These days of lockdown have highlighted the prominence of a technology that was being transparent to the majority of the population that uses it daily. However this prominence has shown that for other people this technology is not only not transparent (it takes an additional effort to interact with it), but in some cases it is non-existent, and it is impossible for them to use it because they do not have access to it.
The cry of alarm came from the school. The fact of closing, for the first time since I can remember all compulsory and non-compulsory education institutions for such a long period of time generated great concern. First, by having children at home when parents have to telework or, worse, they must continue going to work because either their work does not allow them to telework, or they are part of the professions that have been considered essential during this lockdown period. Second, because it opened up a great unknown about how children and young people could study from home in a society where the culture of digital education is still far from being consolidated.
However, the main problem has been that, once the situation was assumed, in not a negligible number of households in many countries, there were not enough devices for people who had to use them at home or, simply, did not have access to the Internet. Different media have said that, for this reason, the Internet, or online education, widened the so-called digital divide. In Catalonia, my country, just to give an example, 16% of the population has problems accessing the internet because they do not have optical fibre. This average could probably be higher in other countries.
It has been curious to observe how, given this lack, the first reaction of some administrations was to deny the possibility of making educational support available online to the majority of the students in the system. It was argued that some people would have difficulties in receiving this support, for the reasons discussed. It is obvious that one cannot be more on favour to arbitrate inclusive solutions that allow everyone, without exception, to have an adequate system that makes it possible to alleviate the absence of physical schooling for a period of time due to force majeure. That said, what was not acceptable is that the solution was to do nothing. Fortunately and how could it be otherwise, the initial decision was changed. And that intermission, between the initial inaction and the emergency solution finally put into practice, has shown that access to the Internet is a fundamental tool for the present and the future of educational systems.
It is true, too, that only with Internet access will not solve other problems that are associated with the insufficient capacity of the educational system to respond consistently in emergency situations such as the one we are experiencing. But it has to be a very important first step. We could compare it with past times, when faced with the need to shorten another gap, that of literacy, the creation of public libraries was promoted, in order to facilitate the population’s access to books and reading. Accessing books did not automatically literate people, but it was a necessary and essential first step. The Internet, now, is the master key for access to information, so that later, once mediated by educational agents, it can become education and training.
And it is also true, it is important to say, that education systems have unresolved problems that cannot be blamed on technology. This would be too easy and quite demagogic and technophobic.
There will be other actions that will have to be carried out in the immediate future if we do not want this situation, if it is repeated, to overcome us again in the future. And the forecasts, even though we want them not to be fulfilled, indicate that there is a good chance that it will be repeated. Some authors point out that what we call digital divide are actually three divides. The access (also called “economic”) divide is the first and perhaps the most visible, the one that everyone has in mind when speaking, and which supposes a very unequal access to devices in homes, especially in times of confinement, when several people in the same home need to access the internet. The second is the so-called usability divide, which determines the usual frequency with which the Internet is used at home, and for what purposes it is used. Those who are more used to using it for learning purposes will be better positioned to take advantage of it right now. Finally, the third is the divide that is usually called “empowerment” divide, but which I prefer to institutional. It is the one that refers to teaching staff capacities, or abilities, to use digital tools for teaching and learning; to the availability of digital resources and platforms; and to the easy access to digital professional development, which the centres and the Administration have to make available to educational professionals for this purpose.
As we can see, these last two divides have a lot to do with the achievement of digital competence (for students and for all citizens), and of teaching digital competence (for teachers, which includes instrumental and also methodological competence). In these two we will have to focus much more intensively than has been done so far. But to be able to do it with guarantees of success, it is necessary for the Administrations to solve, first, the first divide. As Professor Albert Carreras has said recently, referring to citizens in general and the elderly in particular, it is necessary to develop “massive digital literacy measures”, both for students and for their families.
But we would be blind if we only navel-gazing about the school. We have to realize the importance of having the access to the Internet for the economic activity: not only to study, to get informed or for entertaining; but to trade, do business, and also access to services, both institutional and commercial. These days, many people have used Internet access to avoid leaving home to go shopping and to receive different types of support that were necessary for them. In this way, they have been able to contribute to limiting the spread of infections, acquiring the necessary products through electronic transactions.
The effect it has had in the educational field has also been felt, in a certain way, in the economic and productive sector. Some businesses have already seen the wolf’s ears, and have started developing solutions that are based on e-commerce, or have created new products that can be accessed from home. In this sense, the pandemic will probably accelerate the transformation of many businesses, forced by the need for survival in a different context than they had anticipated. Hence the importance of promoting the acquisition of digital competence for all the citizens we referred to earlier, and of beginning to promote and support all those who want to transform their companies to face what is being called the “new normal”. Some local governments, by the hand of certain foundations, are planning intensive optical fibre installations in their municipalities, to give access to all their neighbours and facilitate, for example, teleworking, which until now was difficult for them due to the lack of connectivity they suffered .
Internet traffic has dramatically grown as a result of lockdown. This is a fact. In the long run, the increase in traffic will, yes or yes, benefit telecom companies. So what will be their performance in this regard? Where is their solidarity right now? I am not in favour of the excessive regulation of everything, which only allows doing them by obligation; but in extreme cases like this, it is when those who squeeze others without any responsibility or corporate ethics are exposed. And it is, in these cases, when government actions are fully justifiable.
Now is the time to bet on declaring Internet access a universal right, and it is the national governments, with the support of supranational organizations that are responsible for making it effective. This would put us on a better situation if this kind of emergence, or a similar one, comes back. It is a good reason, but there is another one even more important. Internet is currently the instrument that allows expanding people’s access to information, education and culture, essential elements of the growth of human beings and societies.
N.E.: This post is the English translation for the one originally written in Portuguese and published in https://eagoraead.wixsite.com/ensinaradistancia/post/acesso-%C3%A0-internet-um-direito-universal, on May 30th., 2020.