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Dechen Chhoeden: Bridging the digital literacy gap and strengthening cybersecurity in Bhutan

Posted: 8 September 2021

Bhutan, COVID-19, Impact, Women empowerment,

Australia Awards alumna Dechen Chhoeden is the Deputy Chief Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Officer at the Department of Information Technology & Telecom in Bhutan’s Ministry of Information and Communications (MoIC), which is the nodal government agency responsible for the overall development of ICT infrastructure and services in Bhutan.

She completed a Master of Cybersecurity (Business Operations) from La Trobe University in 2019, supported by an Australia Awards Scholarship. In anticipation of International Literacy Day, we met with her to discuss her motivation for following a career in ICT and how she is making a difference through her work.

What inspired you to get into your line of work?

Having completed my Bachelor of Computer Science, I entered the civil service workforce as an aspiring Information Technology (IT) professional. While this was the logical choice given my educational background, what really inspired me to study Computer Science was it being a new field at that time, especially in Bhutan. I wanted to study something different to what I had studied in school. Computer Science was unfamiliar to me, and I didn’t know anyone I could consult about what it entailed or to guide me. But I chose this field to support my quest to study and learn something different, and with that motivation I got into my current line of work in the IT field.

How has your Australia Awards Scholarship helped you enhance your career?

IT is a challenging and unpredictable field. Continuous learning is vital to keep up with the everchanging trends of the IT industry. The specialisation areas in IT have also evolved over time. After working as an ICT Officer for more than a decade, I increasingly felt the need to upgrade my knowledge and skills, and I wanted to specialise in a particular area. The Australia Awards Scholarship to study a Master of Cybersecurity helped me to fulfil this dream, and to address the shortage of cybersecurity skills in the government. I could utilise the skills and knowledge I acquired through my master’s degree to strengthen cybersecurity in Bhutan. Going forward, I hope my experience in cybersecurity can help enhance my career and enable me to take up new challenges and work related to improving and strengthening cybersecurity in the country.

As a woman in the ICT sector, have you faced any challenges during your career? How have you overcome these challenges?

I must say that I have had as many opportunities to grow and flourish at work as my male colleagues. In terms of work opportunities, I personally have not faced any challenges so far for being a woman. However, women in the IT field are considered less knowledgeable than men, due to unconscious biases, and as a result may not experience the same career prospects due to the challenges in achieving  the work-life balance expected of working mothers. Another general bias regards having women as managers—this seems particularly less preferred by men. Since the need for continuous learning and upskilling is a requisite in this field, working mothers can be disadvantaged if they cannot find extra time to learn and improve their skills. Due to growing work pressures and not being able to keep up with industry trends, women are most likely to opt for a career break, change their career or leave the field altogether. I am sure working mothers in the IT field are facing similar challenges in Bhutan.

Dechen at her workplace

COVID-19 has enforced the adoption of digital learning globally, including in Bhutan. However, the switch to digital learning continues to be a challenge. How have you contributed at the Ministry of Information and Communications to narrowing the digital divide?

As COVID-19 spread into countries around the world without any warning, over a year and a half ago, and started disrupting economies, it also started affecting the traditional ways of working in offices and learning in schools and universities. In Bhutan, COVID-19 presented enormous challenges in teaching and learning in schools. Virtual learning had to be adopted due to the challenges of holding face-to-face classes. As the nodal government agency, MoIC helped the Ministry of Education explore tools to develop learning content and disseminate the material to students through phones and computers. Internet bandwidth and the associated cost were the main challenges. The digital divide was felt hard; a significant percentage of students didn’t have access to smartphones or computers, and most could not afford the high internet data charges. Those most affected were students from disadvantaged families or remote villages with limited access to the internet and digital tools. Therefore, the Ministry also worked with Bhutan Telecom Ltd and Tashi Infocomm Ltd to subsidise and reduce the cost of internet access for students. In 2020, as students lost a year’s worth of conventional schooling, the initiatives by the government ensured students could continue learning through alternative means, mostly through technology and virtually.

What initiatives are your agency introducing to improve access to technology and narrow the digital divide, and what will be your role?

Narrowing the digital divide and improving access to services for all citizens are core mandates of MoIC to fulfil its ICT obligations. The Digital Drukyul Flagship Program in the 12th Five Year Plan includes the Digital School program by the Ministry of Education, which will implement a Learning Management System to enhance digital learning in schools. MoIC is spearheading the Digital Literacy program, which aims to impart digital skills to citizens and bridge the gap of digital literacy. Connecting schools, hospitals and offices is another important initiative to ensure access to essential services.

Working in cybersecurity, my role in all these initiatives is to ensure that  citizens and students have access to the tools and services, without any disruption, and that  beneficiaries are aware of online security for safe and secure communication. To that end, awareness and advocacy programs related to online security, training ICT professionals to develop secure applications and networks, and monitoring and assessing applications and networks for cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities are among the programs that I will help implement. I believe these initiatives will be crucial to bridge the digital literacy gap in a secure manner while addressing the challenges faced by the most remote and disadvantaged communities in the long run.

This year’s International Literacy Day theme is ‘Literacy for a human-centred recovery: Narrowing the digital divide’. What is your key message to your fellow alumni and citizens to ensure more people in Bhutan have access to technology?

Online learning has become crucial, especially in light of the global pandemic situation adding to the challenge of the digital divide in the country. Therefore, there is a pertinent need to adopt innovative solutions and continue our efforts for enhancing digital literacy and accessibility of ICT to benefit everyone in the country.