Digital Divide: how does it affect education?


What is the digital divide in education and how can it be bridged?

Simply put, the digital divide is a human rights issue. Coined in the late 20th century, the term is used to refer to the gap between regions and demographics with access to communications and information technology and those without. Increased widening of the digital divide is beginning to have a significant impact on the access to and delivery of education, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, school closures, and lockdowns, and the consequent transition to online learning.

What is the digital divide?

The digital divide is concerned not only with those who have insufficient access to technology, but also with those who lack the knowledge of how to use it. It is important to consider who can connect to what and how they do so. The issue is not always clearcut and presents itself in degrees, even in comparatively affluent societies; some students are able to connect through multiple devices and high-speed broadband, while others may have to share a computer with their whole family and rely on a dial-up connection.

How does the digital divide affect education?

The digital divide can affect education in a number of different ways, some of which may not be immediately obvious. The first of these is lower levels of performance—learners without access to digital devices go without information that may help advance their education. When it comes to entering further education, students with a digital background will be able to embrace technology more quickly and waste no time in getting ahead. Reduced access to digital tools means that disadvantaged students are faced with hurdles to continuing their education, often leading them to drop out or abandon their educational pathways. Finally, learners who have reduced options in terms of digital access are more likely to need to spend a greater amount of time completing their learning objectives, inhibiting their long-term success.

A lack of access to digital tools and connectivity in the classroom has a potential impact on children for the rest of their lives as it may later prevent them from competing on an equal footing in the jobs market.

How can the digital divide be bridged in an educational setting?

At many stages, the onus is on schools themselves to accurately understand the needs and issues of their students, making sure available devices are allocated to the learners who need them most. Surveying the needs of the students most impacted by the digital divide should be the first step in assessing how best to allocate resources. Students from lower-income, marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted by the digital divide and can often fall behind if they don’t have the digital tools to be able to complete internet-based homework assignments, for example. Rural school districts are also more likely to be on the wrong side of the digital divide, seeing their students lag behind in terms of technology and academic opportunities.

It is also important to remember that hardware does not necessarily need to be of the highest or latest specification to provide productive access to information and support. Practical steps can also be taken by educational establishments to increase their stock of digital hardware, such as connecting with potential donors or technology companies to create digital resource partnerships that benefit both parties.

Governments also need to play their part by making technology more affordable and ensuring easy-to-use devices. Funding for education needs to address the issue in a more focused fashion. Equally, schools and teachers would benefit from enhanced training and an emphasis on the acquisition of digital skills.

Examples of the digital divide in the classroom

The digital divide in the classroom is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a complex issue. It cannot always simply be put down to a lack of funding that more money and more devices would solve.

Operational issues sometimes play a role, with laptops not always being allocated to the neediest students. Allocation and timetable management are vital tools in the battle to combat the digital divide.

Some students may have a greater need for digital access than others, such as those who are not learning in their native language or who suffer from special educational needs or a disability. The inclusion of local languages in education content creation coupled with the improvement in opportunities for learners with special needs and disabilities are both important factors in bridging the digital divide in education.

Sadly, it is also undeniable that, in many cultures, gender plays a part in the digital divide, with women and girls facing greater barriers to digital accessibility than their male counterparts.