COVID19: Digital divide gets wider

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The digital divide has grown wider than ever as Cyprus’ education system, society and business, were caught off guard when dealing with a new environment of social distancing imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

At a time when health and safety measures prompted the public sector to limit its physical interaction and schools were closed, the role of technology in managing this situation has become even more crucial, according to secondary school teachers.

“Although the coronavirus has forced the country’s education to fast track digitalising our schools, we still have a long way ahead to reach the desired standards,” said secondary teachers’ union OELMEK chairman Themis Polyviou.

He said the virus outbreak has pushed the process of digitalising schools by a decade, but authorities need to put their foot on the pedal.

“We have a long way to go, but unfortunately a number of promises made by the authorities have not been delivered,” Polyviou argued.

Some upgrades have been made to school buildings, but most schools are not yet ready for distance training, while children still lack equipment, as well as the skills to attend online classes.

He explained that students were promised by the Education Ministry they would be given tablet devices so they could carry out their homework electronically.

“This never happened. Similarly, commitments to upgrade schools so that teachings could be carried out online from schools were not fulfilled. That is why a number of teachers had to use their own equipment to deliver lessons from their homes,” Polyviou said.

“Digital technologies should become a key driver for education, not just under these unprecedented conditions, as failing to advance in that area will take its toll on businesses and the public sector, as well as schools and services in the future,” he concluded.

Echoing OELMEK’s concerns, University of Nicosia CEO and professor in Digital Currency, Antonis Polemitis, told the Financial Mirror that digital transformation needs to pick up speed as things will never be the same in a post-coronavirus world.

“If there is one thing that this virus has taught us, it’s that our society will not be able to function without digital technologies. So, everyone will have to get on board.”

Unprepared to cope

He said that a number of businesses and other sectors of society, including education, were unprepared to cope with the new situation as many were unable to keep up with operations going online and were forced to shut down.

Polemitis added that, “those who got with the programme early on were able to continue working and teaching. Those who did not, were left behind”.

The University of Nicosia, he said, has moved all operations online with long-distance teaching and all staff working from home.

“We were able to achieve this in a matter of days. Had we not had the experience of long-distance learning, as almost half of our 13,000 students are taught using technological systems, we would be lost,” he said.

He argued that the Cyprus public sector has a lot of catching up to do, but has been put on the fast track due to the coronavirus.

“Clearly, Cyprus is not ready for a switch to an entirely digital society, as people and businesses are not prepared for simple things such as working from home. However, the virus has changed things. From now on there will be more working and teaching from home, and more services will be offered online.”

UNIC’s professor argued that teaching students from an early age about the ways of technology should not be a subject for debate.

“The future is digital. We need to equip students with the necessary tools to be productive members of society. Businesses and employees that will not be tech savvy will be left behind,” said Polemitis

He argued that the state has its role to play, not only in enhancing technology lessons, but also digitalising its own services with more e-government.

“We are behind when it comes to e-governance. Despite talk about adopting e-governance and digital signatures, allowing citizens and businesses to carry out their transactions with the state online, we are at the bottom of the list compared to other countries,” said Polemitis.

“It is 2021 and we are still debating whether electronic signatures are valid or not. In the US, they have been in use since 1996.”