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the International Gap in Technology

The Digital Divide in Education, Education and Technology in the Balance

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, there was a major gap between industrialized and developing countries in terms of their access to information and communications technology (ICT). This gap has come to be known as the digital divide and is illustrative of the vast differences in development among nations resulting from the process of globalization. While most industrialized countries were linked into the global information economy through high speed information networks and computers, the majority of people in the developing world had very little or no access to basic information and communications networks–let alone the new technology of the Internet. Indeed, more than half the people on the planet, mostly in the developing world, had yet to make a telephone call.

There are many ways of measuring the digital divide. One measure is the extent to which people in the industrialized and developing countries have access to the Internet. Table 1 provides a rough estimate of the approximately 500 million worldwide Internet users by region at the beginning of the current century. It shows that the industrialized countries represented some 65 percent of all Internet users.

Another measure is the location of Internet content providers. Here the dominance of the developed world is still more accentuated: the United States shows a ratio of 25.2 Internet domains per thousand population and parts of Europe 15 per thousand, compared to Brazil's 0.5, China's 0.2, and India's 0.1.

The digital divide is far more than a gap in access to ICT, however. It is a major impediment to the social and economic development of poor nations. In the twenty-first century, knowledge and information and a highly skilled labor force are increasingly important determinants of growth in the global economy. Or as Manuel Castells has observed, "Information technology, and the ability to use it and adapt it, is the critical factor in generating and accessing wealth, power, and knowledge in our time" (1998, p. 92). ICT has already revolutionized economic life and business in the industrialized countries and is transforming these societies in equally profound ways. ICT is a key weapon in the war against world poverty. When used properly, it offers huge potential to empower people in developing countries to overcome development obstacles, to address the most important social problems they face, and to strengthen communities, democratic institutions, a free press, and local economies.

According to some, the development of information and communications technology is increasing the gap between the rich and the poor, the knowledgeable and the knowledge deprived, the information rich and the information poor. Instead of closing the divide, the introduction of more ICT exacerbates social and economic divides–not only between rich and poor countries, but also among various socioeconomic groups within countries. Others argue that ICT closes the divide by integrating countries in the global economy and providing them access to global knowledge and information for development. Nonetheless, there are stark differences in access across the world according to gender, geography (i.e., urban versus rural), income, education, age, occupation, and even ethnicity and race. The groups with the greatest access to new information and communications technology are generally well-educated, high income urban males. Poor, illiterate females in rural areas are least likely to have access to ICT.

The Digital Divide in Education

The global dimensions of the digital divide are most prominent in education. At the beginning of the twenty-first century many industrialized countries had begun to gear up their education systems for the knowledge economy by making major investments in computers for classrooms, in networking their schools, and in training teachers to use technology in their teaching. Thus, in the United States the ratio of students to instructional computers reached five to one and 98 percent of schools were connected to the Internet. In the United Kingdom, the ratio of students to computers was twelve to one in primary school and seven to one in secondary school while access to the Internet was virtually universal, as it was in the European Union as a whole. Canada showed similar patterns, as did Australia and New Zealand. In addition, many students either owned their own computers or had access to the Internet outside of school hours. Getting online had also become the buzz of the higher education sector in industrialized countries; most universities had or were acquiring access to both fiber optic and wireless high speed digital networks.

In contrast, most of the developing countries, with few exceptions, were more concerned with very


difficult educational issues–low primary and secondary school enrollments, inadequately trained teachers, little or no access to textbooks, and ineffective school management–rather than with improving ICT. The exceptions were a small number of countries in Asia, Latin America, and other parts of the developing world that began introducing computers in classrooms, networking schools, and developing digital content to address the educational requirements of the global knowledge economy.

Among Asian countries, Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, China, and Thailand were making important investments in ICT in higher education and at the primary and secondary levels. Thailand developed the first nationwide, free-access network for education in Southeast Asia, SchoolNet@1509. This program also made Thai content available on the Internet. China's Ministry of Education planned to provide online education services to five million higher education students by 2005. In Latin America, Brazil, Mexico, and Chile were making significant ICT investments. Brazil built high speed data networks for university research and installed large numbers of computers in primary and secondary schools nationwide. Chile had linked 5,000 primary and secondary schools and produced educational software under its Enlaces program. In other parts of the world, Turkey launched a major initiative to install computers in more than 5000 classrooms, and the South African SchoolNet (SchoolNetSA) began providing Internet services to local schools and developed online educational content.

