Addressing global digital poverty: challenge, solutions and opportunities
If the gulf in educational opportunity wasn’t wide enough, ‘digital poverty’ will only get worse unless more children get access to the internet, says Al Kingsley.
This is an edited version of an article originally published on: International Teacher Magazine
The scale of the problem
As astutely observed by UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, “a lack of connectivity doesn’t just limit children and young people’s ability to connect online. It prevents them from competing in the modern economy. It isolates them from the world.” With more than one-third of the world’s school-age children unable to access learning during the Covid-19 pandemic, the ramifications of digital exclusion are increasingly far-reaching. In 2022, no child should face inadvertent exclusion from education or opportunity, left unable to contribute to or partake in a digital world, and yet the digital divide threatens to grow if urgent action is not taken.
Paul Finnis (@Thewhole9years), CEO of the Learning Foundation and Digital Poverty Alliance, joins NetSupport’s CEO, Al Kingsley (@AlKingsleyEdu), in a discussion about digital poverty and levelling the playing field.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2021 named growing digital inequality as one of the most pressing issues facing global society, with the Covid-19 pandemic accelerating the integration of technology into all facets of life. The report warns a widening digital gap can worsen existing societal inequalities and calls for urgent action as digital exclusion continues to mirror the exponential growth of digital dependence across the world.
Internationally, there is a stark disparity between the proportion of internet users in developed countries such as Bahrain where, according to The World Bank, more than 99 per cent of the population use the internet, and less economically advanced countries like Bangladesh, where only 13 per cent of the population can access the internet.
For children impacted by digital poverty, the risk of persistent digital exclusion is particularly concerning. Sustained inclusion in digital learning is essential to prevent the already widening attainment gap between affluent and disadvantaged children.
Equity of access to devices, technologically-enabled education and digital skills training for all children is imperative for achieving a truly equal society in which everyone can participate financially and socially. This impacts not just the individual children and their futures, but the wider economy also; the US alone loses more than $130 million a day in economic activity as a result of digital exclusion.
Permission to access
Vulnerability to digital poverty is determined by access to the internet and technology. Access requires, at the very first step, a suitable, internet-enabled device. Yet, even in the UK, 25 per cent of vulnerable children still do not have access to a device equipped for digital learning due to the personal or financial circumstances of their family.
A second fundamental element of access is a reliable internet connection. Unfortunately, consistent broadband connection can be a ‘postcode lottery’, with more remote or rural areas often subject to poor or even non-existent internet connection, effectively cutting them off from the digital world.
The third and final component of access is the ability to use and utilise the full potential of the technology. A device and strong connection are rendered useless without the digital skills and awareness to access the technology and navigate the online world.
Invest to connect
The simple answer to the question ‘how can we tackle global digital poverty’, is ‘invest’. There are many ways countries can do this. For example, the Maldives issued every student at a government school with a tablet from the Ministry of Education in 2018, to ensure every child has the internet connection they need to thrive.
However, as discovered in the Maldives, a one-to-one device rollout must be part of a wider strategic digital learning strategy which considers how to maximise the potential of technologies to transform pedagogy, instead of just translating textbooks onto a screen.
On the other hand, Sweden, which is commonly regarded as world leading in addressing digital equity, has invested substantially in countrywide digital infrastructure. Particularly in a country with many remote or rural areas, a reliable broadband network was essential to achieving equal access, connecting the entire population.
Digital skills and behaviour education has increasingly become a key focus of countries tackling digital exclusion. More than 80 per cent of jobs advertised in the UK require digital skills and more than a third of EU member states have launched national digitalisation strategies with digital skills included as one of the key pillars in the countries’ digital transformation goals.
Estonia leads the way
Whilst other countries struggled to suddenly adapt to the requirements of remote learning following the outbreak of the pandemic, pupils in Estonia experienced relatively little disruption due to the country’s extensive investment in IT infrastructure and digital skills education, having being one of the first countries in the world to classify internet access as a human right in 2001.
The Estonian national curriculum puts particular emphasis on the development of digital competences, one of just eight in the whole curriculum. In addition, in 2012, the ProgeTiger programme was launched to drive interest in technology and improve technological literacy and digital competence for both teachers and students, offering courses in subjects such as programming, robotics and 3D technology, which encourage the children to problem solve, think critically and work collaboratively.
Bridging the chasm
Digital poverty and the chasm between those who have digital access and those who do not exacerbates existing inequalities. Governments, education providers, teachers, technology companies and other relevant organisations can only tackle poverty effectively when they work together to widen access to the digital world.
Al Kingsley is Group CEO of NetSupport and Digital Poverty Alliance Ambassador