Since the pandemic struck in early 2020, computers and the internet have become essential to education. Most students in developed and several emerging countries have attended school online in the last fifteen months and the internet is the only way these students have connected with teachers. In fact, the only way for many schools to impart education in the last year or so has been through distance learning, the term used for online school. Now imagine if a child did not have access to a computer or the internet. How is that child supposed to learn? The term for this gap in technological availability is called the “Digital Divide”. I asked several people around me if they knew what Digital Divide means, and each of them had a different interpretation of the term. But, to find a solution, it is important that there is a clear understanding of what the Digital Divide problem is! That prompted me to pen down this blog to explain what Digital Divide meant!
A high-level definition of Digital Divide is the gap between people that have access to technology and those that do not. Initially, this term was coined by the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) in the mid-1990s to express the gap between “haves” and “have nots” in terms of access to computers. With the evolution of technology and internet over the last 20 years, the term has been better explained. According to a recent definition from Stanford University, Digital Divide is defined as “the growing gap between the underprivileged members of society, especially the poor, rural, elderly, and handicapped portion of the population who do not have access to computers or the internet; and the wealthy, middle-class, and young Americans living in urban and suburban areas who have access”. This is especially pertinent to our situation, in the United States, where millions of kids do not have proper access to technology to learn, complete homework, and further their education. In my blog, “Has the pandemic exacerbated the widening disparity in education access for the underprivileged?” I discuss several factors that contribute to the education gap, one of which is that over 7 million children in the United States do not have access to the internet. This also provides a solid representation of the scale of the Digital Divide in the United States.
The Digital Divide, while usually talked about in the context of American education, applies to the entire globe and all population segments. But the most affected groups are school-going children. According to UNESCO, over 1.5 billion students were affected globally during the pandemic due to lack of computers and/or internet. Even in my hometown of San Diego, the Digital Divide has made life worse for children from economically weaker sections of the society. In 2018, I visited a school in India, which had two hundred students from first through sixth grade but had only 12 usable computers. Another personal example is my online teaching program in India, which I have talked about before, where students in rural India must use their parents’ smartphones to participate in my class. The lack of a computer and poor internet connection often disrupts their ability to participate in school and learn. Such educational barriers are detrimental to their long-term economic growth. Now, let us zoom out and talk about Digital Divide at a global level.
The “Global Digital Divide” is a bigger problem. As the chart above shows, there is a vast variation across countries in the number of computers in a country per person. The developed countries, as expected, have a higher computer penetration, while most emerging countries have a very small computer penetration. This Global Digital Divide impacts educational outcomes severely, with negative long-term consequences. Education is increasingly being delivered digitally, and a growing number of jobs are dependent on information technology. Students impacted by Digital Divide will be left behind and will not be able to participate in information technology-related jobs. In poorer countries, where internet and other information technologies are not accessible, education and economic growth would suffer immensely. This would mean that developing countries would not advance economically while richer countries would become more educated and prosperous, thus widening the economic gap between countries.
Hopefully, this blog provided some clarity on what Digital Divide means! To understand factors that expand this divide, read my blog, Has the pandemic exacerbated the widening disparity in education access for the underprivileged?.