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The digital divide: a tale of two schools

As a volunteer teacher of migrants on the border of Thailand and Myanmar, Vicky Colomba* had daily contact with the digital divide. She describes her experience below.

Mobile learning is creating a buzz nowadays. But rather than give long and complicated explanations about how it can help reach Education for All goals, I’d prefer to simply describe my encounter with the digital divide as a volunteer teacher of migrants on the border of Thailand and Myanmar. This experience convinced me that mobile learning is a great but relatively unexplored solution to reduce the digital divide and reach the unreached. 

There was a striking contrast between the two schools I worked in. Let’s call them School A and School B. 

School A was an isolated boarding school where I lived with the students. There were not enough funds to provide three meals a day. There were not enough beds, not enough teachers and not enough classrooms. On the worst days, there was not enough water. However, the school was full of students literally starving to learn. They were fully aware of the potential of education: it could give them access to a better life than the one they had due to the difficult situation in their country.

Most of the students had mobile phones which they used to communicate with their family. They cherished their mobiles and knew perfectly how to use them.

The students in school A were very motivated and creative. They found solutions to everything, from finding extra food to creating home-made hair gel (you might not want to know about this one).  The teachers, like their students, were migrants waiting to go to another country. They had barely been trained and were not receiving any teacher support. There was hardly any pedagogical material and internet access was entirely lacking. 

Lack of connectivity was not a financial but a technical problem. An ancient computer laboratory suffered from flooding and represented a hazard as one could get electric shocks from the computers. In any case no time was allocated in the curriculum for computer use. The headmistress preferred to keep the laboratory closed, saying that the kids would only play computer games.

School B, on the other hand, was well equipped and connected. A small group of kids had been selected by an Australian NGO to follow a programme carefully studied to respond to their learning needs. ICTs had therefore been integrated in the curriculum and a computer laboratory set up for this purpose. The kids were making tremendous progress learning ICTs as a subject but also using them to get information for other classes. Although their situation would not have been satisfactory in the context of a developed country, it was still far better than in School A. 

Students in both schools had begun their education in refugee camps.  Volunteer teachers helped to teach overcrowded classes there. There was no internet, no computers, no printers and no textbooks in most of the refugee camps - but there were lots of mobile phones.

Along with direct experience of the digital divide, my experience showed me that the ubiquity of mobile phones constitutes an enormous but unexploited potential to bring learning to a huge number of people, including marginalized groups such as migrants or refugees. Indeed, some basic content, applications and even simple learning programmes based on text messaging could be developed and reach students through a technology that they already possess. These communities make the most of what they already have, so why don’t we help them? Why don’t we put the unreached and their mobile phones at the centre of the debate?

Instead of debating on the pros and cons of using mobile phones in education we should now be focusing on how to use them. Meanwhile, opportunities are being lost for achieving Education for All.

The author's name has been changed to a pseudenom to protect her identity.