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In Crisis and Beyond: Digital Divide Affects Access to Education

By Basheera Shaik

According to UNESCO, as of April 7th, 2020, COVID-19 led to the closure of schools in 188 countries, interrupting the education of 1.57 billion students. This has prompted a dramatic shift toward Information and Communications Technology (ICT) based solutions for education as schools scramble to find ways to continue the learning process. But while millions of students all over the world are increasingly logging into e-learning platforms and joining virtual classrooms, online learning brings into focus the ‘digital divide’ or the discrepancy in the use and accessibility of ICT for education.

Online learning is a far cry for students from disadvantaged backgrounds unable to afford digital devices and those students who are situated in rural or remote locations that suffer from a lack of internet connectivity. The current pandemic has laid bare these glaring differences and should be used as an opportunity to assess the gaps and to integrate ICT across disadvantaged, rural and marginalized communities in developing as well as developed contexts.

While traditional pedagogy of textbooks and physical classrooms prevails, we live in a digital age that gives us endless opportunities to share information and learn in an iterative manner. To this end, education is already being transformed with increasing online offerings of MOOCS, degrees, certifications and so on. Although this is not a generalized reality in primary and secondary education yet, the pandemic of COVID-19 is speeding up the transformation. The mushrooming ed-tech innovations are giving us a glimpse of what is to come in the future. Nations that do not incorporate ICT in education will only fall behind. Lack of ICT will not only deprive students of an essential skillset for today but also severely limit the information and resources available to them affecting the quality of education received. It is, therefore, important to identify the barriers to ICT and recognize actions to mitigate their impact in the short term. In the long term, these barriers require planned and sustainable response.

Lack of access to technology

Many students across the world, both in developed and developing countries, cannot make use of online learning simply because they don’t have the technology to do so. Not having laptops, mobile devices or tablets through which they can participate in the digital classrooms puts vulnerable students from less affluent backgrounds at a disadvantage, and affects their education and chances in life.  This is especially the case for students in the global south.

Data from International Telecommunications Unit (ITU) for year 2017 indicates that in mainland African countries (for which there is data available) the range of the proportion of households with computers varies from 36 % in Djibouti to 1% for Burundi. In comparison, for most of European countries the proportion is over 60%. Where computers are lacking, mobile phones are becoming a prime mode of access to telecommunication services. But, although mobile phones can be used for access to online learning and a high rate of penetration i.e. 67% globally for mobile phones makes it possible to deliver educational instruction to rural and remote locations, still their use is not universal. Of six African countries (Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania) surveyed by Pew Research Center in 2017 for smartphone usage; five of the countries had less than 40% of adults who owned a smartphone except for South Africa where smartphone ownership was 51%. Clearly, certain parts of the world are trailing far behind in access to technology. When students do not have technology to access educational materials and resources, to interact and share information, to expand their thinking and get feedback; it limits their learning in comparison to those students who do have such access. In the long run, such a digital divide exaggerates the inequalities we see in the world today.

However, lack of technological access, although pronounced in developing and under developed countries, is also an issue within the developed world. In New York, at the beginning of the school closures due to COVID-19, it was anticipated that thousands of students will not have access to computers for remote learning. Another article in USA Today revealed that many students from low-income households do not have access to technology especially if they belong to vulnerable populations such as migrants. The Department of Education for USA puts the estimate of students without access to computers, laptops or smartphones at 259,000 households. Needless to say, students in such households are disproportionately affected. Moreover, even in houses that may have technology, if the devices are shared between parents and multiple children, it further reduces the amount of time or access students may have to them.

Lack of and inadequate Internet connectivity

Today, more than 4.5 billion people use the internet (statista) that is around 59% of the worldwide population. North America and Europe have the highest penetration rate with 94.6% and 87.2% respectively. For Africa and Asia, this number is 39.3% and 53.6% respectively. Given that the two continents together constitute over 70% of world population, the number of people not using the internet is disproportionately concentrated in developing and less developed countries.

Since internet use or penetration does not necessarily mean that there is a lack of access to the internet for students, we look at another statistic i.e. proportion of households with internet. According to ITU’s Facts and Figures 2019 publication, Europe, the Americas and CIS have over 70% of households with internet access at home; whereas for Asia&Pacific, Arab states and Africa this percentage is 51%, 57% and 17.8% respectively. In aggregate, only 47% of the developing and 12% of the less developed countries have households with internet access. Internet speed is also an issue for less developed nations in Africa, Arab states and Asia. Yemen has the slowest broadband in the world with an average speed of 0.38Mbps. This means that a 5 GB movie may take well over 30 hours to download. Thereby, despite the rapid penetration of the internet during the last few decades, there are still large populations of the world that remain disconnected -either due to lack of infrastructure within the countries or their inability to afford the cost of the internet. In consequence, where there is none or poor internet connectivity, students are unable to participate in online classrooms.

