- Half of the 1.5 billion students affected by the COVID-19 pandemic lack access to computers and the internet.
- The digital divide could seriously diminish a student’s lifetime income — and affect economies for decades.
- Organizations are launching initiatives to erase the gap between the technology haves and have-nots.
As schools around the world closed down during the COVID-19 pandemic, it shone a bright and disturbing light on “the digital divide” — the gap between those who have access to computers and the internet and those who don’t. Half of the 1.5 billion students affected by the pandemic fall into the second group. Even students who have access to devices and connectivity might not have safe or suitable places to study in their homes.
“The digital divide, coupled by school closures, is deepening an existing learning crisis and putting children’s futures at risk,” Roberta Malee Bassett, global lead for tertiary education at the World Bank, said. “For children and young people — especially girls — from the poorest families, rural communities, children with disabilities, and those from minority groups, access to remote learning is largely out of reach, and they are left with little opportunity to catch up.”
Bassett said the longer children remain out of school, the less likely they are to return. Children with lower levels of educational attainment are more at risk of lifelong poverty and have a lower life expectancy and poorer health outcomes. The World Bank has estimated a combined $10 trillion loss in earnings due to lower levels of learning and dropout risk among children.
Addressing digital poverty
Michael Gaebel, director of the Higher Education Policy at the European University Association, a Brussels-based association that allows its members in 48 countries to share ideas, explained the first step in addressing “digital poverty”: Students must be provided with technology or programs designed so they can learn also without expensive equipment and high-speed internet connections.
“But the debate goes much further, on students’ social and economic backgrounds, about learning support, from the institution but also from peers, but also about financial support for students,” he said.
A number of initiatives are underway to help address the technology gap from multiple angles. The Cisco Networking Academy began in 1997 when Cisco donated equipment to a local school, only to have the gear sit unused because none of the staff knew how to operate it. The academy was founded that day to train the staff. It has since expanded to 180 countries and 11,800 educational institutions, affecting the lives of 12.7 million students, who are taught programming, cybersecurity, and other important IT skills. In fact, 93% of the academy’s students have gained a job or educational opportunity learning the newest digital skills.
“John Chambers was famous for saying, ‘The internet and Education’ are the two great equalizers. This is more true today than ever before,” Renee Patton, leader of global education and healthcare at Cisco, said. “Cisco provides solutions for internet access and quality learning experiences, both of which drive equity and are at the heart of what we’re doing to power an inclusive future for all.”
During the pandemic, Network Academy instructor Onyango Allan Onyango helped schools across Kenya stay connected, ensuring that their internet access was uninterrupted and that their remote classes could continue. A local internet service provider had provided local high schools with connectivity. But every time the network went down, the school had to call for help. Onyango provided online instruction to teach teachers how to manage their technology, in essence turning them into network administrators.
“We were able to reach a larger audience compared to a traditional classroom,” he said. “Teachers could attend training from the comfort of their homes and view the sessions after class since they were recorded on Webex,” Cisco’s collaboration platform. With that technology in place, he said, “the pandemic wasn’t one of those things that could affect learning.”
Closing the divide
Putting technology in place to close the digital divide is becoming a priority. UNICEF and the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency, have launched Giga, a global initiative to connect every school and its surrounding community to the internet by 2030. Working with governments, Giga has now mapped more than 800,000 schools in 30 countries. The effort is collecting data to craft compelling investment cases for how governments, civil sector, and private sector partners can work together to build the connectivity infrastructure needed to deploy digital learning solutions and other services.
“While disruptive, this last year has given families, teachers, and students a glimpse of what is possible after the pandemic: a once-in-a-generation opportunity to leverage the power of technology and to provide learning opportunities for children and young people everywhere,” Robert Jenkins, UNICEF’s global chief of education, said. “World-class digital learning can serve as a powerful equalizer — if it is delivered to the ones that need it the most.”
Find out more about how Cisco is powering an inclusive future for all.
This post was created by Insider Studios with Cisco.