What we knew then…

XXVII.4 July - August 2020
Page: 36
Digital Citation

The pandemic, war, and sanctions: Building resilience for the digital divide in education

Rojin Vishkaie

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Globally, education is feeling the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many countries have closed schools—some for the entire year—to prevent the introduction and spread of the virus into their communities. In response to the rapidly changing educational climate, the development of distance-learning programs, in which students and instructors connect via ICT in different locations, appears to be a work-in-progress, even for highly digital and developed countries. As a U.S.-based secondary school teacher recently told me, "Students' education can't stop simply because they're impacted by the pandemic, but also online education is new for many families and schools right now, so it is going to take some work to prepare for this rapidly changing situation."

As a result of this somewhat forced and rapidly changing educational climate, the use of cloud-based online-learning platforms, 5G technology, mixed reality, interactive apps, synchronous face-to-face video, and live radio and television broadcasts have quickly become the prevalent choice for educational delivery in the U.S., China, and Japan. Other countries in Asia and Europe use standard asynchronous online-learning tools, such as reading material via Google Classroom and email. These technologies have enabled ubiquitous learning experiences for learners across these regions, particularly in the growing trend of decentralized homeschooling during the pandemic.

While the U.S. and China have created and own the vast majority of the wealth in today's digital economy, the rest of the world, particularly countries impacted by sanctions and war, are trailing considerably behind. "This trajectory is likely to continue, further contributing to rising inequality," writes UN Secretary-General António Guterres in the preface to a report [1] by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). "We must work to close the digital divide, where more than half the world has limited or no access to the Internet."

ins01.gif Nanjira Sambuli, Digital Equality Advocacy Manager for the World Wide Web Foundation, briefs press on the report of the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation.

The term digital divide, which describes a gap in access to and use of ICT, came into formal usage in the early 21st century [2], but its underlying issues had been studied previously in the late 20th century. The notion of "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" put forth by Langdon Winner in 1980 [3] argues that technology can embody specific forms of power and authority in socioeconomic contexts. And Rob Kling's "social informatics" [4] (1996) looks at the socioeconomics of the technological artifacts and human social context constituted by ICT. Particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, school closures have magnified preexisting socioeconomic and political disparities within the education system, especially for the most vulnerable and marginalized, revealing inequities in access to resources and issues related to privilege, power, and control in certain regions of the world.


In this context, in a country such as Iran, affected by economic sanctions and wars, in addition to experiencing one of the world's largest outbreaks of the virus, the impact of the pandemic on its education system has been signficant. One example: A teacher from the city of Hamidiyeh, in the Ahvaz province, uses the fridge at her house instead of a whiteboard to teach math, and then sends the videos to her students [5].

Similarly, Syria, another region impacted by war and sanctions for nearly a decade, has a large segment of the population at high risk of novel coronavirus, while also facing the immense challenges of its decimated infrastructure.

The unfortunate side effects of continued sanctions and wars in countries such as Iran, Syria, and Sudan have slowed their ability to keep pace with the evolving classroom-based teaching approaches and the transition to online-based classrooms. Coupled with Covid-19, there is the potential for a negative impact on the educational landscape and a widening of the digital divide for these countries and others around the world.

Considering the wide scope of the still-expanding digital divide, future trajectories can be envisioned for transforming the learning experiences of students across the world to mitigate its impact. It is particularly important to support initiatives aimed at narrowing the gap for more vulnerable and disadvantaged countries, who are socioeconomically impacted by both the global obstacle of pandemic disease as well as extreme sanctions and war [6]. To reduce the enormous consequences of these overwhelming challenges on global education, the following goals must be accomplished:

School closures have magnified preexisting socioeconomic and political disparities within the education system.

Providing inclusive, universal access. Government as well as non-and for-profit organizations must work hand in hand to enable more students across the globe to have universal access to digital devices and the Internet for low-income households at subsidized rates. This also includes providing equal levels of service and networks to rural and underserved communities so that all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, can participate in remote learning. Inclusiveness also means ensuring that young girls are trained with the necessary digital skills, including the knowledge and skills they need to stay safe online.

Developing digital literacy. Having access to computers and the Internet is a crucial necessity for education globally, but that alone is not enough. The incredible power of digital technology for education must also be embraced by training and preserving additional and more qualified staff, alongside new technologies to promote the best application of these resources. In addition, digital literacy as a doorway to socioeconomic and political literacy should educate students for a digital future that is inclusive, sustainable, and collaborative.

Building resilience into the education. Demonstrating the ability to build internal resilience assets such as problem solving, self-efficacy, empathy, inclusion, and self-awareness in digital tools and systems has the potential to enhance student outcomes. Actively engaging with the information that students are learning will provide an opportunity for them to perform better.

back to top  References

1. Unctad. Digital Economy Report 2019: Value Creation And Capture: Implications For Developing Countries; https://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/der2019_en.pdf

2. Bates, C. Digital divide. In Global Social Issues: An Encyclopedia. C.G. Bates and J. Ciment, eds. Routledge, London, UK, 2013.

3. Winner, L. Do artifacts have politics? Daedalus 109, 1, Modern Technology: Problem or Opportunity? (Winter 1980), 121–136.

4. Kling, R. Social informatics: A new perspective on social research about information and communication technologies. Prometheus 18, 3 (2000), 245–264.

5. IFP Editorial Staff. Teachers adapting to remote teaching as COVID-19 shuts schools. IFP News. Mar. 15, 2020; https://ifpnews.com/teachers-adapting-to-remote-teaching-as-covid-19-shuts-schools

6. Giannini, S. Covid-19 school closures around the world will hit girls hardest. UNESCO. Mar. 31, 2020; https://en.unesco.org/news/covid-19-school-closures-around-world-will-hit-girls-hardest

back to top  Author

Rojin Vishkaie is a user researcher at Microsoft Corporation, focused on mixed-reality systems. [email protected]

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