ICT4ED: A solution in search of a problem? (part 2: the digital divide)

This paradox puts me in mind of a story I read about time travelers from 1965 who land in Brooklyn, New York in 2015 and are who are amazed by two things. The first is that everyone is still dressed in the same clothes with the same hairstyles – you mean fashion hasn’t changed in 50 years? (Thanks Mad Men) The second is the gadgets. So they find a hipster millenial talking on his smartphone. The time travellers are amazed at to see someone talking into what looks like a rectangular hand mirror. Wanting to find out more, they explain that they are time travellers from 1965 and they want to find out more about this gadget. Once convinced that they were actually time travelers the hipster was eager to explain life in the new millennium to them. “We have some of the most amazing technology. You see this (points to his smartphone). Everyone has one of these. With this I can access all the wisdom and writing of mankind. With this I can perform any calculation you can imagine. With this I can predict weather patterns halfway across the globe. With this I can communicate directly with the President of the United States. And yet … I use it to take pictures of myself and get into arguments with strangers.”

The digital divide was seen for many years as a widening gulf that was opening between digital haves and have-nots. Poorer nations and poorer people would be left behind to an outdated analog existence while the privileged of the world would reap the benefits of our digital future. It’s not turned out quite as imagined, however. Technology is much more affordable and ubiquitous than we could have imagined, to the point that rich and poor alike have access to broadband connectivity and internet-ready mobile devices way beyond what even the wealthiest of us had five years ago. If we just take The Bahamas as an example, smartphone market penetration is at greater than 100%. In other words there are more internet-enabled smartphones in The Bahamas than there are eligible users. Literally, everyone has a smartphone. If we are all just using them to take selfies and argue with strangers, the question must be asked – what good is all this technology anyway?

And this is what we’ve found out – the digital divide isn’t about devices and connectivity. Instead it’s about how we are able to take advantage of the connectivity and simply the rich are better positioned to do so than the poor. So rather than reduce the so-called digital divide, ubiquitous technology has tended to produce exactly the opposite result. Instead of decreasing the gaps between rich and poor, ubiquitous technology has acted as a multiplier and INCREASED the gaps.

There’s actually hard evidence to support this. For ten years now I’ve been studying the impact of one-to-one computing on outcomes in K-12 classrooms. One of the goals of these sorts of programmes was to reduce the digital divide. Of course this is a fuzzy concept to measure, but in one large programme they devised a way to try: high-need districts with mostly students from lower socio-economic groups were compared with districts with primarily middle to upper-middle income students. Both got one-to-one laptops and wireless connectivity. The results were clear: in the high need districts, technology integration was limited to routine activities only, with little impact on the learning process, whereas in the middle to upper-middle districts technology integration was extensive, and real gains in learning were realized as a result.

What’s the point here? The digital divide is only a reflection of the much broader socio-economic divide in society – it’s not really the problem in and of itself. Because we see the world through the lens of technology we see the technology as being at the root of the problem. If technology is at the root of the problem, then it must be at the root of the solution. As with anything else, however, because the playing field is not level to start with, the privileged will benefit more from a purely technological solution because they are better poised to take advantage of it to begin with.

The second challenge: How do we integrate technology in such a way so as not to benefit the privileged and deepen inequality, but rather so that it helps to close the gap, reduces the inequality that manifests as a digital divide? –> part 3: better than the rest (available 18 July)

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