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ICT bridging the digital divide amongst learners: A case study in South Africa

Marlien Herselman
Technikon Pretoria, South Africa


Costello (2000) states that "The current Golden Age of Technology is being built on a foundation of knowledge. As such, the fuel for the engine of expansion will be an increasingly better-educated populous. And the fruits of this Golden Age will go to those who have the knowledge. In our society, the haves and the have-nots, more than ever before, will be the educated and the uneducated." (p1).

The "have and have-nots" mentioned by Costello, describe opposite ends of the digital divide. What one should keep in mind, is that the digital divide describes more an educational divide. In South Africa the knowledge gap or digital divide, at learner level, according to Herselman, [1999] can be seen as resource advantageous (RA) learners on one side of the spectrum and resource deprived (RD) learners at the opposite end. Because the resource demand for education is increasing as technology develops, an increasing percentage of the country could find themselves RD learners. This paper is an ongoing research project, which investigates the need for and ways of using technology to bridge the gap between the RA and RD learners in South Africa. This part of the project focused on work done in the Eastern Cape Province in SA. The partner in this paper was Mr Kenric Britton currently employed by Port Elizabeth Technikon in SA.

The purpose of this study is to determine how ICT can reduce the percentage of RD learners. In order to do this it is important to establish the nature of the digital divide on a local scale - the level of exposure to ICT should be determined among most RD learners. Secondly, techniques or technologies that are employed on both an international and local scale regarding overcoming the problem of the digital divide should be identified as possible solutions to the local problem..

This paper therefore addresses multiple case studies to determine the digital divide situation locally, through the use of interviews with facilitators, and the answering of questionnaires by learners. These case studies originate from culturally disadvantaged communities comprised of four learning institutions, including three schools and one adult learning facility. All learners tested were at pre-tertiary level (grade 12).

What is ICT?

The Association of African Universities [2000, p.3] defines ICT as "a shorthand for the computers, software, networks, satellite links and related systems that allow people to access, analyse, create, exchange and use data, information, and knowledge in ways that, until recently, were almost unimaginable. It refers to the infrastructure that brings together people, in different places and time zones, with multimedia tools for data, information, and knowledge management in order to expand the range of human capabilities."

The Internet is currently the most important driving force behind the transition from IT to ICT. Started in the Defense Forces of America as a network for e-mail and file transfer, the Internet has now become the public network for everyone. Rijsenbrij [1997] stipulates that through the Internet, people will be exposed to and incorporate the use of multimedia on their PCs more and more.

Therefore as a result of these advancements in global telecommunications, there is an emergence of a worldwide network made up of both wired and wireless technologies, with huge transmission capacity. This network manifests itself from an integration of all the forms of telecommunications including telephone and cellular networks, Internet and intranet technologies as well as entertainment networks (TV, radio, cable, satellite) [Matsumoto, 2001].

Since these are the resources that one has to tap into, in order to have access to the fruits that the Information Age promises to bear, then one has to identify the have and have nots, in order to define the Digital divide. The next part of this section will look at just what one means by Resource Advantaged and Resource Deprived people.

The Digital Divide

Primarily, in nearly every country, a certain percentage of people have the best information and communication technology that is available to society.

Then there is another group of people. They are the people, who for social or economic reasons, do not have access to computers or even relatively valuable information sources, reliable telephone services, let alone the wealth of information and convenience afforded to one via Internet services. The differences between these two groups of people is what is known as the digital divide. To avoid confusion, in this study RA and RD for the latter group will be used to refer to the respective groups as was defined by Herselman [1999].

Planting [2000] placed emphasis on the possibly devastating implications of the digital divide by pointing out that on the one hand developed markets could lose the opportunity to develop new markets to trade with and on the other, the developing world would lose the opportunity to grow. Even worse, there is a risk of an increase in social and economic turmoil that could result from the exclusion of the majority of the world's population from the New Economy. These consequences could harm local, regional and international stability.

ICT in education and its negative effect

With wider distribution and transmission of the new technologies comes overall adverse consequences. There is an unmistakable confidence that countries with more educated people and scientists will use new ICTs first and go the farthest, faster than countries with fewer educated people. This clearly risks creating an insurmountable chasm between rich and poor.

