EDUsummIT 2011 Report: The Digital Divide

#edusum11 Did you know that there are now more mobile subscriptions in the developing countries than in the (so-called) developed countries? I didn’t either. That was  a fact pointed out to us by Dr Paul Resta, of the University of Texas at Austin, USA. Yet our appreciation of how such technologies can be used to support learning (both formal and informal) is still in its infancy.

According to Paul, a significant portion of the world’s population is still digitally excluded, and we need to overcome those barriers.

That is quite interesting to me, because it became apparent from other sessions n the conference that the concept of the “digital divide” is not as simple as it sounds. There are digital divides within countries as well as between them. For example, as Mike Searson pointed out, Beijing is as sophisticated as Paris or London, whilst other parts of China are highly rural. On the other hand, there are parts of London where it is not possible or feasible for the family to have a computer and a fixed internet connection – and in which, interestingly, mobile technology can be essential.

There could well be a digital divide in your own classroom, and not simply of the kind we’re used to thinking about.

Moreover, as others pointed out during the conference, there are other sorts of divide, like a cognitive divide:

In reality, today’s digital divide is strongly linked to the cognitive divide. It is related to the way in which people are able to understand, learn, express, produce, share, collaborate, create, and innovate using technology. This demands the activation of intellectual and knowledge acquisition skills and competencies with growing levels of diversity and complexity. Precisely for this reason, poverty reduction, as well as educational and development efforts, needs to go beyond traditional efforts to provide connectivity and content.

From Clotilde Fonseca’s The Digital Divide and the Cognitive Divide: Reflections on the Challenge of Human Development in the Digital Age

(Thanks to Dr Margaret Cox for drawing my attention to this document.)


I’d also suggest that a digital divide can be artificially created when good practice is not shared both within and between schools. It is not acceptable, in my view, for a student’s experience of ICT, and in particular their experience of how technology can enhance learning across the board, to be poor because her teacher has not embraced the concept of technology-enhanced learning or, because of policy or budgetary decisions within the school, to be effectively denied the opportunity of doing so.

I also believe that we as a (global) society have never addressed the very real issue of what we might call the voluntary digital divide. By this I am referring to those people who do not want to be “connected”. They may be effectively forced into doing so, by dint of the fact that it is now becoming more and more the case that it’s easier to achieve a task by going onto the internet than it is to try and deal with the issue in person or over the phone – but from an ethical standpoint, is that right?  It’s worth reading Steve Woolgar’s book, Virtual Society, on this issue of the voluntary digital divide; I referred to it in the article entitled The Myth of the Digital Native.

Somasi Saunand drew attention to the need for culturally-responsive policies across the world, both regional and global, to enhance local ICT policies. I have to say that this highlighted one of the key strengths of this event: the bringing together of such a diverse range of people from very different countries. I personally have little idea of what a culturally-sensitive policy would be in any particular country apart from my own and, possibly, some European countries which I have researched to some extent. It’s important to acknowledge that recommendations made by people are often only applicable in detail to their own countries.

On a very practical level, in keeping with the ethos of the conference, Paul suggested that a role for UNESCO is to help Ministers of Communications in Africa to see providing schools with internet access at an affordable rate as an investment in the country’s future economic development.

This certainly ties in with the message from many of the talks I heard at the Education World Forum in London in January 2011, which was that education is a crucial factor in countries’ economic growth, and that ICT is a critical component of the best education systems.

Online discussions

Discuss why mobile technology is a game-changer, with Mike Searson, on 21st June at 7pm, by clicking here.

Discuss haptics in education with Dr Margaret Cox on 28th June at 7pm UK time by clicking here.

Use this world clock time converter to find out what the time will be where you are.