The Blend Podcast EP022 – Bridging The Digital Divide

Tom Payani  00:34

I guess we should start with what the digital divide is? It’s basically the difference in access and connectivity people have to the internet and another it devices such as laptops or, or whatever. It’s something that’s obviously become more of an issue in recent years, accelerated because of COVID.

I think it’s quite an interesting topic to talk about, because it affects us quite significantly in elearning and it’s just a wider social issue as well, this is something that could be cool to talk about today.

Brendan Cox  01:16

Yeah, it touches a lot of different areas from education through to business careers. It’s something that affects everybody so it’s interesting to look at it from lots of different angles.

Tom Payani  01:28

I think the main ways we can categorize where the digital divide exists is age because older people in general have had less experience with technologies throughout their lives. Technology’s changing very quickly.

They need to relearn certain pieces of software or things like that. Age is one factor. I think geography is another factor. When I was doing my research for this podcast, geography is another one that comes up – urban areas compared to rural areas.

If you live in in the sticks in the middle of nowhere, connectivity, access to internet, things like that is harder to come by. Then I think income is another obvious one.

Brendan Cox  02:20

Yeah, being out in the sticks is one thing, but if you’re out in the sticks in a luxury area, you’re still going to get great internet access

Tom Payani  02:50

I also think it’s worth saying the access is not the same as connection, as well, because you could possibly have access to the internet, but there may not be a good connection. In effect, you’re still being hamstrung in that way, not being able to do certain tasks or connect to certain websites, social media etc. You can still be out the loop, even if you have access, but your connection’s really poor.

Brendan Cox  03:21

Yeah, so I differentiate between being connected and having high quality connection. There’s a lot of things like this with in terms of education, eLearning, and access in places like Africa, where everyone’s got a phone, everyone can get on the internet. But the price of watching a video is like a months salary because data prices are so high.

Tom Payani  03:49

Yeah, exactly. So the definition is important, isn’t it? Because in reality, they have access but that doesn’t necessarily mean the digital divide doesn’t exist there. Because just having access doesn’t stop a high cost for data.

Brendan Cox  04:07

It is like AirBnb. Just because it’s got WiFi doesn’t mean you’re gonna be able to watch Netflix, it could be really, really slow. And I think that’s something where people say, ‘well, we’ve given them access to everything’.

Tom Payani  04:27

With COVID and the pandemic, these types of things have been pushed to the forefront.I think it’s pretty accepted that the world is becoming more unequal in general and the digital divide is just a part of that.

It’s slightly worrying because if people are not digitally literate, and they don’t have the skills needed for growing industries, growing job markets (because let’s be honest, most new jobs that are being created are connected with it in some way) it is only going to exacerbate the divide itself and the current inequalities we already have.

Brendan Cox  05:12

Yeah, of course, back in the day you had you had businesses driving apprenticeships and things like that. Before the digital age, you were basically taught how to do a job and that job evolved at the speed of the industry. That was about the same speed as how the education system was updated.

Now everything’s digital, it’s like you’re trying to catch a train while you’re on a horse. The industry is now moving extremely fast but education simply can’t keep up. How does education keep up more? How can you tie in education to that industry? So it’s on the train already and being taught at the pace of which needed for it to evolve.

Tom Payani  06:10

The first thing that comes into my head is that there needs to be stronger relationships and bonds between the private sector and schools. I’m not an advocate of privatising education and I don’t think there should be a strong corporate influence on curriculum.

I just mean there should be relationships in terms of access and opportunities, within lessons to understand how these businesses work. Opportunities to see how they work learning skills that specifically apply to that business and job rather than a disconnect between what you do in school and what you do when you go to work.

Brendan Cox  06:52

Yeah,  having access to relevant companies to do your work experience to discuss and see how they work so it informs the lessons that they’re actually learning in the curriculum that they’re doing. There was one thing while we were looking into this and doing a bit of research.

I saw the thing about the Google career certificates. Google launched an IT certificate just like training in their technologies back in 2018. Then in 2020, they announced they were going to be doing career certificates.

