Address the challenges of digital inequality


Your entry smart phone will take you places beyond your imaginations. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Every day that passes with Covid-19, there are new experiences.

Some of the new realities, like digital inequality, have not featured in our vocabulary but are important to the future of the country.

Since the advent of digitisation, much of the discussion has centred on the digital divide (the difference between those who have ready access to broadband and devices, and those who don’t). However, a new challenge has emerged.

This is the digital inequality, which refers to the disparities in knowledge and ability of using digital technologies within the population that have access to broadband and devices.

I hold the view that if we solved access and affordability of broadband, people would automatically take advantage of the vast resources in Internet to educate themselves.

It turns out that like economic inequality, digital inequality is a growing concern due to different motivations for using online services. These differences have become more pronounced since we started remote teaching at the universities.

At the beginning, we started with graduate students since their class sizes were smaller. The teaching went on smoothly to the extent that doctoral students questioned why we preferred classroom teaching.

However, remote teaching for undergraduates has proven to be quite a challenge due to an emerging phenomenon - digital inequalities. Digital skills that we have come to take for granted are not evenly distributed in the population. Social context plays a major role on how digital media is integrated into people’s lives.

This is largely precipitated by unequal opportunities and rewards for an individual’s status within society. A keen observation reveals that outside of college, students’ activities online have divergent implications depending on their social capital.

I have spent more than four weeks pursuing students who, despite having broadband, fail to attend class. Some said they do not have a quiet place to participate in remote learning. Indeed, some come from poor families and live in either one roomed houses or makeshift houses in poor neighbourhoods. They feel intimidated by their colleagues with beautiful backgrounds showing in digital class conferences.

There are other bigger problems. These young adults (aged 18-25 where most undergraduates fall) are at a very critical period in their lives. Psychologists call it a period of heightened self-awareness. They are sensitive to how their thoughts, actions or emotions relate to their internal standards in order to understand how others perceive them.

In their self-reflections, sometimes they misjudge themselves with dire consequences when some decide to take their lives. The Daily Nation of March 18th reported that, at least 12 university students had committed suicide since January in a worrying trend for education stakeholders, who are now seeking ways to address the problem.

These problems are never addressed since few of our universities have a counselling service for students. In the meantime, research has just begun to conceptualize the term digital inequality. Early definitions centers around access, usage, skills, and self-perceptions.

There will eventually be better definition of this emerging concept but for now we must plan to teach knowing that social and economic inequalities play a big role in the student’s responsiveness to learning. When I reflect on my own experience in the US, I remember the sheer intimidation in class with students from higher social backgrounds.

It took me two years to muster enough confidence to participate like any normal student. At times I felt so bad about where I came from that I started to question myself if it was worth it to continue with education to the extent that I visited the university counselling services.

After explaining to a counselor how I felt in detail, he asked me to narrate one incident. Our sociology professor had asked each one of us in class to state the best present ever that we each received from our parents.

Virtually every person in class had received either a motorbike, a car or a holiday abroad but when it came to my turn I was very honest to say a bottle of Coca-Cola from my mother for passing the grade’s school exams. The entire class burst into laughter. It hurt me, I concluded. He told me: “Young man! You are normal.”

To my students and their agemates in similar predicament: social, economic or digital inequality should never stand in your way to success.

Some of your classmates may be using expensive tablets, laptops or smart phones with expensive backgrounds to learn online. They could be displaying large, airy, rooms in their homes, complete with servants who serve them tea during class.

Your cheap Huawei entry smart phone will take you places beyond your imaginations.