Top five ways to bridge the digital divide

Singapore, October 3, 2016

Overcoming the Digital Divide

MUCH has been said about the digital divide separating the well-off from the poor, and the well-educated from the less-educated.
But what exactly is the digital divide? The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development defines it as “the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard to both their opportunities to access information and communication technologies (ICTs) and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities.”
In an increasingly connected world where having digital skills is the key to success of individuals and businesses, bridging the digital divide is becoming a top priority among developed and emerging countries alike.
Across the Asia-Pacific region, educational institutions and public sector organisations have been rolling out initiatives to address this issue – from Singapore's NeuPC Plus and S.U.R.E to Sarawak's school laptop scheme. Typically, these programmes are centred on the five most effective ways to bridge the digital divide. Here's a look at what they are:
Remove financial barriers
Financial issues are one of the biggest bugbears in digital adoption among less well-off families, but they are also easy to address through programmes that offer partial or complete subsidies for needy households.
Singapore's NeuPC Plus, for instance, is an initiative by the Infocomm Development Authority to provide needy students with equal access to IT. It offers students from low-income households, as well as disabled groups, a new computer along with three years of broadband access and software at lower cost. In 2009, China also launched a programme to offer PC subsidies for those living in rural areas.
However, many of these programmes are targeted at low-income families, and not at the lower-middle class who may not qualify for government subsidies, says Mr Chris Tng, Director, Business Development, Smart & Safe City Centre of Excellence, NCS.
“Because these programmes are about creating equal opportunity for students, one consideration will be to help schools reach critical adoptions of PCs in the 40%-50% range, so that the programmes can be sustained on a longer term.
“New funding programmes, which could be supported by corporate social responsibility initiatives or public-private partnerships, will go a long way to address the close the digital divide, especially for students from lower-middle income households,” he adds.

Enabling access
Bridging the digital divide often begins with providing access to digital tools that students and citizens from less well-off families need to take advantage of digital services. Sarawak's school laptop scheme does just that, by making laptops available to 33,000 final-year high school students in the east Malaysian state.
The students will then pass on the laptops to their juniors after completing their final examinations. In Singapore, Nan Chiau Primary School also loans tablets to pupils who cannot afford one so that they can benefit from the school's technology-enabled curriculum that aims to improve teaching and learning.
In the public sector, countries such as Singapore that have rolled out e-government services to the public are also addressing the digital divide by making e-government services available at community centres for those who don’t have a computer or Internet access.
Use technology for learning
Equipping students with technology tools such as laptops and tablets is only the first step in closing the digital divide. Just as critical are programmes to help them leverage these tools to improve the learning experience.
At Nan Chiau Primary, pupils are immersed in technology-enabled lessons, such as using tablet computers to record their observations about the growth of plants using a combination of text, photos and videos. In South Korea, students will be getting digital textbooks, complete with movies, animation and virtual reality, in subjects such as English, mathematics, science, and the arts, bringing traditional textbook content to life.
Improve digital literacy
For communities to bridge the digital divide successfully, individuals must be empowered with the skills to make sense of the digital landscape, as well as cope with a deluge of information on the Internet.
Australia's 2016 National Year of Digital Inclusion programme, for example, is aimed at improving the digital literacy of Australians. It not only offers how-to guides for those new to areas like e-commerce and photo editing but also technology classes that touch on topics ranging from social media to the emerging world of robotics.
In Singapore, the National Library Board has been running a programme called S.U.R.E to help people navigate the digital landscape, such as assessing the credibility of online information, guarding against phishing scams and fake websites, and deconstructing media messages.
Develop local content
Much of the content on the Internet is in English which not everyone is conversant in, so there’s a need to develop local multilingual content to promote Internet usage among minority groups. A good way to start would be forming Internet Steering Committees that cater to the needs of non-English speakers, such as community portals and training programmes to get entrepreneurs as well as consumers in under-served groups up to speed with the latest digital technologies.