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The Gap Beyond Connectivity: Digital Literacy

Have you had a conversation with anyone lately about the 4 billion people who don’t have access to Internet? For those of us working at Be-Bound, it tends to come up quite often.

What we’ve noticed, and you’ve probably noticed the same, is that many people are immediately struck with the impossibility of the number.  “4 billion! How can that even be possible? Are there really that many without connection? What solution could there be for such a large population?”

4 billion is a hard number to grasp for those of us living in a time of immediate gratification (ironically largely brought to us by our digital accessories). It can be frustrating to admit that turning the world digital is going to be a gradual process. But the recent changes we have seen in Europe and North America for instance, with the switch to smartphones, did not happen in a day, not even in a year. This reflection is encouraging because it reminds us that the slow changes we are seeing today will eventually become part of an absolute paradigm shift on a global level. 

When looking at the issue of no access, connection is the primary concern. Without connection, there is no next step that individuals can take, unconnected people are 100% excluded. Once connection is attained, growth, interest, and competition is inevitably fostered. Connection is the catalyst opening doors to more information.

But what happens when connectivity is available, and usage doesn’t follow? Right now, there are barriers beyond connectivity infrastructure that are limiting Internet usage, and in large part these come down to experience and understanding. To think that connection is all that’s needed would be a bit like giving a car to someone and forgetting that lessons or practice time are needed. Having a car is not enough to make the new vehicle owner an experienced driver. No life skill happens that way. Bridging the digital divide is not an exception. Digital literacy is needed alongside connectivity.

Bringing Internet access to the people without will not be an instant fix to the digital divide. It is of course only a start. The necessary next step is for the new users to gain “digital awareness.” This is something that needs to be deployed locally through longterm training programs for the newly “connected people”.  Non-digital natives will need to be able to master first, their new phones that will now be upgraded to smartphones, and second, will have to be trained on the Internet. This learning curve includes everything from mobile usage options, habits, things to avoid, and best practices. With time anyone will be able to access information and services with the same ease just as an experienced driver enters traffic. 

Connectivity will never bridge the digital divide itself, education will. It is undeniable that in order for people to gain experience with the Internet, they must actually have access. As users gain experience, mobile Internet adoption will increase that much faster. Connectivity is a tool, Education is what can be done with that tool.