The Digital Divide: How can we create equal learning opportunities for every child, online


Since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has made education transition to completely online mode, everywhere in the world — something for which not everyone was prepared for.

According to a UNICEF report released in 2017, there are nearly 346 million youth (15-24 age) who are not online. Due to the sudden change, I expect this number to have increased to some extent, but not much. In this post, I'd like to highlight some of the most issues being faced by students, what are their potential solutions and what we can collectively do to ensure equal learning opportunities for every child, online.

1. The Access

Let's start thinking about issues from scratch - access to a device with internet connectivity. In recent years, there are lower priced mobile phones as well as cheaper data plans in certain countries like India. However, these plans may or may not be affordable to every child in the country. Many rural areas still face connectivity issues and experience slow speed, which is not convenient for online learning for the majority of students as classes involve live video streaming.

What can be done?

An alternative approach of broadcasting learning content through television has been adopted by several countries in the world, to maximize the reach. But there's a drawback for this — you cannot gauge how actively a student is watching and understanding, which somehow can be assessed by a teacher in case of video conferencing apps as they can see the students. The government regulators can play an important role here — to lower the net connectivity pricing and providing devices which are capable of streaming live videos at affordable rates. This is necessary even in the future, as even after the pandemic ends, I'm expecting blended learning to continue for all students. As an individual, you can donate your previous phone to a student from a financially weaker background which will be helpful to them in online learning.

2. Once connected, how do you use?

The digital divide is typically thought of in terms of access – the haves and have- nots of connectivity. But since the 1990s, researchers have paid more attention to a ‘second level’ of divides that goes beyond access. The idea of second-level divides broadly covers differences in people’s online skills and abilities, types of online activities pursued, patterns of internet use and the devices used to go online. Put otherwise, people’s personal circumstances – skills, education and so on – affect how they use the internet.

This brings us to another important point, that is teaching children on how to make the best use of their device and connectivity. Of course, children eventually navigate through the internet and figure out things on their own. But, as the 2015 OECD PISA study shows that across countries, students from higher socio-economic backgrounds were more likely to use the internet to obtain practical information or read the news. Their lower-income peers, on the other hand, tended to spend online time chatting and playing games.

What can be done?

As I mentioned above, the key to this is teaching children digital literacy skills. Children sometimes are not aware of the full potential of the internet and digital devices, and unless they're educated about it. This can be achieved through including it in the school curriculum, as part of their computer classes in higher grades. Many governments have also taken up various projects to provide learning material for students which can be highlighted in, for example, back pages of a textbook. As a parent, you can talk to your child about various useful websites, apps that can be helpful to them.

3. The Language Barrier

I would like to cite a paragraph from UNICEF's State of World Children report in 2017: "Besides issues of affordability and accessibility, there is another barrier facing many of the billions of unconnected people in the digital space – namely, the lack of useful online content in their native language. This may discourage potential users from trying to go online or prevent them from directly gauging the potential utility and relevance of the internet. But it raises a bigger concern, too: namely, that the absence of content that speaks directly to children’s diverse cultural contexts and experiences may widen knowledge gaps.

The internet of today is, of course, far more multilingual than it was at the beginning of the century. But the fact remains that, in 2016, just 10 languages accounted for the majority of websites, with 56 per cent of them in English".

What can be done?

The relative lack of online content in minority languages and the absence of content concerning large swathes of the world, especially low and middle-income countries. I encountered this issue as a Gujarati school student in Class 9, which led me to develop an app called Gujju Student, now being used by thousands of students in Gujarat, India. This issue is larger than it seems — imagine around 25-30 State Boards, each with their regional language. Millions of students in India who study in such schools and for them, learning content in English is not helpful as they're not mapped to their curriculum and contain different terminologies. This creates a major barrier in their online learning process. I've started Buddhimaan, where we aim to create learning content in 8+ Indian languages. As an individual, you can try to translate the content you are reading in another language you know - it could be adding subtitles to a YouTube video, translating a Wikipedia article or even this article itself!

I have tried to cover 3 major issues that I believe need to be solved (and are to some extent, being solved) along with what we can do about it. Creating equal online learning opportunities for every child can be achieved only when we collectively work towards it.