Information technology has transformed learning. Visual classrooms, learning apps, learning accountability platforms, access to mentorship, these are few ways amidst many through which technology has revolutionized education. To those who have access to the technological services required to deliver this it is indeed life transforming. When the coin is flipped, to those without access to the services, nothing has changed. In fact, to this group, the introduction of information technology created another hurdle to overcome to seeing their dreams come into fulfilment. There is a new stratification of information. It is those who have information that rule the world. Quality education cannot be achieved in the absence of equity. When we assume the opposite we have to redefine the meaning of the word quality.
Digital divide in education refers to the gap that exists between students who have good access to technology and those who do not. Between the two divides, students write the same exam, compete for the same jobs and see it out in life under the same conditions. The contributing factors to this can largely be categorized into geographical or socio-economic. When considered in detail the socio-economic factors are the most potent. The upper socio-economic class have capital to access the necessary technological services needed for learning thereby have access to the best information which leads to better learning while the lower socio-economic class are stuck. The irony is that jobs are not stratified. The upper and lower socio-economic class students are expected to compete equally.
The digital divide in education pre-exists the pandemic even though the pandemic has widened the gap. For a country like Nigeria it means more students are out of learning. Before the pandemic, a UNICEF report states that 10.5 million of Nigerians aged 5-14 years are not in school with only 61% of 6 to 11-year-olds regularly attending primary school even though primary education is officially free and compulsory. In the north of the country, there’s only a net attendance rate of 53 percent. When Nigeria recorded her first COVID-19 case in February, it took only nearly a month after to see schools shut down. The Federal Ministry of Education announced the temporary shut down of schools in the country on March 19 which took effect from March 23. Nigeria was not the only country to take this move, more than 190 countries closed schools from the lowest to the highest levels in the race to curb the surging pandemic that accounted for about 1.5 billion students staying at home.
The closure of schools has had its ripple effects. While staying at home meant end of learning for some students, learning has continued for some. According to estimates by UNESCO Institute for Statistics and the International Telecommunication Union, almost half of the world’s students face hindrances to online learning. Globally, about 826 million – 50 per cent – do not have access to a household computer, while 43 per cent – about 706 million – do not have access to the internet at home. In sub-Saharan Africa, 89 per cent of learners do not have access to household computers and 82 per cent lack Internet access. Mobile phones seem to have a lot to offer in learning but about 56 million learners worldwide live without access to mobile networks, with almost half living in sub-Saharan Africa.
Most schools have switched to online learning since then but the question remains – what is the effort to see that learning continues regardless of where you live or who you are? The longer schools stay closed, the wider the information gap created. Students without digital access have had nothing to gain from the clamour and campaign for online learning, they have only fallen behind in the pyramid of learning. There are kids in various villages who are caught in the web of both geographical and socio-economic barriers to accessing technological services. This does not point only to those in the rural areas, there are students in the urban centres who cannot afford the services due to socio-economic factors. Taking the just concluded WASSCE as a case study, students without digital access have been home without learning and wrote the same exam with their colleagues who have been learning for months. It is only a matter of when the results come out that the effects of this stratification will come to light.
Some have proposed using traditional media for learning, but the question is how much can be delivered through these platforms? What about the epileptic power supply? As schools gradually reopens, the students are not returning the same way they left. Some are returning better and brighter while some have lots of work to do. The gap created during the pandemic may stretch for forever. While efforts are being put into ensuring good health delivery across countries we should not forget the damages the pandemic has done to education. And as we prepare the world for the next pandemic, we should prepare to respond to the educational damages associated with it.
If access to education is a right of everyone, the current pandemic has revealed there is still work to be done. Bridging the digital divide has to be a priority for every stakeholder in the educational sector. As we brace up to be well positioned to respond to the next pandemic we must make preparations to equip every student to be able to learn from home. There is no quality education in the absence of equity.
Nicholas Aderinto is a young Nigerian who believes in the transforming power of written words in creating lasting changes in the society.