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Tackling digital inequalities in the time of COVID-19

Updated: Feb 6, 2021

by Isabela Vera

COVID-19 has brought the digital divide in higher education institutions to light. What can universities and governments do about it?

COVID-19 has disrupted all facets of daily life throughout the world – and higher education is no exception. According to UNESCO, some 1.4 billion students in 138 countries worldwide have been affected by school and university closures. As universities move online and students go home, higher education institutions (HEIs) are faced with an additional challenge: supporting equitable digital access for all.

Illustration by Lina Osorio

For students in certain parts of the world, transitioning to at-home, online study will be largely seamless. For others, challenges posed by a lack of access to robust digital infrastructure will severely impact their learning outcomes. Governments and HEIs must act proactively to rectify the imbalance.

Bridging the digital divide

HEIs have reacted to the emergency by transplanting their curricula from the campus to the web. However, in many parts of the world, access to digital infrastructure fractures along class lines. Without computer access, students restricted by stay-at-home measures will struggle to join lectures on Zoom or submit coursework through online portals. In Chile, some 15% of students do not have access to a computer – a striking statistic that lead students at two Chilean universities to go on an online strike demanding that the start of the academic year be postponed until all students are equipped to participate.

Even for students who manage to secure access to a computer, reliable access to the Internet is no guarantee. Only half of the global population has access to the Internet; in Africa, the world’s ‘youngest’ continent, this figure is less than a third. Poor connectivity, high costs, and frequent power outages compound access issues. To help get students surfing from home in Latin America, the Universidad de Chile (UCH) distributed 2,000 mobile chips to provide previously disconnected students unlimited access to the Internet from their tablets or smartphones until campus life can resume. Universities around the world should support students with similar initiatives, partnering with the private sector where possible. For example, in Rwanda, two telecommunication giants have offered free access to online learning material from Rwandan universities, to ensure that the cost of Internet access does not hold students back from learning.

Meanwhile, full Internet shutdowns are a sobering possibility: a recent report by digital rights advocacy group Access Now found that internet shutdowns are on the rise around the world, with 213 shutdowns taking place in 33 countries in 2019. These shutdowns hamper the development of infrastructure which is essential for the digitalisation of higher education systems. Governments should immediately pledge to keep the Internet free and open for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.

Supporting professors

Students aren’t the only ones affected by digital inequalities. Digitalisation also divides educators: those who are older or hailing from more rural areas may struggle to move their courses online and make effective use of digital tools. And given issues with choppy Internet connections and a lack of widespread computer access, professors need to think creatively in order to adequately engage students, making use of social media, instant messaging services, and more.

Universities that promote the use of such tools and support peer-to-peer learning in order to build instructors’ capacity for digital teaching modalities are addressing this issue. In Chile, the Ministry of Education has launched a plan for supporting HEIs with an online teaching platform for institutions that do not have these tools. The private sector can also play an important role: numerous solutions providers are offering HEIs access to educational resources, platforms, and services at no charge.

Closing the gender gap

Access to the Internet is deeply gendered. In 2019, ​the proportion of women using the Internet globally was 48%, compared to 58% of men. This puts the global Internet user gap at 17% in relative terms.

In the Americas and Europe, the gap has hovered around zero for quite some time – but in the Arab States, Asia and the Pacific, and Africa, the divide is growing, as more new Internet users are men.

According to the United Nations agency for information and communication technology, most countries with a large gender gap in Internet users also have a large gender gap in mobile phone ownership. Given that the most common way to access the internet is through mobile phones – even more so now that many students cannot make use of digital infrastructure on university campuses – addressing the mobile phone gender gap is critical for getting more women online. Any initiative to expand mobile phone and Internet access by universities, governments, or private enterprise should account for this disparity and seek to overcome it.

Enabling and protecting women’s – students and professors alike – access to the Internet and digital tools is even more crucial during the time of COVID-19. The pandemic deepens gender equalities beyond digitalisation: women’s unpaid care work increases exponentially as a result of school closures and additional family burdens, while confinement heightens the risk of domestic violence, particularly when women may be forced to leave campus dormitories and move back home. These factors all jeopardise learning outcomes for women. It is critical that the pandemic’s social and economic consequences for women remain at the forefront of the HEI response to the crisis.

Isabela Vera is an international development consultant based in Berlin, Germany.

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