The idea is you don’t have to go to university, you can just do a six month course and it only costs $300 and it’s owned by Google. It’s like an intense boot camp that trains you how to be a project manager, a data analyst or UX designer.

Obviously, it will expand over time then you can opt in to have your information shared with IBM and big other companies that are in this hiring stage. Companies like that are always in the hiring stage. The idea is it almost creates an employment funnel for them. But then there’s that thing of you saying it’s like they own the entire education process.

Tom Payani  08:11

It’s a tricky one. It’s not black and white. Part of me thinks that’s really cool what Google are doing making education affordable. We see it in instructional design and in the eLearning world that no one really cares about formal qualifications, it’s all about your portfolio.

What skills have you got? Can you use this software? That the reality of the industry. So, in a way, I think this is a good thing. This is clearly more practical, and it’s moving away from this sort of outdated traditional education system.

Another part of me is worried because is this monopoly, this Google monster, that basically just has total control. In the same way Amazon has started to do with their cloud services and things like that. I think I always have this worry of when a company gets too big and just dictate a whole industry. I have conflicting feelings about how involved Google are getting in education.

Brendan Cox  09:19

I always wonder about that. Would it even be possible to do like the anti-monopoly stuff and split up Google into its own components? There’s a core strategy driving a vision that Google have of basically wanting to own all information.

That includes how we train and how we learn. It’s quite interesting that it’s a massive subject that we can almost do three or four episodes on.

Tom Payani  09:48

Well, that’s a subject in itself – the control that these tech giants have. That’s sort of moving away from the digital divide, but still interesting to talk about. I remember when I was a teacher, and I realised I had to be careful when I set homework that needed the internet, because it genuinely might not be able to be completed by all students.

Especially if you’re working in a in a school in a more like working class area, coming back to these demographics, urban or rural, or high income or low income, this was genuinely a consideration to be made. A kid could turn up  a few days later and not done their homework. When I asked them why they said they don’t have internet at home.

This is something that we assume isn’t the case nowadays. But it really is, there’s still a large percentage of the population out there who just don’t have access, or who have really poor access to the internet.

Brendan Cox  10:44

That doesn’t just apply to third world countries. Huge chunks of the UK have it as well.

Tom Payani  10:53

Think about the tasks you do on a typical day then think about trying to do them without a smartphone, or without internet access. With the amount we’ve accepted smartphone applications and the internet in general into our lives imagine trying to do what we want to do on a daily basis without those things.

Brendan Cox  11:20

Well imagine having to write that many emails by hand on paper and then post them.

Tom Payani  11:25

So, the digital divide is a real thing. With more and more people having access to the internet and smartphones I think it’s something that people don’t realise is as big of an issue as it really is.

Brendan Cox  11:41

Yeah, it’s one of those things that people overlook when it doesn’t affect them directly. Until you’ve lost your phone and realise you are completely out of contact with everybody, you don’t realise how much everything revolves around that.

Tom Payani  11:55

When I was researching this as well, I was thinking to myself, okay, so what are the practical solutions for this? Is it a government’s responsibility to promise access to all its citizens? I don’t know what you think about that.

Brendan Cox  12:11

Well, the idea is we pay taxes so a government provides a structure for society. You need structure because you need to give people enough things to survive and thrive. And digital access and infrastructure plays a huge role. I mean it is the difference between being able to get a job and having money and potentially being completely unemployable and so, it becomes a basic, right?

Tom Payani  12:51

In the same way as you know, healthcare or education?

Brendan Cox  13:00

Yeah. When you think about how much of a difference it makes. The point is that you can damage or improve someone’s life with those basic things. I think that infrastructure for the internet and things like that is a fundamental right and at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid along with the other things.

Tom Payani  13:23

Yeah, it’s interesting, because we wouldn’t have said that in the past would we? That this has joined those basic rights relatively recently in our history.