Many developing African countries feel that Western content exports corrupt traditional indigenous cultures, which is still an integral part of life in Africa [Heeks, 1999]. ICT, therefore, has the potential to alienate individuals from their past, thus possibly making them dysfunctional for the future. Some see ICT bringing even greater advantages to the RA, who will overtake the RD even further. There is little to be done to change this trajectory. For some, ICT divergence seems inevitable, favouring developed countries more than developing ones, unless the issue is addressed in a very serious light.

If these are the effects of the digital divide, what then are the restricting factors one has to ponder upon before devising a solution? According to Heeks [1999], the problem goes beyond just overt resource inequalities, although the most significant can be seen as physical access. This refers to the geographical material availability the user has to the physical infrastructures (wired or wireless) and to applications and appliances (ie. TV). The second restricting factor is financial access, which indicates whether a user has the economic capacity to pay consistently for the ICT services he or she needs. Besides the absence of access, Africa is sorely lacking in the means to provide the resource people with the necessary skills. This can be seen as the third factor, cognitive access [Lelliott, 2000]. ICTs capacities to provide an appropriate curriculum in areas like mathematics and the natural sciences which are widely valued for their contribution to a stable economy, yet notoriously ill catered for in schools throughout Africa. This can be seen as content access. Therefore, in considering the possibility, viability and desirability of ICT as a means of education in Africa it is crucial to examine how certain interests are served differently by technology in education.

The local situation

This section examines the situation South Africa in order to establish the local RD learners' level of exposure to ICT. This knowledge is important when scrutinising methods that have been utilised both globally as well as in Africa to overcome the divide, in anticipation of a possible solution within South Africa.


Multiple case study research was conducted as according to Merriam [1988, pg. 11], case studies "concentrate attention on the way particular groups confront specific problems, taking a holistic view of the situation." Yin [1994] also implies that certain contextual conditions that are highly pertinent to research can only be examined through the use of case studies. Therefore multiple case studies from culturally disadvantaged communities were used to determine the digital divide situation locally. The information needed for scrutiny was extricated through the answering of questionnaires by learners.


Due to the difficulty in selecting appropriately representative samples, an interview was held with Mr. A. Nongauza (personal communication) an educationalist within the RD Community and past Rector of Algoa Training College, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Through him, four Institutions - three high schools and one Adult Learning Center - were chosen as fully representative of the RD Community in the Port Elizabeth Area. For the sake of confidentiality their names will not be divulged. They will therefore be referred to as School A, B, C and Adult Learning Center (ALC).

From the given grade 12 class lists, 25 learners were randomly selected from each institution's sample population to answer the questionnaires. Of the 25 learners tested, 20 unspoiled questionnaires were indiscriminately chosen.


The following table summarises the % access that learners have to certain ICT resources.

Table 1: Summary of RD learners' access to ICT in Eastern Cape

ICT Resources% with access% with no access at all
Telephone (landline and wireless)7525
Information Centers (Library, community centers)20-3565-80
Personal Computer2080

The following graph illustrates the summary of access these learners have to the ICT resources:

Figure 1

Figure 1: Summary of access to ICT resources

It is evident from the above, that access to telephone and television are the highest of all resources. As one can see, the situation of the locally tested learners reflects clearly what Herselman [1999] refers to as RD and Costello [2000] refers to as the "have-nots". However, some of the technologies mentioned in section 2 are already available to a great percentage of the RD community.

Overcoming the divide

The solution to this problem can be seen as a staged process, based on information gathered from Costello [2000], Akst and Jensen [2001], Lelliott [2000], Planting [2000], the US Department of Commerce [2000] and a model by Heeks [1999], illustrated in Figure 2. The model that was developed, illustrates the stages or phases that one has to progress through systematically, in order to devise a solution to any digital divide problem.

Figure 2

Figure 2: The Digital Divide Bridge

The first step towards bridging the digital divide, as illustrated in Figure 2, is understanding the divide itself, therefore one has to be sensitive to certain idiosyncrasies of developing countries.

