Closing the digital divide and powering the 4IR requires access
By Delano January.
When COVID-19 hit, we had no idea what we were in for. What followed in the coming years has been written about extensively and from a multitude of angles. My takeaway from it is slightly different and as the owner of Edge Technologies Solutions, I work in the field of ICT, which focuses on that aspect. Schools were shut, offices were closed down and people started Working From Home (WFH) and learners were expected to ‘log on to keep their education up to speed. This is where things became really challenging in Namibia and where the ‘digital divide’ with other nations will only increase if we do nothing.
Employees that work in offices, have desk jobs and largely do their work on a computer where accessibility issues when it came to technology were very minor. Internet connectivity was never going to be an issue, and most already had a modem set up at home. WFH became the norm and although productivity may have suffered a bit, the economy kept turning. The much bigger challenge became apparent when learners were told to follow classes online. Much easier said than done.
E-learning, remote learning, digital education, or home-schooling, whatever you call it sounds so simple. Place your child in front of a laptop or tablet and tell them to pay attention to the educator on-screen and follow the lesson. However, a majority of households in Namibia don’t have a laptop, tablet, or any form of computer to speak of in the house. With the necessary Internet connectivity certainly not being available. Many households face the simple challenge of not having electricity at the house. These were all challenges that needed to be overcome to ensure children could continue their education during the lockdown. It was vital that children could continue to follow classes so as not to fall behind academically.
Without access to computers and tablets, we saw that the Government together with private enterprises and NGOs found solutions to still get educational materials to the learners. This was done through educational inserts in the newspapers, and classes being posted through WhatsApp and Telegram amongst others. Namibians are nothing, if not resourceful, however, it became very apparent that this was just a stopgap solution, learners need access to computers and Internet-enabled devices for their education. My children were fortunate that they have a father whose work revolves around ICT and therefore they always had access, but many other children were not that fortunate.
This raises the serious issue of falling behind in education, but looking at the broader picture, falling behind in computer skills. Being tech-savvy and learning your way around a computer, finding information online, and even skills such as typing are essential in this day and age. The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) depends on it. Children seem to have a natural affinity to interacting with technology as anyway can attest to when they need their smartphone programmed or see children playing on a tablet. However, if they do not even get the opportunity to touch a device, how will they learn. This is a question and a challenge that is not even spoken about in Europe, America, or many Asian countries. Everyone has access to a device and Internet connectivity is almost seen as one of the utilities like water and electricity and freely available.
We need to act with real urgency and make internet-connected devices available more broadly and to every home ideally if we do not want to broaden the ‘digital divide’ any further in comparison to other countries. A truly knowledge-based society would ensure their future generation has this access and level the playing field educationally speaking. Thereby organically propelling the 4IR for Namibia as well.