If you’re old enough to remember a time before the internet, you’ve seen the world change a lot in the past 20 years. People can access all types of information, take classes online, and even make a living online in a variety of ways. Students can work collaboratively online while teachers can monitor their learning using a variety of tools. As I’ve reflected this past week on the rights and privileges that accompany access to technology and the internet, I’ve been struck by several things. It seems as though access to technology becomes yet another instance in which the less fortunate and those on the margins are further disadvantaged. I have stated before that teaching in a community school has opened my eyes to the needs that exist right here in our own city. Trying to help students learn becomes exceedingly difficult when they are experiencing deficits in lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy. Add to these the lack of access to the technological advantages of some other schools in the city and it is clear to see that some students in Regina will simply have greater chances of success than others.
This argument can be extended to the rest of the world as we see the same types of issues on the macro level. For example, internet users per 100 people in the developing world are between 90-99%. This includes countries in Europe, North America, and Australia. While countries in the developing world are at 9-20%. It shouldn’t surprise us that the countries with the highest access rates are also the countries with the highest quality of life and lowest unemployment rates. I do not mean to draw unnecessary correlations between internet access and quality of life but it is yet another factor to add to the already long list of disadvantages for people living in these countries. Facebook has recently become a major player in the push to increase access to the internet for those in the Third World. However, the question that is always asked of large companies seemingly interested in philanthropy is “what’s in it for you?” Big companies clearly see that in these undeveloped parts of the world, the potential for profit is huge. In this case it is much like the Europeans that first landed on the shores of Africa and South America. Just as the colonizers saw opportunity for exploitation in these “new” lands, big internet players see enormous potential if they can corral potential future users of their product or service.
This is why it is crucial that the internet remain an open and free environment that is not predicated on who pays more or has more political connections. The internet was supposed to be the great equalizer. It was supposed to help everyone have an equal opportunity to access information, make connections, and have a voice. Individuals and companies alike should have the right to access information and services at comparable speeds to anyone else. However, if big companies have monopolies in certain areas of the world, they will be the ones deciding who has access to what, for how long and at what speed. For everyone to have an equal chance at internet access and usage, internet access equality must be in place to allow individuals to access information and promote services regardless of their socio-economic status. Why is this important? Well, for one thing although it is clear that socio-economic status is a huge factor in the future prospects for students, the current popularity of open education means that opportunities are available but inaccessible to those without information technologies.
As Aleph Molinari discusses in the video found above, the internet is “a basic social necessity of the 21st century and therefore it should be considered a right not a privilege.” With 5 billion people in the world who are digitally excluded, what will be the state of the digital revolution we are experiencing in North America and Europe if only 30% of the world’s population are included. In essence this indicates that 70% of the world’s ideas, insights and innovations are completely untaped. In Molinari’s model, RIA, community centres with computers and internet access are provided to communities in need of these services. The centres are also equipped with educational software to enable both youth, seniors and everyone in between to have access to what they need to improve their lives. They are also built with sustainability in mind. Users are given opportunities to learn how to use computers and build connections and networks while learning to also become digital citizens. This is one model but there are many others.
With the influx of new immigrants and refugees to Canada and other developed nations, we need to be providing training and opportunities to people who can lend their voice to digital conversations around war, reconciliation, peacekeeping, citizenship, immigration, politics, etc. They also need to be able to access and navigate the myriad of forms, databases and information hubs necessary for survival in Canadian society. For anyone who has ever tried to navigate the CRA or Government of Canada websites to retrieve a form or file a claim, I think you understand what I mean. Now imagine that you don’t speak English or French, you’ve never used a computer before and you’re trying to register your baby for a SIN number. It’s not just newcomers to Canada that are faced with this issue. First Nations reserves across the country are also faced with this reality. Low income urban neighbourhoods are another example of citizens with little to no access to technology or the internet.
So, what’s the answer? What is the role of educators and indeed all digital citizens in building a bridge across the digital divide? There are a number of positive options you can be involved in. Volunteer at a local library to teach newcomers to use computers. Make an online connection with someone in a developing country to help them practice their English. Donate to an organization that supplies computers or digital centres to underprivileged communities. Raise money through fundraising with your students to provide technology for underprivileged communities. Above all, remember that because you are already a part of the digital world, it is incumbent upon you to fight for the inclusion of those whose voices are not heard. Do you agree that internet access is a right for all people? If so, let’s fight for it and fight to protect it.