Some people [Harkins, 2000; Akst and Jensen, 2001] indicate that a possible solution to bridging the digital divide may be wireless phones. Access to the internet via wireless technologies is becoming more and more of a viable option. But, as mentioned before, any solution that needs to bridge the divide should be applicable and accessible to RD people.

So why not shared public Internet terminals? These Internet windows or terminals could be set at strategic places like schools and community centers with customised options that are tweaked to each individual community's needs. The ease with which these customised options can be navigated fulfils a vital criterion: that the terminals be accessible not only to the computer-illiterate, but to the illiterate. [Ranawana, 2001].

Another possible solution could be Telecenters or Community Center Networks. In 1995, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched an initiative like this called Neighborhood Networks. Through innovative private/public partnerships, Neighborhood Networks, set in lesser-advantaged communities, could establish multi-service ICT centers to bring digital opportunity to communities where there is normally a lack of these resources. However this does not mean the government does not need to do its part through various Internet and broadband initiatives.

While the solutions described may be ways of bringing the Internet to RD communities and thus providing access to Technology, I believe that what these communities need is an Internet future that involves the serious integration of the television and other electronic entertainment media with the computer and Internet. There is a tendency to prioritise access to media for entertainment, like television, before education. We should not ignore that tendency, but grasp it and use it to an advantage. Key questions to consider for the future may be:


One must understand that the information revolution offers Africa a dramatic opportunity to leapfrog into the future, breaking out of decades of stagnation or decline. Africa must, however, seize this opportunity quickly by applying innovative and truly African solutions to our global digital divide problems. If African countries cannot make advantage of the information revolution and surf this great wave of technological change, they may be crushed by it.


Akst, D. and Jensen, M. (2001). Africa goes online. Carnegie Reporter, 1(2, Spring). Carnegie Corporation of New York . [viewed 13 Jul 2001, verified 15 Aug 2002].

Costello, J. B. (2000, October 15). Education: The fuel for tech's Golden Age. Electronic Business. [viewed 14 Mar 2001, verified 22 Jul 2002]

Harkins, J. (2000). Wireless Phones: Making Them Work for You. Gallaudet University : Rehab Engineering Research Center on Telecommunications Access [viewed 14 Apr 2001, verified 15 Aug 2002].

Heeks, R. (1999). Information and Communication Technologies, Poverty and Development. Manchester, UK: Institute for Development Policy and Management.

Herselman, M.E. (1999). Evaluating games in the ESL usage. Unpublished PhD Thesis. Pretoria: University of Pretoria.

Lelliott, A., Pendlebury, S. and Enslin, P. (2000). On-line education in Africa: promises and pitfalls. South African Journal of Information Management, 3(1). Johannesburg : University of the Witwatersrand. [viewed 20 Apr 2001, verified 22 Jul 2002]

Matsumoto, T. (2001). Strategic Internet Business. Computer Business Review, 17 Jan [viewed 15 Apr 2001]

Merriam, S.B. (1988). Case Study Research in Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Planting, S. (2000). Chasm separates rich from poor. Financial Mail, 22 Sep. [viewed 20 Mar 2001, verified 15 Aug 2002].

Ranawana, A. (2001). Lin Mui Kiang: Defender of the Rural Poor. Asiaweek, 126(29 Jun), 13-14.

Rijsenbrij, D.B.B. (1997). The design, development and deployment of ICT Systems in the 21st Century. [viewed 3 Jun 2001, unavailable 15 Aug 2002]

The Association of African Universities (2000). Technical Experts Meeting on the use and Application of Information and Communication Technologies in Higher Education Institutions in South Africa, 19 September. [viewed 26 Mar 2001, verified 15 Aug 2002]

US Department of Commerce (2000). Falling Through the Net: Toward Digital Inclusion. [viewed 13 Apr 2001, verified 15 Aug 2002]

US Department of Housing and Urban Development (2001). About HUD. [viewed 5 Jul 2001]

Yin, R.K. (1994). Case study research: Design and methods (2nd ed). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.

Please cite as: Herselman, M. (2002). ICT bridging the digital divide amongst learners: A case study in South Africa. In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July.

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