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Educators, ICT providers collaborate to close digital divide for students

By Lara Pickford-Gordon

More than 1,000 students in Catholic schools without internet access are getting assistance through a collaboration between the Archdiocese through the Catholic Education Board of Management (CEBM) and the Telecommunications Services of Trinidad and Tobago (TSTT) and other providers of Information and Communication Technology (ICT).

Following the closure of education institutions with the Covid-19 pandemic, tuition shifted to online. The digital gap came to the fore with some students unable to attend online classes due to a lack of internet and/or electronic devices. Consequently, they have had to rely on printed material disseminated by their schools.

Last month, Education Minister Nyan Gadsby-Dolly revealed a total of 35,448 students—26,450 primary and 8,998 secondary — were still without laptops and other devices.

Last year Archbishop Jason Gordon contacted the Massy Group and a number of private sector ICT companies to assist with providing connectivity and end user solutions for low-income households.

The Archdiocese is partnering with TSTT, Digicel, Flow, Amplia, Massy Group and PBS Technologies on the plan. A private sector led ICT Solutions Committee was established in conjunction with the Archdiocese to find ways to provide affordable internet access and end user devices to students who need them.

The solutions proposed were low-cost wired broadband solutions, low-cost wireless solution (MiFi, Dongle, Data SIM), low-cost tablets. The solutions are targeted towards families that can afford a low-cost solution and families that can only afford to pay a percentage of the cost.

Principals were asked to compile a list of students in need of internet access, devices, or both. The students were divided into those who can afford a low-cost solution and those who will only be able to pay a minimal sum.

The Archdiocese sent lists of students for review by the committee and the information used to meet the needs of the students identified.

Senior Operations Manager, CEBM, Ayanna Nero said based on information provided by principals, data of children without internet and their locations was provided to TSTT. They are “all over” Trinidad including Moruga, Erin, St Joseph, Mon Repos and Belmont. The company subsequently stated it would provide connectivity.

Chairman of the Association of Denominational Boards of Education (ADBE), and Chief Executive Officer, CEBM, Sharon Mangroo stated ADBE members were invited to participate in the project.

The CEBM coordinated the receipt of the data to forward to the telecommunications group. Arrangements would be made for distribution to the Education Boards.

A May 29 media release from TSTT, ‘Telecom Companies Expand Connectivity for Remote Learning’, stated: “The CEBM determined that there were approximately 4,000 students without Internet access under their remit, of which 1,900 families indicated that they could only afford a low-cost solution. This information was circulated to all major telecommunications providers and other corporate entities in T&T for consideration”.

TSTT Chief Executive Officer Lisa Agard was quoted as saying the company has long been engaged in ensuring connectivity for youth in T&T, particularly since the quarantine measures of 2020.

The TSTT release reported that, “In addition to zero-rating pertinent educational websites, TSTT has implemented and will continue to implement solutions that support the continuation of education for the nation’s students”.

Mangroo is quoted welcoming support from the local companies “to increase access to remote learning through this bridging of the digital gap.”