Thursday April 18, 2024

Digital divide

By Editorial Board
April 03, 2020

In this age of technology, the idea of online learning for the hundreds of thousands of school, college and university students currently unable to attend their institutions as a consequence of the coronavirus crisis would appear to be a sensible suggestion. Why then are students in Balochistan, Fata (former) and other relatively remote locations protesting against it? The issue is one of access to the internet and in many cases the technology required to make it useful. Our state has periodically suspended internet services even in large cities on ‘sensitive occasions’. In parts of the former Fata region, there has been a prolonged suspension of the internet, with local people demanding 3G and 4G services. In Balochistan too, in the Kech district with a population of some 900,000 people, it is almost impossible to access the internet due to a government shutdown citing ‘security reasons’. The same is true for other parts of Balochistan. Some 50 students from Chitral enrolled at the University of Management and Technology in Lahore have already been protesting that they cannot keep up with work as internet signals in their home region are weak or non-existent. We also wonder just how many students have access to computers or tablets and how e-learning can succeed without these tools.

While some giant educational institutions, catering essentially to the wealthy, have been advertising their success in putting in place online learning for pupils, the fact is that there is a sharp line of dichotomy. Only schools which are attended by the elite of our society and which have the technology, as do their students, can truly offer effective e-learning. Other schools, both private and public, which are attended by the vast majority of children of all ages in the country, can offer nothing at all. Those that attend such institutions dotted across the country’s landscape simply do not have the resources or the training to offer lessons online and of course their students, some living in households where there is no roti to eat cannot be expected to sit down with sophisticated technology and focus on lessons.

As digital rights groups across the country are pointing out, there is a clear division in access to the internet and services linked with it. Not only students but also journalists, businessmen and others suffer in areas where services are suspended or not available because they are effectively cut off from the world. This is a situation that needs to be taken note of. We have no idea how long the current crisis will last. Technology had seemed to offer one means to combat it and keep classes alive for students. But it is obvious that only some can take advantage of this. Others are deprived on the basis of the place where they live, the government’s attitude towards it, their own level of income and their ability to access technology and the training necessary to use it effectively and regularly.