An intersectional approach to digital education: facilitating empowerment and justice
What does an intersectional approach to digital education involve? Much more than solely improving access to technology. In this post, part of our series on the digitalisation of education, Janet Kwami explores how an intersectional lens refocuses our attention on how digital technologies can be used to facilitate empowerment, and how education practitioners, researchers and stakeholders can take an intersectional approach in their work.
In a contribution to NORRAG’s recent report on the digitalisation of education, I argued that we should take an intersectional approach to eliminating digital divides. Digital technologies are often touted as inherently empowering tools for addressing social inequities, without a critical analysis of who and how they empower or disempower. Discourses about today’s digital society frequently fail to recognize new disparities in the access, adoption and use of digital technologies. Failure to interrogate power is detrimental to marginalised groups as we seek to create a more digitally inclusive future for education and society.
Digital inclusion requires intentional strategies and investments to reduce and eliminate historical, institutional and structural barriers to the access and use of technologies that are vital for participation in society. It requires that in education we adopt an intersectional framework that considers gender, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion, rural/urban location, and other intersections that affect what students and teachers bring to their learning experiences and therefore the ways in which these technologies may widen rather than reduce digital inequities. An intersectional approach within digital inclusion initiatives and policies addresses how the access and use of ICTs are intertwined with larger social, economic, political, and cultural issues that have implications for opportunities for social participation and economic mobility.
Crucially, many digital education initiatives begin from a Western-centric perspective that fails to account for the cultural construction of gender, childhood, education, and leisure. This results in the problematic deployment of information and communication technologies (ICTs) projects in Southern and Eastern contexts, in which digital inequities rooted in fundamental social and structural problems are ignored.[i] Instead, we must ensure that the cultural contexts of digital technology in education are carefully considered and addressed.
Principles for an intersectional approach to digital education
The journey to digital parity is not a question of access to technology alone. It requires addressing how digital technologies can be used to facilitate empowerment: economic, professional and livelihood opportunities, political and structural reforms, and educational opportunities. A focus on empowerment draws our attention to what is needed for digitalisation in education to provide real benefits for marginalised groups.
- Providing affordable, robust infrastructure that is equitable and scalable
- Providing internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of a diversity of users
- Building digital literacies and competencies to support digital citizenship
- Designing humane and ethical technology
- Addressing bias, diversity, inclusion and equity in the tech industry
- Creating culturally appropriate applications and content to enable self-sufficiency, participation and collaboration
- Advocating for and centring difference in the design of digital technologies.
How can education practitioners, researchers and stakeholders enact these principles?
Adopt a holistic framework
A holistic framework can build technology literacy and capacity, and provide support beyond the physical confines of schools to include the home and community. Digital education that focuses only on the school creates a disconnect, as less-resourced students may not be able to count on support outside of school. A strategy for reducing this gap is to build the capacity of parents and mentors alongside that of students.
Address the ethical issues bound up in frontier technologies
There are complex ethical issues related to frontier technological developments such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and biotechnology. While these raise tremendous opportunities for transforming and digitising education they can also further exacerbate new and pre-existing digital inequities in ways that are, in general, poorly understood and addressed. As we consider our digital futures, we need to ensure diversity and inclusion are embedded in policies and initiatives to resist the perpetuation of inequalities.
Seek to understand and monitor the impacts of digital education on intersectional inequities
Several studies on digital divides have argued for the importance of intersectionality in measuring digital inequities, and I, along with others, have highlighted the importance of this in African contexts. It is important that we collect gender-disaggregated data and measure digital inequities that are multifaceted. For example, even though digital tools have the potential to empower women, there is a gender gap reported in many studies. Bridging gender inequities requires measuring gendered gaps with regard to access, use and the impacts of digital technologies. There are currently no clear targets in place to monitor global or national ICT policy objectives or for the collection of gender-disaggregated data that would allow us to evaluate policy successes and failures.
Connect with social movements
An intersectional approach demands that we link digitalisation in education with social movements for educational justice. This requires connecting and designing justice work with students, teachers, and parent-led community organising groups locally and globally that focus on addressing injustices and inequalities in educational systems. This work can provide the opportunity for the intergenerational learning experiences that give educators, parents and children new skills and competencies to navigate new digital contexts and actively shape a more equitable digital future.
Janet Kwami is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Furman University, USA. Her research focuses on the intersections of gender, information and communication technologies and socio-economic development. Her current work explores social inequity, and the appropriation, use and impact of digital technologies in the global South. In addition to her academic work, Dr. Kwami’s professional experience spans a wide variety of roles in the field of mass media including advertising, public relations, journalism, graphic design, multimedia production and research design.
[i] Kwami, Janet D. (2020). “Gendered Digital Inequities in African Contexts: Measuring and Bridging the Gaps.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, no. 16. DOI: 10.5399/uo/ada.2020.16.5; Steeves, H. Leslie, & Kwami, J. D. (2017). “Interrogating Gender Divides in Technology for Education and Development: The Case of the One Laptop per Child Project in Ghana.” Studies in Comparative International Development 52 (2): 174–92. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12116-017-9245-y.
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