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“In the world today, information is a resource for development, and the absence of reliable information is an epitome of underdevelopment” (Huang & Russell, 2006, p.160).

(The following blog post is the result of a discussion had by Danielle Beare, Jessica Brown, Amanda Dunn, Chad Flinn, & Alastair Linds, students of the Master of Arts in Learning and Technology through Royal Roads University)

As we began to discuss and further explore the topic of poverty in relation to digital learning, it was clear to us that we could easily go into a rabbit hole of information and research. We choose to narrow our scope to focus on rights around access to information and technology (or lack thereof), and how the cycle of poverty, and already present digital divide, are further impacting those in poverty.

Societal barriers that are already in place and how digital learning is further impacting them.

Social Mobility:

  • As the world becomes more reliant on a digital marketplace it is important that individuals are taught digital literacy.  It is becoming essential that people learn to evolve their digital skills at the same pace as the industry is growing. This means that not only do they have to have access to information and communication technology (ICT’s) to use, they have to understand how to use them to their full potential (Krish, 2018, p.3).
  • It is important for people to have a base level of competence in traditional literacies in order to fully benefit from access to ICTs.  Studies have shown that children from a higher economic background exhibited higher levels of information and multimedia literacy than those from a lower economic background (Warschauer, 2007, p. 43).
  • Access to ICT and online learning may, in fact, increase the digital divide.  Even with an equal amount of access, the minority students will not engage as actively as those from a higher economic background.  Studies show that a shift from oral to written creates anxiety in those who do not possess basic skills in traditional literacies (Tawfik, 2016, p. 600).

The cycle of Poverty:

  • Poverty doesn’t just affect financial decisions but the stress of poverty takes a toll on cognitive decisions. Even if someone in poverty has access to the internet, because of this the idea of further education may not be substantiated.
    • Being poor means coping not just with a shortfall of money, but also with a concurrent shortfall of cognitive resources. The poor, in this view, are less capable not because of inherent traits, but because the very context of poverty imposes load and impedes cognitive capacity. The findings, in other words, are not about poor people, but about any people who find themselves poor (Mani, Mullainathan, Shafir, Zhao, 2013, p. 980).  
  • Poverty influences the perception of education. Without the significant possibility of reward, education is often determined to be of less value than labour.
    • Particularly in rural areas, many children may be involved in agricultural work or domestic duties (for example, fetching wood or water), so sending them to school involves an opportunity cost to the household (Van der Berg, 2008, p. 14).
  • Engagement online is directly affected by the level of poverty. Access to the internet, how people access the internet, and what they do with the internet are all diminished.
    • Social inequalities such as poverty, illiteracy, and unequal educational opportunities, prevent all Americans from enjoying full participation online and in society more generally (Yoshikawa, Aber, Beardslee, 2012, p. 157).

How has digital learning changed the access to information and what impacts has that made?

  • Access to information, including the creation, application, and communication has been the key to the evolution of successful societies, including having access to education, employment, social interaction and civic participation (Farmer & Studies, 2015).
  • With receiving and sharing information being a human right (United Nations, 1948, Article 19), and digital learning and technology fast becoming the forefront of sharing information (Warschauer, 2007, p. 41), the digital divide is currently seen between the different socioeconomic status’ ( Marien & Prodnik, 2014, p. 36) could be looked at as infringing on one’s rights.
    • Digital Divide – the economic, educational, and social inequalities between those who have computers and online access and those who do not (Merriam-Webster, 2018).

What is being done to bridge the divide?

Access to Education for All:

  • As movements towards open education flourished, there arose a belief  that open, digitally distributed educational resources could bridge some of the educational gaps prominent within vulnerable populations, and thus, we are morally obligated to share educational content:  “If educational materials can bring people out of poverty, and information can now be copied and shared with greater ease, there is a moral obligation to do so. Information should be shared because it is the right thing to do” (Caswell, Henson, Jensen, & Wiley, 2008, p. 8).
    • As mentioned above, subsequent research related to digital literacy suggests that making content open does not mean that it is accessible to vulnerable populations: “something being freely available (e.g., open access, open educational resources, etc.) is insufficient to enable many people to successfully engage with a more open educational provision” (Lane, 2009, p. 9).
      • With open education, came massive open online courses (MOOCs) that have the ability to reach new learners; however, it has been seen “that MOOCs are not increasing access to postsecondary institutions and knowledge for underserved populations” ( Tawfik, 2016, p. 600) and are being primarily used by currently employed and educated people (Tawfik, 2016, p. 600).

A Way Forward:

  • Although making traditional educational content open may not assist to limit divides and “bring people out of poverty”(Caswell, Henson, Jensen, & Wiley, 2008, p. 8), tailored content designed with vulnerable populations in mind could be effective.
  • “It  is how  that openness  is instantiated or  structured to meet the  particular needs of excluded  groups that makes the difference” (Lane, 2009, p. 9).


Caswell, T., Henson, S., Jensen, M., & Wiley, D. (2008). Open Content and Open Educational Resources: Enabling universal education. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 9(1).

Digital Divide. (2018, May 12). Merriam-Webster Online. Retrieved May 29, 2018, from

Farmer, L. S. J., & Studies, A. (2015). Information as a Human Right, 6(March), 18–35.

Huang, J., & Russell, S. (2006). The digital divide and academic achievement. The Electronic Library, 24(2), 160–173.

Krish Chetty, Liu Qigui, Nozibele Gcora, Jaya Josie, Li Wenwei, and Chen Fang (2017). Bridging the digital divide: measuring digital literacy. Economics Discussion Papers, No 2017-69, Kiel Institute for the World Economy.

Lane, A. (2009). The Impact of Openness on Bridging Educational Digital Divides. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 10(5). doi:10.19173/irrodl.v10i5.637

Mani, A., Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E., & Zhao, J. (2013). Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function. American Association for the Advancement of Science; 341, 976-980. https://doi:10.1126/science.1238041

Mariën, I., & A. Prodnik, J. (2014). Digital inclusion and user (dis)empowerment: A critical perspective. Info, 16(6), 35-47. doi:10.1108/info-07-2014-0030

Tawfik, A. A., Reeves, T. D., & Stich, A. (2016). Intended and Unintended Consequences of Educational Technology on Social Inequality. TechTrends, 60(6), 598–605.

United Nations. (1948). Universal declaration of human rights. Paris, France: United Nations. (

Van der Berg, S. (2008). Poverty and Education. Education Policy Series, 1-28. ISBN: 978-92-803-1322-2

Warschauer, M. (2007). The paradoxical future of digital learning. Learning Inquiry, 1(1), 41–49.

Yoshikawa, H., Aber, J. L., & Beardslee, W. R. (2012). The Effects of Poverty on the Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Health of Children and Youth Implications for Preventions. American Psychologist, 67(4), 272-284. doi:10.1037/a0028