One of the ‘benefits’ of the COVID lockdowns is the highlighting of the digital divide existing everywhere. Yes, it looks different everywhere, but it is present. From here in the UK to Canada to Kenya to Indonesia. Not all of us have access to the internet or devices or even know how to do things digitally. And yet, the expectation in many places is that we do.
Here in the UK every week we receive a school newsletter via email. So clearly the expectation is that everyone has access to email. Generally this is true as I can go to my local library and access the internet. But with lockdown, libraries are closed. It is also assumes I have enough digital literacy to create and use email.
And now with schooling shifted online there is the expectation of access to devices and connectivity. Yes, most schools are now putting a note in the newsletters stating that if you need help with a device to contact them. And yes, the government (here in the UK) is providing some devices to loan out to families.
But here’s the thing. Giving out devices and paying for connectivity is easy. Super easy – hand out devices and pay for the infrastructure. Even in places where the infrastructure doesn’t exist, solving that problem is not overly difficult.
Devices and infrastructure are the easy bit. But the digital divide is so much more than just devices and connectivity. It’s about literacy and safety and shame. Understanding how to use devices and the internet is a skill that takes time to learn and develop. Understanding how to use devices and internet safely is no small feat. These pieces are rarely talked about. Perhaps because they are very hard to solve.
And there is shame. Putting our hand up to say I’m the one, perhaps the only one, who doesn’t have a device at home and is not connected takes courage. Figuring out how we enable people to access devices, connectivity, and knowledge without shaming them might just be the most important challenge of the digital divide.
The choice is up to us.