 

What can we do about the digital divide at CSB?

Eventually, school will resume and students will return to Christ School.  But the world will never be the same.  COVID-19 has shown us clearly what we already knew deep down, that access and utilization of technology in teaching and learning is vital in the 21st century, whether students are on or off campus.  Even when in-class learning returns to the normal mode of operations, providing online learning opportunities proves crucial for our students to thrive.  Currently, CSB only owns 4 student laptops.  Almost zero students have smartphones or internet-based devices that could be utilized for learning.  

There is not a quick solution, no easy fix.  But we have a vision that includes increasing access to, use of, and skill-building with digital technology.  This will benefit our students’ learning in all areas, and also their future ability to engage the workforce, in whatever field they choose, in a transformative way.

Please feel free to comment below if you have any ideas for CSB to improve its technology access, procure resources, or to share links to other useful information.

Resources and Related Articles:

Brookings Institute: School Closures, Government Responses, and Learning Inequality Around the World During COVID-19

https://www.brookings.edu/research/school-closures-government-responses-and-learning-inequality-around-the-world-during-covid-19/

EdWeek: The Disparities in Remote Learning Under Coronovirus

https://mobile.edweek.org/c.jsp?cid=25919761&bcid=25919761&rssid=25919751&item=http%3A%2F%2Fapi.edweek.org%2Fv1%2Few%2F%3Fuuid%3D41693EA2-7B49-11EA-BFE9-8AF258D98AAA

Global Partnership for Education: Africa Supports Reading and Learning During COVID-19 Pandemic

https://www.globalpartnership.org/blog/africa-supports-reading-and-learning-during-covid-19-pandemic
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