Education and Technology in the Balance

Does access to computers and the Internet give the education systems of industrialized countries an advantage over those in developing countries? Or has technology balanced rich and poor countries, because poor countries now have access to high quality information, data, and research via the Internet they never would have had without technology? The answers to these questions depend in large measure upon how one assesses the impact and cost-effectiveness of ICT on the education systems in the industrialized countries. At the start of the twenty-first century, the educational impact of computers and the Internet was not widely in evidence in many schools, although it is clear that ICT was being widely adopted and used at all levels of education. Moreover, a new "Net Generation" of learners weaned on the Internet was stimulating new approaches to teaching and learning online, initially within the traditional classroom, but increasingly outside that venue, without regard to physical location or time of day.

While there has been good progress in providing access to ICT in schools and universities in industrialized countries, the expected benefits to education, as noted, have been difficult to measure: (1) increasing productive teaching and learning; (2) transforming teaching and learning from traditional textbook lessons to more learner-friendly, student-centered approaches that employ powerful interactive tools and methods; and (3) equipping students with higher order thinking and problem-solving skills that prepare them for life in an information-based society and workplace.

Some researchers, such as James Kulick, have recorded positive outcomes from the use of computers for teaching and learning basic skills and for information and knowledge management. Others, such as Larry Cuban, believe that computers have been oversold and underused; they argue that most educational institutions remain essentially as they were decades ago, despite the availability of technology, and are not reaping enough benefits from technology to justify the investments. Further, others question the cost-effectiveness of computers relative to other inputs for improving the quality of education in the classroom: smaller class sizes, self-paced learning, peer teaching, small group learning, innovative curricula, and in class tutors.

The experience of the industrialized countries would suggest that access to the Internet and the wealth of knowledge and information it provides does not automatically lead to measurable improvements in the quality of teaching and learning in schools. Rather, such improvements are the result of parallel efforts to enhance the teaching and learning process by training teachers, reducing class size, making textbooks available, and establishing standards of learning. Nonetheless, it is obvious that school systems everywhere, and especially in the developing countries, need to find ways of providing more students with regular and frequent access to information and communications technology and to enable students to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to support a knowledge economy.

Bridging the Digital Divide in Education

The developing countries face massive challenges in bridging the digital divide in education. What are these challenges? And is progress possible? In order to bridge the digital divide in education, developing countries will first need to overcome the key constraints to the development of ICT in general. Too often programs fail to address the problems in a comprehensive and sustainable way. To reduce the technology gap developing countries need to discover ways to expand information infrastructure, increase access by improving markets, and reduce the cost of service, especially for Internet access. A reduction in Internet costs–both telecommunications company charges and Internet service provider charges–in developing countries is necessary for a broadening of the information society there, and for more widespread and cost-effective use of new technologies to improve education.

Even with the best of intentions, however, achieving these goals will not be easy for developing countries. They lack both the funding and the technical expertise to overcome infrastructure and human resource constraints. Many international financial organizations, aid agencies, and private foundations are committed to helping developing countries bridge the digital divide and are being mobilized into action by the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, and other bodies.

Additionally, many feel that advances in technology will help bridge the digital divide between industrial and developing countries. Overall, diffusion of Internet access is expected to be rapid in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Indeed, access to information over the Internet is already being greatly facilitated for consumers in developing countries by the existence of new data caches and innovative networking of servers around the world. The development of wireless telecommunications is also expected to facilitate access to the Internet in remote rural areas where telephone service has been unavailable. And, above all, computers are likely to become both pervasive and affordable, not just on the desk top and as handheld appliances, but embedded in intelligent objects everywhere.

While access to computers and telecommunications networks is necessary to bridge the digital divide, access alone is not sufficient to ensure that education systems in developing countries benefit from the Internet revolution. The governments of these countries also need to: (1) train teachers and trainers to exploit the potential of learning technologies; (2) offer free or inexpensive Internet access to schools; (3) foster capacity to develop content and instructional resources in their own language; (4) build networks and well-maintained facilities for both accessing knowledge and providing affordable lifelong learning and skill upgrading; and (5) preserve the freedom of teachers and students to explore the myriad educational resources on the web without filtering and censorship such as that which exists in China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other countries.

Both industrialized and developing countries must also seek to address the digital divide between rich and poor. The United States has made significant progress in bridging the gap, although there are still considerable inequities, especially in instructional practice–that is, in how effectively modern learning technologies are being used with different groups of students. In the developing countries, public policies to promote competition (which lowers prices and improves quality) and to make new technologies more accessible will ultimately influence availability and adoption of technology and access. However, special community-based programs by governments and nongovernmental organizations involving marginalized or rural communities, women, and minorities are also essential for bridging the digital divide.


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