Brendan Cox  13:32

Oh, yeah, totally. I mean, literally in the last two generations. It is also about what type of access you’ve got. Not everyone has access to the same internet. China has their own thing etc. Is that a right to be able to have access to everyone’s information?

Tom Payani  13:53

This is a worry because even if governments turned around and said, Okay, this is a basic right, we’re gonna provide it, now you have all these censorship issues, like you would in a place like China.

It is complex. Something I came across was how powerful internet service providers in different countries are. I was looking at the US as an example. Certain politicians have obviously mentioned this idea of internet access being a basic right etc but these big internet service providers are so powerful, they lobby politicians, to the extent where local governments are just paralysed from from setting up their own networks.

The providers don’t want to compete with public government run internet connections, because that’s going to take a chunk of their profits. In the US the movement can’t gain any momentum. It is a similar argument to the health care issue in the US.

These insurance companies are so powerful that it’s very difficult to have a public health care system out there. And it’s a similar sort of thing with internet access.

Brendan Cox  15:14

Think about how much controversial it was about Medicaid and Medicare. When you sit back from it, you go, okay, so we’re arguing about healthcare as a right. It seems nuts that anyone would not want it. But that’s how powerful they are. They can basically say we don’t want to compete with this and it won’t happen.

Tom Payani  15:40

And then there’s another thing called Digital Redlining. This is where internet service providers have been accused of providing better internet to wealthier areas in certain US cities. Deliberately maintaining that digital divide.

The concept of Redlining comes from housing in the US a long time ago, making sure they kept certain races segregated, because they wanted to maintain certain social inequalities. Because they were obviously part of the group who were in control.

Brendan Cox  16:19

Throughout history, humans divide and conquer. In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be a digital divide. But keeping people segregated or maintaining that digital divide…

Tom Payani  16:39

It is easier to control people in that way. 100%.

Brendan Cox  16:40

They’ve done it throughout history…apartheid etc.

Tom Payani  16:46

We are getting a bit Black Mirror now. So I want to talk about something a bit more positive. I think this podcast is perfect to talk about these guys: Learn Appeal, and how they are trying to narrow the digital divide.

Brendan Cox  17:09

We spoke to Learn Appeal and got really excited about what they were doing. We ended up working with them and finding more out about what they do. They are a UK charity and were set up by a board of experts in the eLearning and education sector.

What they wanted to do was see if they could create something that actually gave more people access to the kind of education and eLearning that they need. There’s a huge portion of the population globally that don’t have the infrastructure required to narrow the digital divide.

So, they looked for really smart ways to actually circumvent that restriction of getting them internet access? What they did was build a little device using a Raspberry Pi, which is an open source, electronic little box, the size of a thick Kindle.

It generates its own WiFi signal, and you can plug it into a solar panel charging station. It generates a WiFi signal in the surrounding area. Over 100 people can log on to it with any Wi Fi enabled device, and access eLearning. This elearning is built on their bespoke little platform. So they have their own operating system on.

Raspberry Pi’s open source and it’s evolving as well. They’ve found that more of existing eLearning software is actually capable of running on this thing. They’ve been able to actually get this device and they’ve taken it to Kenya and a couple of other places and set it up in the local community.

Anyone with a phone with Wi-Fi can use it and they actually provide it as part of the package. I think it costs a couple of 100 quid for the actual device. But then hundreds of people can use it. And they give them a number of devices as well like a sort of like an Android tablet. One of the budget ones does fine, and then everyone in the area can access the eLearning.  

They focus on subjects that specifically bridge the digital divide. The learning on it then starts bridging the divide for their ability to earn money by actually helping them set up businesses, how to be an entrepreneur, how to hire In the local environment, how to do things like beekeeping etc.

There’s like crazy stories that are amazing where they’ve had beekeeping training. They found that in the local villages they were having an elephant problem because the elephants were basically destroying things to get water from their area and the only way to stop an elephant is to shoot it, and no one wants to do that.

