The Digital Education Future Lab at University of Canterbury was delighted to host Professor Laura Czerniewicz from University of Cape Town last month, who have worked issues around digital inequality and inequity for a long time. Unfortunately, some of these challenges have become more complex and more complicated.
“Classic” digital divides
There are three classic digital divides. First level of digital divide is access to the Internet. The second level is digital skills. The last level is getting the benefits. A number of studies clearly evidenced that the access to technology benefits economically and socially.
As inequalities get increased or divides are addressed, inequalities morph into new forms, that is, the digital divide paradox. Social complexity mixed with the integration of technology deeply in the society, with the coexistent of these different forms of technology (access; use; participation; benefits; sovereignty; agency; transparency). For example, during COVID Malaysia moves their entire education system, their learning management system onto Goggle classroom. Teachers are required to report using Google tools. What kind of agreement was signed? This is one of the most insidious forms of digital inequality that we’re starting to see. Because those most vulnerable have to accept these supposedly free tools which we know are not free at all. People are paying the data they are handing over their user behavior and they have the least choice. The pandemic exposed social inequalities and inequalities. One of the outcomes of the pandemic is that it shone a light on digital inequality.
How conflict is digital inequality?
Digital inequality can be regarded as the simple terms, that is, to have any digital access, even electricity. What’s fascinating about connectivity nowadays is that 90% of the world’s population now have cell phones. In this way mobile technology can be assumed to be widespread. Connectivity is ubiquitous but the urban rural divide persists everywhere. The next extraordinary point is that the cost of data and of connectivity is huge. Globally there is a 30,000% difference between the cheapest price for data and the most expensive. Finally, the affordability gap & value-for-money gap globally is huge. Electronic Frontier Foundation conduct excellent studies on what people should be spending. Nevertheless, in that sense digital inequality is very simple, which is about access, costs, and the quality of device.
However, the ways in which digital divides and inequalities are actually incredibly complex. First, it is impossible to divide digital inequalities from social inequalities. They reflect each other. Links between technology and inequality are multifaceted. Additionally, digital inequality intersects with post-digital datified society. In other words, the society is intrinsically digital. The material world and the digital world are so blurred.
Digital tools and divides co-exist. The big shift is networked digital technologies, because that’s when data is shared, when digital divides become more complicated, and much more entangled with the material world. Current situation is smart technologies, and smart stands fir self-monitoring analysis and reporting technology. For example, AI based, it changes the kinds of inequalities that exist. The world now lives with and through digital data. Everything is datafied. The ability to engage with understanding that digital data is so much more complex. It is near impossible to be disconnected. Everyone is data point.
There are numerous theoretical resources available. Most have broader sociological and educational use, can be tailored. There are a lot of ways that we can look at these issues for those who are still quite rightly contact with access is the issue.
- Resource Appropriation Theory
- Talks about different levels of digital divide. This plays an essential role in addressing the nuances of the phenomenon, and thus, it supports the researcher in making informed choices in society.
- Posits that the digital divide is not a static and a permanent condition but fluid
- Stresses the need to study digital inequalities in different situations and societies, that is, in different settings
- Theory of practice
- Demystifies notion of success through relevant forms of capital including social and cultural capital. Useful to shed light to injustices that are related with the context of people and how differences in education lead to other differences in life, e.g., digital inequality
- Theory of habitus stresses the influences of education upon one’s ability to attain success
- Helps to show that inequality is not a naturally occurring phenomena but it is related to a lack of social/cultural/economic/symbolic capital
- Culturally Historical Activity Theory
- Emphasizes the interdependent relationship between the individual and their wider community
- See digital inequality as a cultural-historical phenomenon
- Highlights how no ‘tool’ (whether digital or physical) is ‘neutral’
- Dialectical rather than binary logic; contradictions as a site of dynamic change. View of contradictions as progressive
- Promotes research aimed at exploring how digital inequality is experiences and changes.
- Critical Pedagogy and Digital Liberation
- Highlights digital inequality as part of larger social inequalities
- Sees technology as not neutral and not a panacea:
- Is not just about access to technology but about harnessing technology for agency
- Links with bell hooks (1994) and education as a process of hope and freedom.
- Is aspirational and emergent
Thank our guest Laura for providing all the useful resources to contribute to this blog. She has had many roles in education over the years including academic, researcher, strategist, advocate, teacher, teacher-trainer and educational publisher. Threaded through all her work has been a focus on equity and digital inequality. Laura foregrounded a range of issues. You can see her ppt here.
Czerniewicz, L., & Carvalho, L. (2022). Open, Distance, and Digital Education (ODDE)–An Equity View. In Handbook of Open, Distance and Digital Education (pp. 1-20). Singapore: Springer Nature Singapore.