Online, Offline and COVID-19: The Digital Divide

Online Education

A common enough narrative from Uganda and other countries will revolve around a friend I will call Akoth. Education has been one of the most important things for her and every member of her family has repeated over and over again that it is the only way to get out of poverty. Akoth has put in a lot of commitment in school but has had to balance school work and the never ending house chores.

However, with the COVID-19, this has been overwhelming – she has had to adjust to homestead chores – cleaning, cooking for an extended family, washing clothes, fetching water, etc. But the most challenging fact in this pandemic is that now she is unable to access the Internet for her online learning. At the end of the day, Akoth’s intelligence and commitment to education will be measured alongside those who have access to the Internet – those who have continued to access online resources during the lockdown. Her story is the reality of many girls in rural Uganda. In some policy discussion groups, the question “What can we do?” is followed by another question… now or after the pandemic?

When the Ministry of Education and Sports in Uganda suspended online exams during the lockdown for universities, the arguments were justified. Some of the students would not be able to sit their exams because they were in places with poor or no connectivity and the nearest Internet cafés were closed due to government restrictions on movement during the lockdown. The Ministry developed a framework to guide continuity of learning.

Students who cannot access the Internet, televisions and radios have to wait for self-study print materials to be delivered through Sub-county Chiefs, Parish Chiefs and Local Council (LC) Leaders. Some reports from the field show that many students have not yet received their class material. Basically, wealthier families ensure that their children are continuing to learn, while the others have to just be hopeful that study material will eventually reach them.

Luxury and Inequality

An article by Aspinall (2020) talks about social distancing and working from home as something that only privileged people can enjoy. The reality is, COVID-19 has exposed the inequalities that have always existed in our societies. In some communities, the Internet is a luxury, houses are a luxury and working from home is definitely a luxury. There have been many social media updates from students who have continued to attend classes, defended their theses, and even graduated online. Education has also become (or has always been) a luxury!

Even through frustrations like “I can’t hear you”, “please say that again”, “I think you are disconnected”, I am thankful to be able to keep in touch with my family.

Working from home

Time check: 11:15pm (1:15am in Kampala)
Mugi: SK, still awake?
Me: Yes, it’s just one of those nights. I can’t sleep. Why are you awake?
Mugi: I got some ‘kyeyo’ (Kampala slang for side hustle) so I’m taking advantage of ‘night bundles’. Data comes in bulk during the night. So I get to utilise the chance.

If you work freelance in Kampala, you have probably purchased these night bundles that offer more data at night (midnight to 6:00am) at much lower costs. Mugi, as we commonly call him, is a software developer who has opted to work through the night because it helps him spend less on data costs and he is able to accomplish much more than if he worked during the day.

I had another conversation with a friend who works at the airport; he called me “lucky” because I continued working during the lockdown and he constantly told me how he wished he would be able to work. He explained how his job requires him to be physically present; the lockdown meant that only cargo and United Nations flights were operational, meaning he was only required to work twice a month.

Many people have continued working from home – online of course – while others lost their jobs and others are waiting for lockdown regulations to be eased or reconsidered so that they can return to work.

And yet, a good Internet connection is not enough, you need a smart device too!

Current Research

I am currently conducting research that seeks to understand how the Internet of Things (IoT) can support charity infrastructure and publicly shared objects that are serving communities. My research started before the lockdown and because of different circumstances, I had to quickly adjust to remote research methods.

During a design research training, we were advised to take note of things that happen before, during and after sessions with our participants. While transcribing the interviews, I have been taking note of the number of times a participant “drops off” the call or is inaudible. This clearly shows that some things should not be taken for granted. It has been interesting to note that some participants have mentioned that they do not have a good connection or have opted to respond to offline questions. The experience is different for urban or rural dwellers. Government restrictions on movement during the lockdown have meant that some participants are not able to use our fancy video conferencing solutions that on many occasions require a stable Internet connection.

New questions have emerged for my research: Can we develop locally relevant solutions for our communities? Do we have the right infrastructure to support our ever increasing technology needs? What works well at the moment and what doesn’t? What does community actually mean? There is so much we can do… now and when all this is over.

We have constantly seen statistics showing that our solutions are not reaching marginalised communities. That means there is something we are doing wrong. We have to do things differently – we have to change our design practices. Technology cannot solve all our problems but it can certainly help us solve some of them. But first, we need to give people access to devices and to the Internet. And then we need to empower them to make the best use of the technology available to them. Instead of technology for the community, I am now advocating for technology with and by the community.