Invisible barriers to education

Il·lustració. © Laura Watcher

The digital divide extends beyond access to technologies and basic knowledge of how they work. The most invisible divide concerns uses. Education in digitisation must support people to enable them to harness all its benefits in every realm (professional, social and personal) and, at the same time, to use the resources critically to avert the risks they carry.

The most important things in life are often not readily apparent: love, democracy, admiration, commitment and freedom. Only a more deliberate and sharper look can overcome the temptation of giving into a superficial interpretation focused on the obvious and the tangible that we can touch, buy and sell.

For this reason, when we talk about digitisation, it is often difficult for us to go beyond computers, mobile phones or internet access. This situation calls for improvement and inspires these lines, humble yet brimming with conviction and hope.

We are aware[1] that there are (at least) three digital divides. The first is the so-called “access divide”, which we already envisaged to be the most glaring gap. This divide covers basic inequalities as regards access to hardware, software and internet connection. Of the three gaps, it is the easiest one to resolve by a landslide, because it “just” requires financial resources, the coordination of distribution logistics and a certain political will. Furthermore, it is the most valued gap to bridge, because the returns for decision makers and recipients are tangible in the short term and the results are easy to understand for one and all. Who does not like to give or receive a gift? Without playing down the importance of these kinds of actions, which are essential, but under no circumstances do they prove sufficient to fully close the digital divide, we will continue divulging an opinion here that seeks to enhance the visions of the challenge. Let’s keep going.

The second gap concerns “uses”, and refers to having the requisite knowledge and skills to be able to work, have fun and take part using the available technologies. To facilitate this end, training or self-training processes are needed, or support with reference points, not only focused on mastering how each resource works, but also on providing criteria for use that is meaningful, healthy, responsible, ethical, critical and safe.[2] In this case, bridging the gap is no longer that easy. It must be recognised that an increasing amount of training has been offered in recent years, much of it free of charge, to conquer this divide, but much remains to be done.

The arrival of the Next Generation economic recovery package has to serve this purpose. Nevertheless, we must be mindful of certain risks in terms of its development. On the one hand, excessive bureaucracy to access the funds can consume the desired impact and the energy of those who need to carry out the projects. On the other hand, falling back on the certifying furore of courses that do not meet a specific purpose or change will not resolve entrenched inertias of inequality, just as prescribing homogeneous, decontextualised solutions that do not take advantage of the existing civil undergrowth do not work. It would also be a shame if haste and short-termism kept us away from tractor projects that speed up advanced educational opportunities, learning from the best and taking risks, as well as giving impetus to debates, mapping out futures and co-creating solutions in a more open and participatory way. These very understandable temptations must be resisted to avoid making mistakes that are familiar but are not widely acknowledged.

An unprecedented digital acceleration will take place in the socio-educational realm in the years to come. Virtually everyone will have access to devices, connectivity and basic digital training. According to Idescat [the Statistical Institute of Catalonia], 97% of households in Catalonia now have stable internet access. This figure is well above places such as New York, where in 2019 almost 15% of households still did not have internet. But we must not let our guard down, nor settle for the cold hard figures. Digitisation is likely to be piecemeal and mechanisms will have to be set in motion to ensure that no one is left out for economic reasons.

The use divide

With growing household connectivity and guaranteed access to basic training, where does the great digital divide end up? So we come to the third, the invisible divide, the master of all divides, which will call for a huge injection of resources, talent and cooperation.

We are up against the “use” divide, which is what determines the benefits we can reap from the use of digital tools. In other words, it is the engine of opportunities that everyone is capable of accelerating with their digital assets. Or seen another way: the extent to which digitisation becomes an educational, social and cultural elevator. This is where we must resolutely set down to work together.

Picture two secondary school students for a moment. Both have a computer in the classroom and a digitally literate teacher they can refer to. They have their own mobile phone as well as internet connection at school, in the library and at home. The first student incorporates digital resources into exciting educational projects, where she connects with other people and bodies, develops her creativity, critical thinking and other skills in her own projects. At the same time, is very clear that all these tools carry risks that need to be measured. In the evening, her family has enrolled her in an after-school activity in which she learns how to programme and she performs scientific experiments with students from other schools. At home, her father helps her with her homework, and she shares a love of digital photography with her mother. Somehow she knows that her present and her future hinge on being familiar with and mastering technology, although she is still not sure about what she wants to do when she grows up.

