“Leaving no one behind means leaving no one offline, yet, half of the world’s population, an estimated 3.7 billion people, does not use the Internet,” warns the Policy Brief: Leveraging digital technologies for social inclusion issued by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA). A document published by UNESCO noted the impact of this digital divide on education during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying that the move to digital learning has excluded “large numbers of learners, amplifying existing educational disparities.”

To address the digital divide and highlight the importance of investing in digital inclusion, the Federal University of Cariri (UFCA), a UNAI member institution in Brazil, expanded initiatives to ensure students had access to the digital tools necessary to continue their studies. Prior to the pandemic the university already offered a financial aid program for digital inclusion that enabled vulnerable UFCA students to receive money for the purchase of a brand-new laptop or to upgrade, maintain or repair an existing one. Between 2018 and 2019, a total of 765 students received funds from the program.

With the pandemic, remote learning became the primary mode of instruction in most Brazilian universities and internet access and digital equipment became a must for all students. In 2020 the university reallocated resources that had been earmarked for other expenditures to expand the digital aid program and increase the number of students participating in online classes. Through the expanded digital inclusion aid, 527 UFCA students purchased a laptop and 190 upgraded the ones they already owned.

In addition, 221 UFCA students benefited from a federal government program to provide chips for access to 3G internet. According to Vitória Santos Ângelo, an undergraduate student, “there are disparities between students, especially those in vulnerable situations; this is my case. I had never owned a computer and thanks to the digital inclusion aid program I got my first laptop. I cannot imagine how I could continue my studies without it during the pandemic.”

Another student, Jéssica Sousa, said that she also did not have a laptop of her own and had to stay after classes to complete her homework at the university library. “When I got the opportunity to apply for digital inclusion aid, I got the necessary documentation and was awarded a grant. With a laptop purchase, my performance in the courses improved significantly and with the beginning of the pandemic face-to-face classes were suspended indefinitely and this laptop became even more important as I was able to remain active.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated that the digital divide is still a reality for many students, and this program helps to close this gap to ensure that students, particularly those from economically vulnerable families, can continue their studies and not be left behind.