ICTs and Inclusive Sustainable Development

Whether for better or for worse, we have entered into a global, digitized age where access to the internet and technology are essential for everyday life.  From education to healthcare and even transportation, the use of technology and the need to be connected at all times is paramount. In terms of the path to development, technology and the internet play a pivotal role, supplementing where resources are lacking, providing global and national networks for communication, and offering innovative solutions to the world’s complex problems.  Yet, reports like the Maitland Report and Falling Through the Net have demonstrated that the distribution of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) is highly concentrated in the “developed world.” According to the Maitland Report, published in 1984, 75% of the telephones in the world were located in just 9 countries. While this is obviously an outdated number, one could imagine that the disparity has only grown.  Lack of access to a telephone not only limits to who and how individuals can communicate, but it also denies individuals the freedom of security/safety. Particularly in the age of the smartphone, complex mapping applications, safety and monitoring applications, and the simple comfort of being able to call emergency services is denied. Additionally, these facts are augmented for persons with disabilities who may also be facing constraints such as limited mobility, impaired sight or vision, etc.  Moreover, information sharing and the creation of social networks is stunted, stopping the flow of information sharing and socialization.

Moreover, access to telephones and the internet in the aggregate doesn’t necessarily mean the ability to communicate and access information is standard across the board.  The study conducted by NTIA, “Falling Through the Net”, found that the availability of technology and the internet is concentrated in major cities. In rural contexts in the United States, poor individuals and those of ethnic minorities like the Native American tribes have disproportional access to telephones and presumably the internet, computers, etc.  In a more general sense, a quick Google search will generate World Bank and United Nations reports on global access to the internet and technology. Yet, despite all of the advocacy for the internet within a human rights framework, the world average for internet access still hovers around 50%. This means that an entire half of the world’s population is without informational search engine tools, navigating applications, resource databases, and more.

I often think about technology in the realm of education, as that is the focus of much of my research and professional work.  These numbers are shocking and ultimately a detriment to developing countries’ educational programs. Particularly in pursuit of inclusive education, international mandates have called for the use of ICTs to supplement schooling where needed.  In fact, Sustainable Development Goal 4 on inclusive education recognizes ICT skills, knowledge, and access as an indicator of success in pursuit of inclusive education. While I by no means would argue that ICT implementation in education is perfect, it offers a very real solution to the complex problem of universal education for all, particularly learners with special needs.  One of the essential critiques of this approach is lack of access, as many systems that would benefit from educational ICTs lack the fundamental resources for implementing and supporting them. I think back to my own experience as an educator in Romania. I was responsible for working with an English teacher in a rural village school, showing this educator new teaching techniques and resources that could be used to enrich classroom instruction.  The textbooks in use were outdated, compelling me to look to the internet for instructional materials, activity ideas, and short dialogues and video clips to help train students’ ears. There were a number of obstacles with my approach, often forcing me to revert to the outdated textbook. The school had internet only in the teacher’s preparation room and between six grades and over ten instructors, there were three laptops and one video projector device.  Moreover, the majority of students and educators alike had no access to internet or a technological device at home. There’s a vast wealth of information available for teachers in these contexts, even for those working with students with special needs. Yet, many cannot access it. This is a fundamental problem not just in education but across the board in development processes, one that must be addressed if we ever hope to move forward.