"Digital Equity: Is it a Social Justice Issue?" via Dr. Michael Harvey

Hello, ISTE Digital Equity Network!

Please see below the following blog post by Dr. Michael Harvey.  We would love to hear your thoughts!  Chime in with any comments at the bottom of the page.

Ni Hao and greetings from my home for the next 12 months, China! I have negated the Chinese internet firewall at least for the time being so am able to follow my #ISTEglobalpln. One of the key aspects of major global trends in education is digitisation through innovation. I have been amazed here in China by the embracing of technology by the ordinary (though admittedly middle class) Chinese citizen. From a hip young teenager skateboarding along the streets to an 80-year-old pensioner taking the metro and helping me with my new Chinese smartphone apps.

It was not so much the reality that everyone had smartphones, but how digital technologies were being used in innovative creative ways. Take for example Didi Dachi, even bigger than Uber, which allows users to hail a cab and use voice recognition software to verbally give instructions to the app to direct taxi drivers and also allows you to pay online.


I think this is a point of difference between China and the rest of at least the Western World. In the West, we tend to be consumers of digital technology, but here in China, with its history of innovation and finding creative solutions to problems (something which is also in my country, New Zealand's DNA) they are going beyond being mere consumers to actually starting to make the technology their own.


So as always, being an educator-driven by evidence, I wanted to see if what I was seeing was actually a real phenomenon or just wistful wonderment of a new traveller to a faraway land. So how engaged are the Chinese with digital technology in 2017? What are the trends of the Chinese population adopting new information and communication technologies?

Let’s start with a fundamental trend: internet penetration in China has grown consistently over the past years: from just 1.8 percent in 2000 to 45.8 percent in 2016. The online population is now 668 million, with 75 percent of web users living in urban environments.

The top social network sites in China remain Sina, QZone, Tencent Weibo, Youku, Tudou and Renren — both in terms of membership numbers and active usage. At the same time, WeChat dominates the messaging app's landscape. Almost 95 percent of Chinese internet users say they are a member of at least one social network site.


In terms of online business, recent reports have 75 percent of Chinese internet users purchasing an item in the last month, compared with the global average of 65 percent. According to recent estimates, 70 percent of Chinese internet users have paid for some form digital content in the last month, compared with the global average of 53 percent.

As most Chinese interact online through their mobile devices, the mobile web is going to grow in cultural and economic significance. On a typical day, Chinese people spend roughly 2.25 hours on their mobile devices a substantial increase of 35 percent over the past three years. To put these numbers into perspective, U.S. Internet users only spend an average of 1.83 hours per day on a mobile device according to the global world index. Smartphone penetration in China has already climbed to 87 percent, which is above the global average of 78 percent. In this regard, mobile technologies have already begun to change how we access, navigate and experience physical spaces a trend that will develop in coming years.

One quirk of web use in China is the government censoring leading to a substantial number of people are using VPNs (virtual private networks) to anonymously access content. There are 148 million Chinese internet users (32 percent of the Chinese internet population) which have used a VPN to access entertainment-related content, restricted websites and social network sites, suggesting for this group consumption of content for entertainment is their primary concern.

Of course, all is not perfect in China. Just like in the poorer socio-economic areas in the rest of the world, digital inequalities persist. When it comes to web access, there is a disparity between the rich and the poor -  a digital divide.


Just like elsewhere in the globe, this raises questions about the skills people need to participate in society. According to GWI, 62 percent of Chinese internet users have a middle or high income. Brady (2010) has found that political participation in the United States depends on distributed resources like time and money that vary between socio-economic groups. Similarly, the digital divide among Chinese internet users affects their ability to participate in political change. As a result, most Chinese internet users are going online to view popular culture and leisure. Relatively few users are interested in taking advantage of what the internet offers politically, and this tends to cement and exacerbate existing social and economic inequalities.

Needless to say, this is a trend that can be observed in Western countries like the US and NZ with the poorer members of society and those on the margins feeling powerless and disenfranchised. Tackling disparities through infrastructure development, digital skills training and political education will be critical if we are to avoid the danger of a “technological apartheid at the dawn of the information age,” as suggested by the influential scholar Manuel Castell’s book on the future of the internet

This last point has been resonating with me after attending #educampAKL and talking to the deputy head Stuart Kelly and his firm belief that providing free WIFI for his students and access to digital technology is not just an educational issue, but a social justice one. We need to create leaders not learners to paraphrase Stuart. That in order to be a participating citizen you need to be digitally literate to be empowered and maybe China's embrace of creativity and innovation is something New Zealand needs to remember is part of our national identity too and something we need to share with the world.