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How is the Internet addressing educational inequality?

This article was originally published on Technology.Info.
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Access to the Internet opens up resources and knowledge to new audiences. As such, it is helping to tackle a range of important issues, including the problem of delivering education to those in need. UNICEF estimates that 61 million children are unable to receive the education they deserve. But the Internet can help change that.

Schools are out, MOOCS are in

In 2012, India witnessed a big change in Internet use. For the first time, local Internet traffic via mobile devices, such as smartphones, exceeded that of traditional desktop PCs. This demonstrates how the Internet is increasingly becoming more democratic, as mobile devices are much cheaper to purchase and run than desktop computers.

With a staggering population of a billion citizens spread across more than 3.2 million km², India has formalised plans to build out and future-proof its Internet infrastructure, in order to facilitate social equality. Widespread Internet access for everyone, with a focus on education and healthcare, will change hundreds of millions of lives.

Similarly, Pakistan is using technology to improve its educational facilities. Across the country, there are currently 183 higher education institutions with broadband Internet connectivity. As the benefits of this have been felt throughout these institutions, they intend to grow this figure to 600 in the coming years.

The Internet will also change education in the developed world. Earlier this year, US President Barack Obama announced an initiative with the Federal Communications Commission, designed to bring high-speed Internet access to public schools all across the US. His initiative is supported by the success of so-called MOOCs (massive open online courses). At Harvard, more people signed up for MOOCs in a single year than have attended the academic establishment in its entire 377 year history.

Meanwhile, in the UK, FutureLearn has been launched, giving the public access to free online courses provided by British and international institutions.

These examples show how Internet access can open doors to education in cultures and regions where previously they might have been shut. And as Internet access improves, the possibilities for education are expanding. Students can gain access to specialist educators, while teachers already in schools can be supported with more training options. It also means that students can pursue subjects of interest and watch educational videos outside of school hours.

Breaking down the barriers

However, there are several challenges to these lofty ambitions - Internet infrastructure is the first, but this is a work in progress. The Internet is already available to half of the world’s population, and companies such as Google are devising ways to reach those even in remote areas with ideas like Internet-connected hot air balloons. The cost of hardware is another major issue, but this is becoming less of a barrier, as costs are dropping.

Another less obvious piece of the puzzle is ensuring the world has a large enough resource of IP addresses. Every device that connects to the Internet requires an IP address – a unique identifier that is used to communicate with others on the Internet. The old standard, IPv4, was devised during the 1970s when the Internet was born. Back then, nobody could have anticipated how popular and useful the Internet would become, so the 4.3 billion addresses in IPv4 were thought to be plenty. Now we’ve started to run out across the world and this is putting pressure on network operators who have more and more customers and devices looking to connect to the Internet.

Thankfully, there is a new protocol called IPv6, which allows for 340 trillion trillion trillion IP addresses and would ensure no-one was denied access to such an incredible resource. It’s critical that Internet service providers all over the world start to deploy IPv6, because this is the only way to safeguard the future growth of the Internet, and this is integral to support IT-based education across the world.

Education is a basic human right, which should be made as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. With so many examples of society utilising the Internet to support education right now (and many more likely just around the corner), we need to encourage continued investment in the Internet’s infrastructure. By doing this we will ensure that one day, in the not too distant future, everyone will have quick and easy access to the collective knowledge of the entire world.