The digital age offers a plethora of new opportunities for educators to engage and communicate with students. While there were plenty of ideas floating around as to how to expand the integration of the digital into the educational space, COVID-19 forced many of those plans to be accelerated into practice. While schools and educators should be rightly proud of the innovation and adaptability they’ve shown, the sudden necessary shift into the digital space has also highlighted the cracks within the system, cracks into which a worrying large number of students fall.
The “digital divide” has been talked about before, but the current pandemic has only made the issue more pressing. The term “digital divide” refers to the split in Canada between areas with plentiful high-speed internet, and those without – specifically, low income, rural and indigenous households often do not have the reliable access to reliable internet that we often take for granted. In 2017, for example, only 37% of rural households, and 24% of Indigenous community households had access to high-speed internet. Compare this to the 97% of urban homes with access to high-speed internet, and you can begin to visualize what this divide looks like. Measurements taken during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic show download speeds in the affected areas as being only about 10% of those on the other side of the digital divide.
These numbers don’t even take into account households with no internet access, or with limited options for internet access, where a student may have to share a single computer with family members who also need it for work or their own education. Digital literacy is often lower in such households, who may not understand all the options at their disposal to allow for better connectivity.
This shows that not all educational institutions may have the capability to properly adapt to an emergency like COVID-19, or to keep up in general to digital advancement. There also seems to be no easy fix, as the monopolistic nature of ISPs in Canada does not encourage competitive pricing. There have been some promising steps taken, however. The CRTC declared internet access a basic right in 2016, and low-income families recently became eligible for internet plans sponsored by the government and ISPs collaborating – though this only applies to families, not older students who may live on their own.
While this does seem like an issue that needs to be tackled by the government and ISPs, there are some steps that educational institutes can take to at least mitigate the effects of the divide, if not eliminate it altogether. A good first step is simply being aware that the digital divide exists and being willing to give special consideration to students who may have internet difficult, in the form of more flexible assignments and scheduling. Educators are also well poised to help boost digital literacy, to make students feel more empowered and able to take concrete steps to troubleshoot issues when navigating online.
Education is going to only become more closely intertwined with technology – however it should be noted that education should not just be reacting to new technology and incorporating it, but preparing students to be able to adjust to the technological future they will find themselves in. An even playing field for all students is vital in this case.