Digital Divide in JamaicaThe nationwide pause of in-person learning on March 13, 2020, underscored the glaring digital divide in Jamaica. Generally, the digital divide refers to a gap between those who do and do not have ready access to an array of technology services including computers and smartphones. However, an additional layer to the definition points to a divide in the quality of digital services. 

Particularly, while an individual may possess technological devices, the quality of their internet access can interfere with their ability to use those devices effectively. In an increasingly digital economy, access to up-to-standard and high-speed technology has become a necessity. This can enable full and effective participation in the workplace and throughout educational institutions. 

Background

The digital divide was highlighted following the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 which caused a worldwide disruption in education, leaving 90% of children impacted. The effects of this disruption were also felt through the absence of in-person education and the subsequent switch to remote, online learning. 

As 34% of children in Jamaican households do not have access to a technological device and lack reliable internet access for educational purposes, concerns surrounding the ability to acquire the needed devices for remote learning were raised. 

This inability to access needed technology also affected attendance in the online learning landscape. Some academic institutions saw less than 60% attendance in their virtual instruction environments. In addition, less affluent households who did manage to procure a device like a tablet found difficulty splitting the device’s time between multiple children — therefore leaving the online classroom largely unattended by numerous households. 

For years, closing this digital divide in Jamaica has been a pressing concern in education among policymakers and government officials. However, with the switch to virtual instruction, there has been a redoubled effort to close the digital divide among citizens of the country. 

Pandemic Effects

Caroline Dyche, a Professor at the University of the West Indies Mona Branch (UWI), spoke to the notable shift from a physical learning environment to a virtual one in Jamaica. While a regular class schedule was maintained in her Language, Linguistics and Philosophy courses, she noted the remote experience was “more problematic than effective.”

Nevertheless, Dyche mentioned various efforts put in place to facilitate learning in the midst of the adversity. Students were able to contact their professors during their scheduled office hours — two hours per week – and outside the allotted time if needed. Moreover, communication between students and professors via email was encouraged, with a number of professors participating in WhatsApp groups with students to provide assistance with inquiries if necessary. 

Typically, students attended online classes through devices such as their cell phones with their data plans. However, Dyche noted that poor Wi-Fi connectivity among students would cause frequent disruptions throughout classes as students found themselves attempting to rejoin classes repeatedly. This issue of inconsistent internet connection illustrates the difficulties of remote learning as a consequence of the digital divide in Jamaica. 

To address problems faced by students who did not own technological devices in the midst of virtual education, students were able to borrow tablets from UWI’s library for extended use. Furthermore, Dyche adds that the library’s online services were increasingly utilized during the pandemic — including the interactive “Ask a Librarian” feature.

Addressing the Challenge 

Upon recognizing that approximately 120,000 students faced an educational setback due to unequal access to technology services, the Ministry of Education opted to host a summer catch-up program in 2021. Yet, while students did attend these summer classes, they were described as having wavering attendance alongside a short learning time. 

Similarly to UWI, the use of Google Classroom, WhatsApp and phone calls were common strategies employed by Jamaican teaching professionals to continue communication and engagement with their students. For those unable to access or afford the technology required, institutions such as Little Bay Primary started a drop-off program to physically deliver lessons and assignments to their students to be picked up by the end of the week. 

The country’s government also showed initiative in addressing the concerns of technological access raised by those through providing daily educational content with the Public Broadcasting Corporation of Jamaica (PBCJ). Andrew Holness, Prime Minister of Jamaica, announced that the PBCJ would broadcast this content using digital transmission technology and students without access to a Smart TV could use a digital set-top box to allow their current television to receive these transmissions. 

The government also further invested in high-speed fiber-optic technology in order to improve access to cable and internet connection for those with unreliable Wi-Fi networks. In the midst of the transition, ensuring every community had access to Wi-Fi was prioritized through the installation of hotspots in locations throughout the country including Port Antonio, Ocho Rios and Annotto Bay. 

Looking Forward

Although there has been a return to physical learning in Jamaica as of late 2022, the digital divide still remains an issue. The efforts to close the digital divide in Jamaica have continued in 2023 as the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) provided a grant of $350,000 to fund the installation of 17 internet sites within community centers and schools. While the gap will be difficult to completely close, the steps taken by educational institutions, organizations and government officials towards addressing the divide during and beyond the nationwide switch to remote learning shows progress. 

