Towards eradicating Digital Poverty | Daily News

Towards eradicating Digital Poverty

Laptops on concessionary terms to students
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa presenting the laptop documents to a university student.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa presenting the laptop documents to a university student.

It is a universally accepted fact that use of information technological tools for education would vastly improve students’ capacity to gather knowledge.Although current levels of access to laptops, computers and Internet connections among schoolchildren are very high in affluent countries, access is not evenly distributed across countries or across the population within countries. Less than one fifth of schoolchildren in Sri Lanka have access to a computer at home that they can use for schoolwork.

According to computer literacy statistics for 2019 issued by the Department of Census and Statistics, in Sri Lanka at least one computer is available in 22 percent of households in the country. That is about one out of every five households owns either a desktop or a laptop computer. This percentage is 38 percent in the urban sector, but in rural and estate sectors it is 19.7 percent and 4.6 percent respectively. There is a vast gap between the developed and underdeveloped regions. When the provinces are considered the highest availability is in the Western Province (34.3 percent) while the lowest availability is reported from the Uva (11.8 percent).

Digital Divide

The disparities in access to home computers and the Internet are known as the Digital Divide. A substantial amount of money is spent on technology by the Government and families in developing countries with the hope of improving educational outcomes of the young generation. Despite that, the developing countries are faced with ‘Digital Poverty’ which is a common problem due to heavy expenses required to fortify the young population with IT capacity. Although it exists all over the world, in advanced countries it is at a manageable level. When in the United Kingdom it was decided to close schools and commence online education, it was found out that 24 percent of the students did not have computers or laptops at their homes. Matt Morden, Co-Head Teacher of Surrey Square primary school, in south London told the media that in his school, 24 percent of pupils are effectively offline, in terms of being able to study from home. “Their families might have mobile phones with internet connections, but for those in low-paid, insecure jobs, data is expensive. If families are struggling, the priority is going to be food, not data,” he said. Furthermore, in addition to missing out on learning, those students without online connections miss the sense of belonging from staying in touch with their friends and teachers when they do not attend school, Morden says. “The lockdown and the closure of schools has brought the digital divide to the forefront,” he added.

This revelation clearly shows the gravity of the issue for a developing nation, when affluent countries are also faced with a similar issue, though at a lower magnitude. Earlier this week, Sri Lanka took a significant forward step to assist the new batch of university students to obtain much-needed laptops in order to be equipped with knowledge on par with their compatriots in the affluent world.

The programme to provide laptops on a concessionary payment scheme to the students who are qualified to enter universities commenced under the patronage of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The programme has been formulated by the University Grants Commission in collaboration with People’s Bank, to digitalize the entire education system to meet current needs as envisioned in the national policy framework of ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’.

“The 21st Century is known as the knowledge-centric century. In order to remain competitive globally, it is imperative that technology be integrated with every sector of the economy, be it agriculture, industry or the service sector. It is imperative that we invest strategically in new technologies and integrate such innovations with our education system, and economy. In order to enhance the quality of life of our people, we must launch a massive social transformation and create a Culture of Technological Innovation.” – Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour.

Government Policy

The newly-introduced loan scheme gives students the opportunity to buy a laptop, which will be equipped with an Internet connection, software package and a four-year warranty period. A laptop is valued at Rs. 80,000. During their university education, the students are required to pay Rs. 500 monthly. This is an affordable amount as most university students get a Government grant under the Mahapola Scholarship Scheme introduced by the late minister Lalith Athulathmudali. The loan scheme gives students the opportunity to settle the payment within six years following their employment. People’s Bank has allocated Rs. 3 billion for this project.

President Rajapaksa symbolically handed over relevant documents to six new students who will be enrolled to Universities for the academic year 2021 at the Presidential Secretariat on Tuesday (9).

This marked a significant milestone in the march towards the Information Age which is also known as Computer Age associated with the Digital Revolution, just as the Industrial Revolution marked the birth of the Industrial Age. The Digital and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) revolutions are twin revolutions. Rapid developments in ICT have greatly contributed in enhancing human living standards worldwide.

When the impacts of technology on educational outcomes are discussed, it is necessary to study two primary contexts in which technology may be used for educational purposes. Those are classroom use in schools, and home use by students. Theoretically, computer use by schools and the use of computers at home have ambiguous implications for educational achievements as expenditures devoted to technology necessarily offset inputs that may be more or less efficient, and time allocated to using technology may displace traditional classroom instruction and educational activities at home.

Families also spend a substantial amount of money on computers, software, and Internet connections each year. In the United States, for example, 86 percent of schoolchildren have access to a computer at home, while in some developing countries it is below 10 percent. These disparities in access to home computers and the Internet has created a yawning gap known as the Digital Divide. A better understanding of how computer technology affects educational outcomes is critical because it sheds light on whether such technology is an important input in the educational production process and whether disparities in access will translate into educational inequality. The new scheme will ensure all students, irrespective of their place of origin, will get a laptop and access to online education.

It is a fact that a substantial number of university students come from rural areas and now they will have equal educational opportunities. In the developed world, most of the key economically effective environments are increasingly ICT dominant. Timely and accurate information on use of ICT itself is essential for justification and proper direction of the Government efforts, private sector investments, to study the changing pattern of the demand for Internet services and for continuous progress monitoring on ICT achievements. For this computer literacy data can contribute immensely to an understanding of the demand and supply of skills in the global, knowledge based economy. Also statistics on the availability of a computer or laptop in households and usage of Internet and email can be used to assess the digital divide.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fulfilled the new scheme as promised in his election manifesto to “convert all universities to Smart Learning Universities” and to provide “necessary technical support to students.” As he said, now the expectation from the universities is to “produce technocrats to meet the demands of the 21st Century.”