They found that the elephants stay away from bees so they set up a beekeeping little business and the elephants stopped coming into the village. The bonus was they got to set up this little beekeeping business where they make money they make from the wax, the honey and flip around the situation, not just from an environmental perspective, but also from a financial perspective for the village.

When you when you get past that first hurdle, that barrier to entry of good quality internet, you can really make a big difference. It is one way in which people with innovation can start doing tangible things that change the world of education and eLearning.

I’ve always been a fan of Nintendo. And there was a thing you’ll see in a lot of our pieces where we’ve got a lot of gamification and storytelling things that were always very popular with Nintendo. A designer for Nintendo had a principle called lateral thinking with technology. The idea was that while all the other computer game companies were building expensive, new cutting-edge technology, and not really focusing on what was important – which was the games and the storytelling; Nintendo used old technology, but in a clever way.

They removed the colours from the Gameboy, and they used something that had been around for a while, and they stripped it back. So, it was super-fast, and then put really good quality games that were really fun to play on it. And that’s why it was so popular compared to competitors who were still trying to perfect the technology.

Whereas the Gameboy was already finished technology but used in a lateral way. And so that’s the same with this kind of Learn Appeal thing. It’s like Raspberry Pi has been around for ages. And by combining it with the Wi-Fi aspect, and then combining it with existing elearning, you’ve suddenly fixed a problem.

Tom Payani  22:55

Yeah, we see this a lot in the industry in general. You don’t have to take VR to Kenya. We see a lot when people creating new pieces of eLearning and training where it’s about just using new technology but to the detriment of the quality of the content itself. 

I think it’s important to understand that we’ve got lots of technologies out there that already exist, but the key is to use whatever is most relevant for the context. If we maintain that attitude with the digital divide, I think there’s going to be more effective progress there.

Brendan Cox  23:36

Definitely. Let’s not get shiny syndrome, where you just want to play with the new thing. For example, everyone gets obsessed with apps when there’s plenty of good ways to make eLearning with technology that already exists. It is letting the message dictate the medium you presenting.

Tom Payani  23:57

We’ve said that quote multiple times, throughout podcasts, and it keeps coming up, because it’s because it’s true.

Brendan Cox  24:04

We keep coming back to is when we do in our projects. When we work with clients and ask then why they want to do something and what it is specifically, to not just say the type of eLearning, or to use VR etc. but to dig into what it is they’re trying to achieve.

If you think laterally about it, there is quite often a simpler solution that doesn’t require all the bells and whistles. It just requires a bit more in depth analysis at the beginning, and a bit of better planning, then just some good quality design and development. You can then get a much tighter, cleaner and more efficient end solution.

Tom Payani  24:43

Yeah, I think there’s a lot to talk about with the digital divide, and we’ve just sort of run through it pretty quickly. I think it’s a decent starting point. I reckon it’s something we could come back to in the future to talk about.

Brendan Cox  24:55

I mean, I know from my side of it, with my background in design there’s a lot of the aspect of upskilling. When you become a designer, you learn design at school, but you are a lifelong learner. There’s the strategy that you apply to that is important. It’s something that education needs to absorb. To learn the principles of doing something. If you just keep learning technologies, you always have to start from scratch.

Tom Payani  25:21

Something that I think is an interesting side conversation from this is the idea of wanting the digital divide to not exist because we want equal opportunities for people. Are we too connected? Finding that balance between wanting people to be connected so they can go for jobs in the same way everyone else can.

Getting the training they require having just as much opportunity and they can do day to day tasks they need to do to and be part of society. But then for me, it’s almost like if you go too far that way – Are we too connected? Is that something we should be worried about?

Brendan Cox  26:12

Yeah. Nice. Interesting. I think we can definitely dip in and out of some of these things.

Tom Payani  26:19

Okay, nice one.

Brendan Cox  26:20

Catch you soon.

Intro/Outro  26:23

Thanks for listening to the blend podcast. It’s available on Spotify, Google and Apple. You can find b

Blend interactive content on LinkedIn, or Don’t forget to like and subscribe. See you next time.