The work being done also furthers the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal for education to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

– Katrina Girod
Photo: Pixabay

Universal Digital InclusionThe Internet is an essential part of everyday life in the 21st century. From buying clothes to being interviewed for a job, countless traditionally face-to-face interactions have moved online, a process accelerated by the era of COVID-19 restrictions. The World Bank, a financial institution that provides transformative loans and grants to low and middle-income economies, terms this trend a “Global Digital Development revolution”. This revolution is far from complete as 2.7 billion of the world’s population live in digital darkness with no access to the Internet. Without digital connectivity, billions are excluded from possible educational, professional and social opportunities, while SMEs suffer a competitive disadvantage. As the World Bank develops its technology solutions, it retains internet access and connectivity as a priority. Here’s what the institution is doing to address the world’s digital divide and bring about universal digital inclusion:

The Digital Development Global Practice

The mission of the World Bank is to help the governments of poorer nations bring their citizens out of poverty. The World Bank’s Digital Development Global Practice was set up to provide governments with finance and knowledge to help improve citizens’ access to digital technologies, enabling them to participate in the digital economy.

In 2021, the World Bank established the Korea Digital Development Program (KoDi) to help developing economies accelerate their digital transformation. The program utilizes Korean technology and best practices to develop a technical knowledge base for the future. This knowledge base will provide nation-specific guides on how to make vital improvements to cybersecurity infrastructure and case studies on data-based economies and ‘greening’ the technology sector.

Strengthening Connectivity in Africa

The Digital Economy for Africa (DE4A) is a key World Bank initiative that supports the African Union’s Digital Transformation Strategy (2020 to 2030). The DE4A aims to achieve universal digital inclusion in Africa by 2030. As part of the initiative, the World Bank has conducted digital economy diagnostics for nearly 40 African countries to assess their present weaknesses and map possible opportunities for growth.

Experts measure digital connectivity by internet access through mobile phones. But high costs and limited broadband keep 4G or equivalent mobile internet out of reach for two-thirds of Africans. By 2030, projections show 90% of mobile subscriptions in North America will have 5G, compared with 10% in sub-Saharan Africa.

World Bank and Digital Economy for Africa

Through the DE4A, the World Bank is investing heavily in Africa’s digital connectivity. Already in Togo in West Africa, investments by the World Bank have helped internet penetration increase to 75% from 5% around a decade ago. The DE4A initiative has also pledged significant financial aid to similar regional projects that will develop digital markets across East and West Africa.

World Bank funding has also benefited Rwanda, an East African nation leading the way in digital inclusion initiatives in Africa. As well as providing 250,000 households with financing for smartphones and other devices, the World Bank has contributed to the training of 3 million Rwandans in basic digital literacy, focussing particularly on women and girls. Meanwhile, in Madagascar, where access to electricity and digital connectivity is among the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa and the world, a World Bank-funded project is pioneering models of joint digital and off-grid energy provision in rural areas.

Spreading Knowledge and Infrastructure in Latin America

The World Bank also runs a comparable digital inclusion initiative to the DE4A in Latin America. The Digital Economy for Latin America and the Caribbean (DE4LAC) initiative assists governments across the region. The most notable recent work by the DE4LAC has been the one that focuses on strengthening data infrastructure in Argentina. Last year, through this project the World Bank approved a $200 million loan to the Argentinian government to improve digital infrastructure and the uptake of digital tools and technologies. The project aims to benefit 350,000 residents, especially women, across Argentina’s most neglected rural areas.

The DE4LAC is also working across the Caribbean. An ongoing expansion initiative of the region’s 3G networks is providing high-quality internet to more than 95% of the populations of Grenada, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. This expansion of the 3G network will improve links to markets and access to key services.

In addition to direct funding, the DE4LAC also provides national diagnostics and actionable policy recommendations to help governments in Latin America achieve digital inclusion. In 2022, the World Bank provided El Salvador with a diagnostic to help the country come closer to achieving its vision for digital inclusion set out in the National Digital Agenda 2020-2030. Similar efforts are in the works for Ecuador, Colombia and Jamaica.

Looking Ahead

According to a prediction by the International Telecommunication Union, an additional $428 billion investment needs to go into high-speed broadband development over the next ten years to achieve universal digital inclusion. Ongoing work by the World Bank, particularly in Africa and Latin America, is helping to meet this challenge. By supplying finance as well as diagnostic reports and a knowledge base to the world’s poorest countries, the World Bank is helping to ensure that all will be able to participate in the ongoing “Digital Development revolution”.

Samuel Chambers
Photo: Wikimedia