This brief blog entry reflects on the digital divide in online education and on how to build a bridge across it. At the beginning of my teaching experience, almost 20 years ago, classes (apart from lecture theatres) were equipped with PCs, a digital whiteboard and digital drawing pens. Often, the pens would not write on the digital whiteboard due to some technical misfortune. As a result, students would usually be sitting behind a desktop PC, while I would be typing on the screen or writing on a regular notepad with an analogue pen. More often than not, the flashy Smart Pens sat gathering dust.
It’s clear to me now that I was teaching in what’s now known as the ‘Web 1.0 era.’ At this time, desktop PCs were used to display static webpages, typically used for information provision and reference purposes. The internet was still mostly ‘read-only,’ and offered little opportunity for interaction. With the recent emergence of Web 2.0, I noticed several innovations on campus. First, the parallel transformation of lecture theatres and classrooms (all equipped with a PC and a projector), the near disappearance of PCs from classrooms and the return of PCs to dedicated PC areas and libraries. Moreover, this change has fundamentally altered the way in which students think about the internet. Many of my students now think that not having access to a WiFi network is akin to being stuck in a desert without water.
According to the World Economic Forum (2021), 85% of the world lives in areas covered by 4G, but only half are online. I believe we are only starting to see the changes that university degree programmes will experience having shifted to online teaching. Some of this shift was a necessary response to the Covid-19 pandemic, but it is likely that this change will continue as the situation evolves.
It’s important to recognise just how quickly these changes have arrived. Not even 15 years ago, just having an intranet – an internal, private communication network – was a major achievement for some universities. Today, it is a given. Universities used to communicate with students through letters and telegram; today, it is second nature for students to interact with their lecturers and each other in an online classroom. It’s easy to be spooked by the swiftness of these changes, so it might be comforting to consider that Batty and Bar predicted much of this back in 1994. In The Electronic Frontier: Exploring and Mapping Cyberspace, they write that “there is a new geography in the making. […] It is almost upon us and, within a generation, it is destined to change our view of geography as dramatically as anything since the cartography of Claudius Ptolemy”. (1994)
It’s worth taking a moment to consider what might be just around the corner. While Web 3.0 might promise new realms of virtual reality, from my experience as an online instructor and my involvement in IT projects in developing countries, I still note the existence of a new form of 'digital divide.’ In the words of Omar bin Sultan Al Olama (Member of the System Initiative on Shaping the Future of Digital Economy and Society, World Economic Forum) ‘It's not enough to just give a child a tablet - you need to ensure their learning environment is appropriate.’ In practice, this leads to a double challenge in online education. Online students may not only experience slower internet connection speeds, but may also face challenges because of power shortages, blackouts and the increased frequency of extreme climate events.
Therefore, both the philosophy and the expectation of the technology used by students in online degree programmes should acknowledge such differences and be accessible for those with only the simplest PCs or laptops available in the market. These issues are of special importance in relation to the types of files we can upload and share and the length of time it may take for them to be downloaded. Bigger files place more strain on internet connections, and also require more storage space – this latter is at a premium on older laptops.
In conclusion, building a bridge across the digital divide implies also adopting a practical approach to the technology we use, and being mindful of the technology used by our students. Accessibility must be at the heart of everything we do.
Batty M. & Barr B., (1994) “The Electronic Frontier: Exploring and Mapping Cyberspace”, Futures, 26(7) pp. 699-712.
World Economic Forum (2021) The 1 Billion Lives Challenge to close the digital divide | World Economic Forum. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/09/take-the-1-billion-lives-challenge-to-close-the-digital-divide-edison-alliance-inclusion-internet-connectivity. [Accessed 10 December 2021].Reflective Writing