Overcoming the digital divide: limited technology contexts

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‘Hole in the wall’ kiosks in New Delhi, India

I have been wanting to post something about this subject since the start of this unit as it was always a question I had at the back of my mind. That question is how do we deal with learning contexts where technology is limited?

I’ll admit that my first thoughts were of developing countries or rural areas, where access to devices and the Internet is usually limited. I thought of my trip to South India, where I stayed in a village, and it had never occurred to me until I got there that Internet access wouldn’t be available. This idea of limited access in certain parts of the world is not just an assumption on my part, but something that the World Economic Forum has also flagged up in its annual Networked Readiness Index reports (World Economic Forum, 2016). These reports measure how able the nations on the list are to make use of technology. The latter half of this list is dominated by a number of developing countries, mostly in Africa.

The idea of “limited” has many more meanings though. Egbert & Yang (2004) suggest the following:

  • Technology access limited to one room or area in the school or institution (e.g. a computer lab)
  • Limited or no Internet access
  • No software or outdated software
  • Teachers forced to use particular software
  • Not enough computers for the number of students

I’m sure, if you think back, you probably experienced one if not all of these situations. Maybe now as a teacher you’re fighting with these issues. No matter where you go, there will be places where the classes are huge, the Internet doesn’t always behave, or you have only one or two hours a week to get the students working in a lab.

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Do you remember having to wheel the school TV in?

As the Internet continues to play a bigger role in all aspects of our lives, it’s not surprising to find academics of EFL have already explored the issues apparent in contexts where technology is limited or unavailable. Reading the aforementioned Egbert & Yang (2004) paper, my impression is that the advice is to make the best of a bad situation. After all, what else is there to do? It’s not like the Internet always existed, and people still learnt languages well before the trappings of modern life.

Egbert & Yang (2004) highlight the importance of making technologically-based tasks social – no matter how low-level technology you’re working with. In other words, we should subscribe to communicative language teaching. In a hypothetical situation proposed in the paper, with students having to share a computer between them, we see the students encouraged to take turns and work together to write a story, transforming a drill exercise into a communicative and collaborative task. In some ways, this adaptation outsmarts more technologically advanced resources where learner isolation is a very real threat.

Working with what you’ve got is one thing, but it would be unwise to suggest that the world will keep going on hunky-dory without us opening up access where its needed. You may be curious about the image I used at the start of this post. This is a so-called “hole in the wall” kiosk, an initiative kickstarted by Dr. Sugata Mitra, an academic now based at Newcastle University. He and his team installed computers in slums in New Delhi, India to observe if the children could teach themselves how to use the technology. The aim was also to open up access to those without it. Though some have their reservations about the successes of this programme (Warschauer, 2002), over the years there have been some remarkable outcomes from this experiment and those related to it. By and large, it seems that the children accessing these computers have the ability to direct their own learning and greatly benefit from working together. Here we’ve come back to the concept of communication in language. It’s truly at the heart of language learning, no matter how you approach it!

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Photo by trucolorsfly on Flickr

Of course, technology isn’t everything and we can all agree that whether you have technology in abundance or not, you and your students should not force technology where it is not needed. What will always overshadow our teaching, however, is how much the Internet and technology dominates outside the classroom and how integral it is for learners to have some digital literacy.

I’d like to end this post by challenging you all. Imagine you are teaching in a technologically-limited context. You have a limited number of computers and the computers don’t have Internet access. Your students seem a little demotivated with their studies, so you decide to initiate a WebQuest-like activity and you want to make use of the computers somehow to keep the students interested. How might you approach this? I’m really interested to see what ideas you can come up with!


As an extra, you might be interested in viewing this trailer for an upcoming film by Network Affect, which is following India’s initiative to get one billion unconnected people online.


References

World Economic Forum. (n.d.) Networked Readiness Index. Retrieved March 18th, 2017, from http://reports.weforum.org/global-information-technology-report-2016/networked-readiness-index/.

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2 thoughts on “Overcoming the digital divide: limited technology contexts

  1. Wow, I love the blog, both for content and it’s also very aesthetically pleasing on the eye 😊 I was also inspired to write a comment because you posed a question so I was challenged! I think a web-quest is obviously something that refers to a search online as it’s name reveals. ‘An inquiry based lesson format in which most or all the information that learners work with comes from the web’ (Wikipedia.org) However, a similar type of learning experience could be achieved with PowerPoint or word documents containing tasks. I’ve been creating a webquest and it’s great that students can access the Internet to achieve the objectives and aims of the tasks but printing out documents on the topic and providing materials and videos would be the best way to do it without internet access. There is also Notepad where students could record information offline. Keeping all completed activities on a memory stick or similar. Printing their blogs onto paper to put on the wall for others to read. It would be like going back to the old days but fairly still IT focussed.

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  2. Well, I know a few places like the ones you mentioned… I would like to add teachers in such areas are teaching English Language without knowing even what CLT is, so using Tech to teach language in such areas seems a remote possibility.

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