Learning to bridge the digital divide

Computers alone are not enough to join the e-economy. Digital literacy is essential too. 

It has become increasingly clear over the past two years that offering the whole world a phone and a computer screen will not in itself help bridge the “digital divide” opening up across the world. The technology is practically worthless unless people are equipped with the know-how, and the willingness, to use it. Those who cannot use it confidently, whether whole countries, groups or individuals, will become increasingly marginalised within the modern world.

The case of Mexico’s Telesecundaria programme, which has been adopted by several South American countries, shows how solutions depend as much on human expertise as on state-of-the-art technology. Thanks to Telesecundaria, computers in the classroom have transformed life for thousands of secondary school students in rural Mexico, bringing a full educational programme into the smallest village via a television screen or webcast. In every case, the Mexico model has worked largely thanks to the combination of well-qualified tutors at the transmitting end of the system, and local “persuaders” in the rural areas to win the students over to this novel educational method.

It remains true that the basic factor which leads to a digital divide is lack of access to computers and Internet. This is most acute in the less developed regions of the world. While technological advances may have enabled some developing countries, notably in Africa, to leapfrog straight from little or no phone service to mobile phones and the Internet, the gap between the industrial and the developing world remains enormous. Almost a third of people in industrial countries had access to a computer in 1998 compared with barely 3% in the developing world, the World Bank found in its World Development Report 2000/2001.

Evidently, many have little or no awareness of information and communication technology (ICT). In 1997, more than 30 African countries had less than one telephone line per 100 people, according to OECD figures. It is not simply that the “haves” are at an advantage, but that the “have-nots” are at increasing risk of social and economic exclusion. Countries which lack a firm ICT infrastructure become marginalised as electronic commerce grows in importance. They are incapable of sharing in the new route to prosperity which e-commerce affords, and remain dependent on the export of basic commodities, for which the world price is often in decline. Africa’s share of world trade has fallen from about 4% in 1980 to less than 2% today, according to IMF figures.

“It is necessary but not sufficient to provide avenues to information and knowledge. What is more important is to empower people with appropriate educational, cognitive and behavioural skills and tools,” says Wadi D. Haddad of the Global Infrastructure Commission, in Learning to Bridge the Digital Divide (see references).

The international community is well aware of the problem for developing countries, but it does not stop there. Industrial countries are also struggling with a widening gap between groups at different educational and income levels, raising fears that entire sectors of society may be excluded because of their inability to use, or afford, ICT.

The problems are illustrated by the ratio of students per computer in upper secondary education in OECD countries. Significant differences are already evident between these industrial countries and they are likely to be maintained. While Portugal, with one computer for 35 students, is improving its student-computer ratio, at the other end of the scale Norway, which already has one computer per five students, may be upgrading the quality of its equipment. And even if schools have the computers, they need fully trained teachers to make use of them. But such training is not keeping pace with demand in the industrial world. The neglect of teacher ICT training, which tends to lag behind physical investment, is a major obstacle. Even in the United States, which has placed a high priority on the use of ICT in education, spending on technology training for teachers increased only slightly, to 5% of the technology budget in 1998-99 from 4% in 1994-95.

Furthermore, the fact that a country has a high level of access to ICT may conceal considerable inequity within the population, adding a new factor, wealth, to the digital divide equation. The recent dramatic increase in Internet access within the UK in a single year highlights the growing disparity between the richest and the poorest sectors of society. Access for the nation’s poorest 10% more than doubled during the year, but was still barely 5%, while at the upper end of the scale access was close to 50%.

Other disadvantaged groups can be identified in advanced countries, such as linguistic and ethnic minorities, those who live in isolated communities and those who are socially excluded, for whatever reason. Women in many societies are much less likely than men to have access to ICT. And there may be inter-generational gaps, such as for men in mid-life whose work skills are no longer in demand, whose modest educational achievements have left them ill-equipped even to want to become computer literate. For some, the workplace stimulates awareness of the potential of ICT and promotes the development of ICT skills. Others, lacking this incentive, are left aside.

Here too, experience is already showing the value of targeted educational effort. Schemes in which well-qualified tutors use ICT for unemployed adult learners in the United States have not only imparted significant ICT skills, but have given a new confidence and self respect to the learners, as they realise that they have mastered what many who are better educated have not yet begun to grasp.

Whether in the workplace or the classroom, the teacher cannot work in isolation. Quality in the learning experience requires an abundant supply of appropriate multimedia learning materials, which entails partnership between the suppliers and the users. Mindful that much learning extends beyond the formal system, effective dialogue is needed among all the parties concerned, extending to employers and the learners themselves, with governments working in partnership with them. It is for governments to “broker” arrangements between educational ICT developers, suppliers and users, both in the public and the private sectors, to promote quality in the use of ICT for learning, and to encourage research.

Digital literacy is worthwhile not only for its own sake; it can contribute handsomely to overcoming severe structural weaknesses within society. The flexibility and versatility of e-learning may transform the situation of adults who had little formal education, or who achieved little educational success in earlier life. Familiarity and competence with ICT may provide an entrée into corporate life for those who were previously excluded. It may draw more of the population into the decision-making of the democratic process, thereby making for a society more at ease with itself. For many, ICT becomes the key to lifelong learning, and once the habits of lifelong learning are widely in place, learning becomes the key to capitalising on the huge potential benefits of ICT.


•OECD/CERI, Learning to Bridge the Digital Dividem, 2000, Results of a Roundtable in December 1999, organised jointly by OECD/CERI and the US National Center on Adult Literacy.

•OECD/CERI, Education Policy Analysis, 2001 (in preparation).

©OECD Observer No 224, January 2001

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