Thursday, 19 March 2020

Exceptional Times: Using a Pandemic to Close the Digital Divide

Thoughts from the depths of the COVID19 pandemic: Rather than give in to the digital divide in times of crisis, why not leverage this moment and make moves to resolve it?


It has been suggested that due to the inequity of access to technology and internet, our education system should shut down during the COVID19 pandemic.  Rather than surrender to this inequity why not attempt to address it directly?  We could leverage all the digital technology we have sitting fallow in closed schools and sign it out one to one for every student in need.  If this goes on longer then connecting with educational technology charities like Computers for Schools would allow us to quickly get technology permanently into the hands of students without it.  We could approach this crisis as an opportunity to do something we should have been doing when things were in better shape, working to close the digital divide for all our students on the wrong side of it.

At the same time we could offer limited access to our public school library learning commons where students would have access to internet.  With appropriate safety precautions (limited numbers allowed, strict hygiene practices, solo seating arrangements), we could take immediate steps to bridge the lack of connectivity and allow some form of education to continue for students across Canada.  At a time of isolation, our poorest students are doubly so because they can't get online  Simply turning off the education system for months at a time will cause lasting damage for millions of students.  In the meantime, the ones who have always suffered on the wrong side of the digital divide are in even worse shape.

This is a measured and logical approach to resolving the digital divide (a lack of educational technology access to all students)  that has long plagued education.  Rather than having this pandemic make it worse, why not leverage it to make it better?

Handing out one to one technology for students in need so we can keep moving everyone forward educationally wouldn't be as expensive as you might think and the alternative is significantly more costly.  Our public schools have developed the network infrastructure necessary to provide internet, so limited access to that infrastructure could still address the needs of social distancing while providing connectivity that is vital to us battling this pandemic as a collective.  Those students aren't the only ones who would benefit, their entire families would, and so would society itself.

Companies like LOON are already building last mile
like this.  Partnering with Ontario schools
would mean internet at home for almost every student.
If this pandemic has shown anything, it's that our ICT infrastructure is more vital than ever if we're going to move against this crisis in a coordinated manner; communication is key.  There are existing technologies we could apply to extend school and municipal wireless networking out into the communities that surround them.  With fundamental networking infrastructure in place, some innovative final mile solutions (like Blimpernet - an idea that my students and I came up with last year) could make the internet available to many more Canadians just when we need it.  Google is already well down this road with their #LOONproject, which works right now and could provide emergency connectivity for almost every Canadian for up to 100 days at a time.  We could eradicate a problem that has been plaguing us as a society since the majority of us went online; getting everyone connected.

Seems like a no brainer with so few planes in the sky, no?

Wouldn't it be something if one of the lasting legacies of this pandemic was that it helped us close the digital divide and improve equity through access to technology in our schools and society in general?  That it would also allow our education systems to continue in a limited capacity instead of shutting down is a consequence that would benefit all Canadians.


I sent this to a number of MPs as well as the PM.  I only hope a measured, reasonable response is still in the cards.  If you feel the same way, forward it to your elected representatives.