Challenge 3. The digital divide

  /    /  Challenge 3. The digital divide

Digital divide is much more than access to digital devices and the internet. Inequalities related to the internet and the digital sphere form an inequality structure at three levels, with lack of access merely being the most obvious manifestation of this phenomenon (Van Dijk, 2020). Even if internet access is ensured, the digital divide still exists as long as skills and capacity to use appropriate technologies are not equally distributed among the population. Additionally, the digital divide must be interpreted according to the effects it has on the development of individuals and groups. In this sense, the digital divide cannot be read as merely a consequence of old inequalities but as a process that is constantly reinforcing them.

The replacement of on-site education by different forms of online schooling has laid bare the existence of a digital divide at three levels. First, there is evidence that a lack of internet connections and adequate devices hindered teachers from contacting many students during school closures in 2020. Second, closing schools obliged teachers to acquire new skills and prepare new materials and pedagogical strategies that were adapted to a virtual learning environment. However, neither teachers nor families had access to the same skills or resources to design or follow distance learning. Third, the COVID crisis and the replacement of many in-person activities by online activities enhanced the effect of the digital divide. It implied the reduction in all manner of opportunities for those excluded from the digital sphere because they either had no internet connection or a poor one, thus affecting many different areas such as health, work or education. Remote learning during the lockdown increased the attainment gap between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

The survey about vulnerable student living conditions in Barcelona shows that digital divide has not much to do with devices or connectivity but with the skills required and the ease of understanding of the contents. Data show:

  • 44.8% of vulnerable students’ parents’ only attained compulsory education levels, while this proportion is 9.8% for non-vulnerable students.
  • 86.7% of vulnerable students do have internet connection at home, while this percentage jumps to 96.7% in the case of non-vulnerable families.
  • Among the vulnerable group, 8.7% have only access to internet through a smartphone, while this affects only to 3% of the rest of the population.
  • Regarding availability of devices, four out of ten vulnerable households do not have a personal computer and a 25% has only a smartphone.
  • 81.7% of vulnerable children followed the courses online, vs. 97.2% of non-vulnerable students.

Teachers have been at the forefront during the pandemic to take up the challenge of imagining, building and implementing new teaching methods adequate for remote learning. Not all teachers have the same training with respect to digital teaching methods, tools and instruments. Especially the oldest ones faced serious difficulties of adaptation to this new environment. This has been particularly a significant problem in Italy where more than half of the teachers are 50 years old or older. Training has been offered to schools, but not all teachers have responded to it in the same way. The risk observed in several countries has been an exclusive use of traditional teaching approaches, such as master lectures, to the detriment of more innovative and inclusive methods, such as group and cooperative work. These methods are particularly relevant and beneficial for disadvantaged students and prevent the risk of dropping out. In addition, few teachers have used instruments such as blogs, platforms, videos, or other resources available for remote teaching methods.

Some teachers have also adopted the method of personal calls or the use of audio and whatsapp messages in order to reach families through several channels, trying to be as much inclusive as possible. This was normally left to the initiative of single teachers, resulting in a very diversified picture regarding the approaches and strategies adopted by teachers and schools.


Policy 3.1 Pla d’educació digital a Catalunya / Catalan digital education plan [Barcelona]

Goals of the program 

To ensure that students, teachers and centres have the necessary infrastructure and digital equipment to guarantee the proper development of education and learning activities.


Students, teachers and schools of Catalonia


Education Department


Next generation funds


During the 2020-2021 course, public schools received laptops available to all students of 3rd and 4th ESO, Baccalaureate and professional training, as well as 5th and 6th elementary, 1st and 2nd of secondary education and superior professional training who do not have computers in their homes. The Education Department also provided MiFi connectivity teams to all public and concerted schools, intended for students who do not have an Internet connection at home. In order to know the initial estimate of the number of learners needed by these devices, the data collected was used during the month of July (end of 2019-2020, full pandemic). The final specification of the target pupils of the equipment was through a “portal demand” application, from which applications from these computers could be made.  

To do so, the Department of Education launched a digital identification system that assigned each student a unique identifier and a password based on existing data in the Registry of Students of Catalonia (RALC). Each computer was associated with a specific student, who will have to enter an identifier and password in order to access it. Just as this service was offered to the students, it was offered to the teachers.  

In addition to personal equipment, the necessary actions were taken to transform connectivity to all schools as to ensure maximum coverage: transformation of LAN from schools and strengthening WiFi from schools.

Achievement / Criticalities

Haven’t been done yet

Possible negative implications 

Not expected