Infinite Connections: The Digital Divide

by Tracey Burns
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills
Roxanne Kovacs 
 MSc in International Development at Sciences Po, Paris

In 1973, Martin Cooper, a researcher at Motorola, made the first call from a handheld mobile phone prototype. This phone weighed 1.1 kg, took 10 hours to re-charge and was limited to 30 minutes of talking time. When it was commercialized in 1983, the phone cost approximately 7,000 USD.

Today, only 30 years later, mobile phones are not just smaller and more affordable, they are also much more powerful. Smartphones now function as small computers and allow us to do everything from shopping online to programming complex applications.

Increasingly affordable, adaptable and powerful ICTs have influenced all aspects of our lives. As OECD societies continue to become more knowledge-intensive, the importance of digital skills continues to grow. And yet, not everyone in OECD countries has the digital skills they need to succeed in our modern world. A recently released Trends Shaping Education Spotlight analyses the role that education plays in ensuring that everyone can reap the benefits of our technology-rich world.

All indicators of ICT use (such as computers per household, global internet traffic and hours spent online) have grown in the last decade, effectively erasing the first digital divide between those who had access to computers and those who did not. However a second digital divide has emerged between individuals who moved to embrace a technology-rich world and those who have been left behind.

Part of this divide is generational: the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) shows that on average 16-24 year olds are much more competent at solving problems in technology-rich environments than their older counterparts. Further, in many countries large parts of the adult population have insufficient ICT problem-solving skills – meaning that they either failed the assessment or were unable to take part because they had never used a computer. Between 30% and 50% of the adult population in Ireland, Poland and the Slovak Republic fall into this category.

However, the digital divide is not only generational. Eight percent of young adults aged 16-24 also had insufficient ICT skills on the PIAAC assessment. Unfortunately, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be less confident and less proficient at using new technologies. There is also a gender gap. Girls use ICTs less intensively and for fewer tasks on average than boys.

What does this mean for education? Schools can play a role in narrowing the digital divide in a number of ways. For disadvantaged students who don’t use ICTs at home, schools are an important access point. In addition, schools can help their students gain confidence in working with new technologies, not just in the classroom but also in their day to day life. Girls – who tend to make effective use of social media and other communication tools but can be less comfortable with programming and other types of software – can be supported to develop a wider array of digital skills.

Developing curriculae that take advantage of the individualised and personalised learning that is supported by ICTs is one good way to do this. Integrating technology into lessons is another: Social networks, often considered an impediment to learning in traditional classrooms, can also be used creatively. Facebook, for example, has been used by some teachers to bring characters from novels and poems to life.

Other examples include the flipped classroom, which attempts to invert the traditional model of teaching and learning by using technology to deliver lectures in the evenings, thus freeing teachers to work on assignments with students during the day. The “homework” in this case is the video lecture, not the exercises.

ICTs can also promote collaboration across schools and classrooms. For example, e-Twinning  is an initiative of the European Commission that aims to build a virtual community of schools. Available in twenty-five languages, it counted over 230 000 members in January 2014.

However, in spite of the potential of our schools to narrow the digital divide, ICTs have remained a niche phenomenon in many schools. Both teachers and students report that students’ ICT-use during lessons still lags far behind their use of ICT outside of school. And while teachers use ICTs for administrative tasks, they are far less likely to do so in their lessons.

What are the barriers to a more extensive adoption of ICTs in schools? Teachers need to be convinced of what works in the classroom, and how they could use technology to achieve those goals (European Schoolnet, 2013). One of the most prominent issues is a lingering concern about quality of ICTs as learning tools. There is a need to provide evidence of what works and how, as well as continuing efforts to improve the quality of educational resources and software.

Our world has changed at a rapid pace since Martin Cooper made the first call from a handheld mobile phone. Our schools and education systems must do their best to keep up, and ensure that all students have the digital skills they need to take part in our knowledge-intensive world.

Connected Minds: Technology and Today’s Learners
OECD Communications Outlook 2013
OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills
Trends Shaping Education 2013 
Center for Education Research and Innovation (CERI)
More on Flipped classroom
More on eTwinning
Photo credit: Concentrated students in lecture hall working on their futuristic tablet during lesson / Shutterstock


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