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There’s no quick-fix to addressing the digital divide – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try

There’s no quick-fix to addressing the digital divide – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try

01 December 2021

Last month, we launched our latest research report—Addressing the Deepening Digital Divide. It drew on insights gathered from more than 1,500 teachers across 92 countries to explore the impact of the pandemic on the digital divide—the gap between those who have access to devices and connectivity, and those who do not—and its impact on learners.

It highlighted several areas that have contributed to the divide—such as a lack of access to devices, limited digital skills, and challenges around engaging pupils online. But it also exposed some of the issues that have occurred because of the divide, likes the disproportionate impact on the learning and wellbeing of the most disadvantaged learners.

These areas were explored in more detail at our recent world-first Forum for Educators event, which brought together 7,500 educators from many countries to discuss the theme: Learning Beyond Tomorrow. One session built on the insights of the report to address the question, ‘how can we make education fairer and more accessible tomorrow?’ Hosted by educational technologist, Shaun Wilden, it brought together four experts:

  • Zarina Subhan, an English Language Teaching expert, currently based in Costa Rica, who has taught at all levels, and worked with policy makers, NGOs, community leaders and governments worldwide
  • Sugata Mitra, recipient of the million-dollar TED prize and former Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University
  • Dr Josie Barnard, a UK-based writer and academic whose research centres on the application of creativity to the challenge of bridging the digital divide
  • Arshad Husain, the Managing Director of OUP Pakistan who is passionate about improving education.

The panellists agreed that the digital divide was always there, but the pandemic exposed it. As Josie explained, it ‘forced people to see how significant the struggles were to engage with lifeline services’, such as education. This was backed up by Arshad who said that, in Pakistan, only a small minority could access learning while ‘the rest of the population suffered.’

Drawing on the issues around digital competency, Josie also explained that we cannot assume young people are ’digital natives’; while they may use digital skills in their personal lives, ‘transferring those skills to a different context can feel unnerving.’ Equally, she added, ‘it doesn’t matter how tech savvy you are if you only have access to a phone after 11pm.’

It’s clear that the digital divide is a global issue; it isn’t limited to more or less developed countries, nor are there any ‘quick fix’ solutions. However, there are a few steps we believe could help.

Firstly, we need to see more focus on independent learning, including screen-free time, to allow for the development of wider skills such as critical thinking. As explored at the Forum, the shift to online learning has changed the role of teachers, and encouraged us to rethink the purpose of education. As Zarina stated: ‘If you’re still teaching in the same way as you would in a classroom, you’re never going to engage them…young people don’t need teachers to give them knowledge…they can find answers themselves.’ She believes the ability to find out information and put it to good use will be a valued skill in the future. This concept was supported by Sugata, who advocates for rethinking the education system: ‘if looking up [on] Google is cheating, does that mean everyone in the world is cheating all the time?’

Secondly, we need to build digital competency skills. If education is to truly embrace hybrid learning, we need to ensure educators, students, and parents have the skills to capitalize on technology, in support of the learning journey. It isn’t enough to have regular upskilling touchpoints; instead we need to move towards a culture of ‘always skilling’ in line with how quickly technology evolves.

Finally, we need to see investment in enhancing accessibility and connectivity, to support affordable access to reliable internet connections and devices—but also in resources for educators, students, and parents that support teaching, learning, and wellbeing.

At OUP, we recognize the role we can play in tackling the digital divide. With a presence in so many markets around the world, we are well-placed to run both local and global initiatives. In Kenya, for example, we partnered with Standard Media Group to make our revision materials more readily available, and delivered our books nationwide to prevent people having to go out during a pandemic and purchase them. Equally, through events like the Forum, we can unite people from all over the world so that together, we can address the issues facing our education system.

We will continue to explore ways to address the digital divide, once and for all. If you have any ideas or thoughts on how we can work together to bridge the divide, please do get in touch.

The Forum for Educators is available to watch on demand until 13 December 2021.