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Bridging digital divide, critical in fighting COVID 19

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AT A time like when the coronavirus pandemic has forced schools to close in over 130 countries, having offices and business areas also locked up, and people practicing “social distancing,” the internet is definitely providing a lifeline.

More than ever, the internet has become a rallying point where people now access critical information about every aspect of life. It enables the rights to education, health, and religion with telemedicine, schools, and even religious worship going online, and may be essential for saving peoples’ livelihoods and key parts of economies.

  However, this global shift assumes that all people have access to the internet. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Approximately half of the world’s population (46 percent) is not connected to the internet. According to United Nations estimates, despite the fact that internet access is considered a fundamental enabler of human rights and governments around the world have committed to provide universal and affordable internet access by 2020, people in the least developed countries remain the least connected.

  Airing his view on how to bridge the digital divide that had been thrown to the public glare by the sudden emergence of COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown it brought along, Mr Adolphus Igwe, a lecturer in the department of Computer Science in one of the private universities in Nigeria said, “while high technology cannot possibly and directly deliver humans from the current COVID-19 virus, it could at least help in picking up some of the slack associated with the pandemic. Specifically, as the disease spreads rapidly in many countries and communities, education has been impacted very significantly, and the risk of spreading in schools is particularly high.

 So, in this time of social distancing, the world is witnessing one of the swiftest organizational transformations in history, as governments, education and businesses rely heavily on the internet to minimize the disruption caused by lockdowns and other sweeping measures to contain the disease.

But, this increasing reliance on digital platforms has exposed the deep divide between the technology haves and the have-nots both within countries and between different countries. As it concerns education, moving classes online is an easy decision to make, but actualizing it is obviously a very difficult issue. There are two kinds of problems associated with moving learning from the traditional classrooms to the digital phase; the first is the IT savviness of the teachers. Personally, I have been involved with a project to move teaching online in a few private schools in Nigeria.

In the process, I found out that a bigger part of the problem came from the teachers themselves, who by all means tried to resist moving teaching online, using all machinations imaginable to foil the efforts. The reason is of course quite simple to understand: the technology gap and the learning curve on the part of the teachers.

Moreso, change is usually difficult for many individuals, who might have been doing things one way for decades, and are quite resistant to adopt other ways. Another reason is the extra workload associated with the development of digital contents – preparing PowerPoint or PDF presentations and recording voices. Again, the availability of user-friendly software media for online teaching cannot be assumed, especially in Nigeria. On the other end of the online course delivery spectrum is the student. Online content delivery requires an Internet connection.

While this may not be much of a difficulty for the teacher, it could be a show-stopper for the student, as not all students have internet connections at home. Even when they do, the bandwidth required to support online content management could be lacking. In many parts of the world, particularly in developing countries like ours (Nigeria), there may be other layers of problems, including unavailability of reliable power supply to support online learning. This digital divide has obviously come to the fore as the world is struggling to find a way around some aspects of a difficult pandemic.

  Perhaps the simplest way to close the divide is for the government in partnership with all network providers to subsidise the cost of internet connectivity in Nigeria as we are still listed among the developing countries and as such cannot talk of free Wifi.

Again, when selecting teaching materials, schools may wish to make sure all materials can be downloaded to and stored on devices so that students can access those materials when not connected to the internet or at a lower tariff.

Tools like Microsoft 365 and GoogleApps have both off- and online versions of their word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation programs. Students, teachers alike need to be shown how to enable the versions that can be used without internet access and then synced to an online-accessible version when connectivity becomes available.

  On his own part, Mr Bernard Nnaeto, a public servant said, “COVID-19 has exposed a major weakness that education stakeholders must help to tackle, and that is the digital divide in accessing quality education. While children in high- and middle-income economies could study from the comfort of their homes, those from poor families still remain spectators in a world that should provide equal opportunity for all.

So as many nations are trying to take all forms of learning online, it is expected that Nigerian government at all levels, to think of the millions of children whose parents could barely afford two square meals a day not to talk of the needed computer gadgets online learning.

Even those parents, who managed to get those gadgets for their children, could hardly afford the cost of monthly, weekly or daily subscription as the case may be. So if the governments really want to help out, they should find a way to make these gadgets available to these children who really need them.

The government can partner with the good hearted Nigerians, NGO’s, telecommunications and network providers to achieve this feat. I believe that these suggestions will help bridge the global digital divide that had plaguing the world for decades.

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