Digital divide in Brazil starts at elementary school

. Jul 18, 2019
Digital infrastructure in schools (or lack thereof) separates, from early on, Brazil's haves from the have nots.

The term “digital divide” gained popularity in the late 1990s, when American politicians and journalists used it to describe the widening gap in access to information technology. Twenty years later, Brazilians are growing more and more connected to their smartphones. Yet, the divide is only becoming more apparent. As private schools develop increasingly advanced digital literacy programs, those without the same means are being left behind.

Barriers to access can be physical, informational, financial or temporal—and all are tightly correlated with demographic information, particularly region and class.

Language is one of the key determinants in how people use technology, and about </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">30 percent of online content is in English</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">. There are a number of other considerations, ranging from being able to afford the latest gadgets to one’s ability to evaluate the trustworthiness of sources. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">As more and more jobs become reliant on technology, having access to and skills for navigating the digital world becomes ever more crucial. This is why those who can afford to are choosing to send their children to schools that integrate technology into their curricula. </span></p> <h2>Why digital literacy matters</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">According to the </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">The Future of Jobs Report</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, published by the World Economic Forum, 88 percent of Brazilian businesses are likely to hire staff with skills relevant to new technology, as opposed to the 79 percent who are likely to retrain existing employees. To push the point even further, nearly half of businesses indicated that they were likely to fire employees who lack the skills to use new technologies. Digital literacy is vital for finding and maintaining employment.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Digital literacy refers to the level at which someone finds, evaluates, shares, and creates information using technology. Many of these skills are tacit knowledge, meaning that they are learned by doing. A </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">recent study by the University of Virginia</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> found that a person’s familiarity with the internet and digital editing tools were the main factors in determining whether they could correctly identify a fake (digitally altered) image. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Having early and regular exposure to technologies affects not only the fluidity with which we use them, but how we determine what content we trust and share. For this reason, incorporating technology into early education is important not only for skills-building, but also for developing digital citizenship.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Educational consulting firm Nuvem Mestra helps schools through “digital transformation” by training both students and teachers to use the Google for Education platform. “It’s much more than just having the right tools,” a representative told </span><b>The Brazilian Report</b><span style="font-weight: 400;">, “it is about creating a digital culture that allows for innovation and social change.” Teachers reorganize curricula to engage students, and metrics help track their progress. New technologies, such as virtual reality, are incorporated to add depth to the lessons. Students no longer read about the Sistine Chapel, preferring to be virtually transported to “see” it with their own eyes. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">This allows for a more exciting school experience, but more importantly, it teaches children to use technology constructively. Age-appropriate programs start from nursery school, and students are encouraged to build their own projects. </span></p> <h2>The haves and the have-nots</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">According to the Internet Management Committee, nearly two in five Brazilians do not have personal access to the internet and only 46 percent own a computer. Yet, over 93 percent of the highest socioeconomic classes </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">have access to the internet at home</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">. This statistic drops dramatically for the middle class, in which only 69 percent of households have internet at home, and bottoms out at 30 percent for the lowest socioeconomic classes.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Pair this with an </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">already struggling public education system</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, and the digital divide is practically inevitable. “There’s an immense lack of technological infrastructure [in public schools],” says Duval Guimarães, the Chairman of Cidadão Pró Mundo (CPM), an NGO that teaches English across public high schools in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">While many students have phones, it isn’t guaranteed, and there is not enough funding to provide computers or tablets for classes. Even if there were, the strength of wifi at most schools isn’t sufficient to support a learning environment. This is likely the reason that online English courses suffer from a low engagement rate, and CPM addresses this problem by bringing a face-to-face curriculum to the students.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The gap is even wider when we consider rural schools. In 62 percent of them, there is not a single computer in which students can have internet access.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">On the other side of the aisle sits Brazil’s urban, private schools. According to the country&#8217;s official statistics agency, just under 25 percent of the Brazilian student population is enrolled in private institutions. Monthly tuition for these schools can reach up to BRL 10,000 or more, which is ten times the minimum wage. Cost doesn’t seem to be a deterrent, however, as many of these schools have waiting lists.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The use of technology in these classrooms is heavily advertised. Pueri Domus, one of the most traditional private schools in São Paulo, launched “Pueri Digital” last year. The program promises not only to teach students both Portuguese and English, but also computer code. The school website says orienting students toward the future requires developing their “digital fluency” and actively incorporating technology into the classroom. Smartboards, tablets, and laptops are considered necessary parts of the toolkit allowing students to learn. </span></p> <h2>The future of work</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Constructing a digital education takes more than simply buying computers. Schools must invest in infrastructure, especially wifi connection, as well as educators who can teach students how to meaningfully use these resources. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Beyond this, there are practical and legal considerations. Where will gadgets be stored and who will be responsible for them? If a screen cracks, who needs to fix it? And how will schools stay compliant with section III of the incoming </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Data Protection Law</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, which specifically deals with adolescents and children?</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Whatever the costs, </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">not</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;"> investing in digital literacy programs for public schools proposes a big risk for the population as a whole. Automation looms around the corner, and if a 25 percent rate of unemployment seems bad, think about what happens when blue-collar jobs are rendered obsolete by developments such as </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">cashier-less stores</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The upside to this is that </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">the technology sector is growing</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> and will require a workforce with a passable amount of digital know-how. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Preparing for this reality would be prudent.

Read the full story NOW!

Juliana Costa

Juliana is a growth strategist and contributor to The Brazilian Report

Our content is protected by copyright. Want to republish The Brazilian Report? Email us at