The appeal of Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly for businesses to donate devices to address the gap in internet access for students gives companies an opportunity to participate in public-private partnerships as well as to demonstrate civic responsibility.
But it is also a reminder of bigger issues in the industrial sector.
That sector has not been traditionally associated with information technology.
It may be too late for this school year, but has the time not come to start thinking differently nonetheless?
Globally, small countries like Singapore, Israel and New Zealand have achieved some success in this area. Studies have pointed out how these three countries, despite having no inherent advantages in raw materials and only tiny domestic markets, have established IT infrastructure and tapped the human skills needed.
TT is a country that frequently punches above its weight. So it is no stretch of the imagination for us to have ambitions of establishing ourselves in this terrain especially given the talent among us. Indeed, there have been efforts in the past – such as the establishment of technology “parks” – which aimed at creating the right conditions.
Is the environment conducive today? How can it be enhanced? What lessons can we learn from past efforts?
No doubt such matters should be debated and considered at this moment when we are re-envisioning our society. With the turn to green energy and sustainability, it is also the case that we stand to benefit more from manufacturing than from just the traditional products in our export basket. Why should we not aspire to a local Silicon Valley?
For now, nationwide connectivity is the immediate goal. With about 65,000 students in need of access, the future labour market is at risk of falling behind in school. This is ironic since the pandemic has, through sheer necessity, triggered a shift in the opposite direction: more remote work, more innovation. The figures show starkly that there is a very real chance of a lost generation in this transition.
The goal of greater access to broadband needs to be realised. “Digital transformation,” addressing the “digital divide” – we need to move beyond mere buzzwords and hackneyed phrases. There is no room for the usual bureaucratic network connectivity errors. We need to upgrade as soon as possible.
When it comes to addressing the plight of students, however, businesses also have a wider role to play. It is not only in the area of providing devices. For example, this year some bookstores have facilitated curbside pickups for parents. Sanitation measures at malls have helped reassure shoppers searching for school supplies. Re-imagining the classroom also involves new tools and software to enhance virtual learning, tailored to local needs.
Annually, education has in the past received the lion’s share of the budget. That spending will no longer be focused on physical premises only, but should also be used to bolster the online networks now needed urgently.
It is clear the technological divide now takes on even greater significance when it comes to our long-term economic position. To safeguard productivity the approach needs to be holistic.
In other words, we have to go back to basics.