The second student is digitally literate and carries out the assigned tasks through the channels established by the school. She likes technology, but it triggers a certain feeling of insecurity and anxiety when tackling her homework. Not very mindful of the risks and opportunities generated by technologies, she has a haphazard relationship with them, much more focused on leisure and entertainment. At home, neither her father nor her mother seem capable of helping or providing guidance when it comes to doing her homework or using digital devices. On the contrary, the burden of helping them with online procedures falls on her. In the evening, she does not come across recreational spaces in the vicinity where she can connect with different people with whom she can learn new things. In the future, she does not see herself working on anything related to technology.

Beyond the caricature, these examples are a call to change our perspective to discern the invisible digital divide: the one that is determining the futures of our children, adolescents and young people, and that, unfortunately, adds to other focal points of inequality based on gender, cultural origin or socioeconomic background.

We have precedents, such as the “One Laptop Per Child”[3] project at the MIT Media Lab or the “1x1” project in Spain, which confirm that theories of change based on technological instrumentalism are generally not effective. Having a computer available is only one of the first steps, but the contextual decisive factors and existing inequalities in communities usually have greater significance. Additional mechanisms and resources of a socio-educational nature are needed for technology to fall on fertile ground. We are talking about generating high expectations, providing bespoke support, involving families, recoding individual digital identities, generating collective trust and other essential strategies to bring us closer to the social transformation we aspire to achieve. Digitisation calls for instruction. And this can only be carried out by people, not machines.

We are at a turning point, and we must take advantage of all the technologies we have within reach to redress inequalities, not widen them!

Between utopia and dystopia

In an increasingly polarised society, we are constantly asked to adopt a monolithic stance when presented with dichotomous options: the mountains or the beach? Barça or Madrid? Nutella or supermarket own-brand chocolate spread? Black or white? To adopt a position for or against any challenge or topic. As for the digital transformation in the realm of education, I suggest we make the effort, which is by no means easy or instantaneous, to work in grey and nuanced areas, even going as far as to envision a richer and more diverse colour palette.

A picture is drawn for us where the most optimistic people, early adopters and those motivated by new technologies see an unprecedented revolution in teaching and learning methods in digital tools. They see new possibilities when it comes to improving students’ skills and motivation. And they marvel at all the new developments that emerge every day, often too uncritically and superficially. At the other end of the spectrum are pessimists and sceptics, who anticipate the dangers and drawbacks of technologies that they often do not master and that they do not consider incorporating, since they go against their principles or ways of doing things. The former experience the utopia of a revolutionary digital change that will transform society for the better and the latter foresee an apocalyptic dystopia in which machines will control us and steal our jobs.

Again, beyond the extreme painting of profiles, I wish to advocate for and promote a standpoint, a movement, which calls for both perspectives and sensitivities. Both wrong and both right. Only from the balanced position of sceptical optimism, which overcomes the dichotomy to place ourselves in learning and experimentation scenarios, are we capable of mapping out more ambitious and attainable futures.

We can start by rolling out a new generation of public policies for digital equity that give precedence to people over machines: making people understand that capacity building is a transformative tool, countering shameful biases, raising the expectations of those depleted of energy, fostering autonomy and not technological dependence, and allowing us to acquire the skills to be agents of creation, not just consumption.

But we cannot sit back and wait for all this to happen. Let’s take the plunge. Each and every one of us in our community and surroundings. There is room and challenges for everyone. For teachers committed to their work who want to offer the best possible education. For anxious families in pursuit of the best opportunities for their children. For entrepreneurs who seek new horizons and take risks on our behalf. For the government, which serves a more demanding citizenry, but also in need of support. And, above all, for a student body that must lead by steering the right course for changes that often exceed our capacity to assimilate. In this digital palette of various colours we are all essential. We will only conquer the invisible digital divide by working together.

[1] Fundació Ferrer i Guàrdia. Bretxes digitals: noves expressions de les desigualtats [Digital Divides: New Expressions of Inequalities] (2020).

[2] Fundación Jaume Bofill. Educació híbrida. Com impulsar la transformació digital de l’escola [Hybrid Education. How to Give Impetus to Schools’ Digital Transformation] (2021).

[3] Shah, N. A Blurry Vision: Reconsidering the Failure of the One Laptop Per Child Initiative. Boston University Arts & Science Writing Program 150, Paper 3.

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