Bridging the digital divide for school children in rural Sri Lanka! [Challenge Description]

Maalaa, a 14-year-old girl from a woman-headed family, lives in Kilinochchi district in Northern Sri Lanka. During the COVID-19 related school closures in the country, she and her brother began studying at home using materials their teachers shared through a Viber community. But there is no internet in Mala’s home, so they walked daily to the nearest community centre, stood there for hours and tried to catch its Wi-Fi to download their homework. Mala and her brother are not alone. Although Sri Lanka has the fastest-growing internet penetration in the South Asian region, the education response to the pandemic has revealed deep digital divides between and in countries based on gender, geography, income, and abilities.

According to a comprehensive survey of mobile use in Sri Lanka by LIRNEasia, in 2018 only 40% of households in Sri Lanka with children aged 5 to 18 had an Internet connection. More than 90% of these connections are accessed through mobile networks using a smartphone. Essentially, the primary mode of distance education for 40% of families with internet access is receiving notes or assignments over mobile apps like WhatsApp and Viber. For those families for whom the smartphone is the only device connected to the Internet, dedicating it to the use by one or more children, with or without adult supervision, is difficult. When large quantities of notes are sent, the situation becomes unmanageable. The other 60% remained unreached.

“Digital education requires one of three things – Device (phone, tablet, computer, TV), Network (intranet or internet), quality content and basic digital literacy among teachers. In an ideal situation, all three should be available. Teachers are largely unfamiliar with new technologies and need training to effectively utilize new tools. Pandemic-related school closures forced many students to rely on digital learning, but for those who had no internet or device access, education became out of reach. If it isn’t addressed, the costs of the digital divide will be high for the current generation of young people. As economies rapidly digitize with most jobs requiring digital literacy, those unable to acquire these new skills will not be able to participate in the workforce and will have fewer opportunities to succeed in life.

Gender aspects of the digital divide must not be ignored. Women and girls often have less access to technology and the internet than boys, either because they cannot afford it or because social norms consider ‘technology is for men’. While COVID-19 deepened the learning crisis and exacerbated inequalities in education, it has also acted as a catalyst for innovation and for including technology in the sector in Sri Lanka. Both central and provincial education ministries in Sri Lanka have adopted some type of remote learning policy and are seeking to digitally transform their education systems by harnessing the power of technology.

Please work out solutions to improve internet connectivity, increase access to devices, provide quality content and ensure basic digital literacy among teachers. We will support you during Digital Edu Hack Jaffna 2021 to build your dream!


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