For developed countries, although comparatively, the proportion of the student population without internet is lower than in less developed countries, it is still a sizeable one. In USA alone, there are 12 million students who lack highspeed internet access at home and as a result are unable to complete their assignments or perform on par with their peers- a phenomenon termed “homework gap”. Even where cellular networks are present, the high cost of data plans makes less affluent families choose to forego high-speed internet connection and students often have to use public wi-fi for their homework. Emergencies such as the current pandemic exacerbate the gaps in educational opportunities between the rich vs poor and rural vs urban. The longer the emergency continues, more detrimental the impact on educational inequality will be.

Although the lack of access to technology and connectivity are the most visible barriers to ICT integration, other factors such as the lack of skilled teachers and school infrastructures also influence the adoption of ICT based education. In the event of crisis, these factors become even more crucial. Teachers who are not skilled may be reluctant to take up e-learning platforms and students who have not been exposed to digital devices through their school infrastructures may find it difficult to adopt new technologies. Furthermore, e-learning also requires parental guidance especially for lower grades, and many families with working parents or parents who do not have ICT skills are unable to help their children in successfully using these technologies.

Implications for the present and the future

Lack of access to technology becomes a serious issue in the case of a pandemic like COVID-19. In countries where digital devices are scarce and/or many students do not have a means to connect to the internet, learning comes to a halt as in the case of the Ebola crisis in 2014-15, when schools in Sierra Leone remained closed for eight months. Although the use of traditional means of TV and radio, or printed assignments, may be put to use in the global south during emergencies, and are better than nothing, such means have limitations. They are restricted in time or content and do not compare with learning in a regular or e-classroom, in terms of level of engagement and quality of learning.

In the current scenario, countries are realizing that they are underprepared to handle the potential of the pandemic to cause education disruption and increase inequalities. Thankfully, governments have been quick to respond to facilitate technological access to students wherever possible, or to provide alternative means of learning via distance education methods. For example, in El Paso school district in Texas, USA, 8200 laptops have been distributed to students. Radio and tv are being included as a means for education delivery, targeting those students who have neither computers nor mobile phones. While these means may not fully compensate for classroom learning, such measures are pragmatic as we should prioritize the continuation of student education via whatever means necessary. Public television networks are broadcasting school lessons in Iran, USA, Bangladesh, Turkey, France, South Africa and China to name a few. Countries like Colombia are taking a multichannel approach with its  Aprender Digital platform that has over 80,000 digital resources for students and meanwhile is also preparing offline study kits for those who do not have ICT access.

To address internet connectivity, in the USA, network providers are being given incentives to roll out affordable data plans to students. At the same time, students are being provided or loaned hotspot devices, free of cost, in order to connect to Wi-Fi. China is offering mobile data packages and subsidies for students. In Dominican Republic, 1000 wifi access points have been set up for the use of students.

As we can see, there is a rush to integrate ICT as much as possible in education during the coronavirus outbreak. But while over half the countries, globally, have announced distance learning plans (via online , TV, Radio and other means); there are several countries especially in the low-income category that have yet to announce measures for education during COVID-19. According to the latest commentary from Center for Global Development (cgdev), amongst the 30+ Sub-Saharan African countries, only 4 have any announced distance learning plans.

A global pandemic needs a global response. It is essential that education during crisis be discussed on a global scale. To this end, UNESCO has established COVID-19 emergency task force in order to share policies and to support national responses. Global COVID-19 Education Coalition brings multilateral partners including the private sector to help countries in setting up remote learning solutions. But, apart from UN agencies that are constrained by budgets, regional coalitions must be set up in order to share experiences that are specific to the region. For example, West African countries that have previously dealt with the situation of Ebola can work together to build upon knowledge and systems already present.

Looking beyond the crisis we have today, the question is will governments and educational institutions take the lessons learnt from this period and find means of incorporating ICT in the educational system?

According to UNESCO, most nations integrate ICT in their education policies. These policies vary in the extent of integration i.e. from which grade is ICT integrated or for which subjects. In several countries, ICT is incorporated for the study of mathematics and science whereas not for other subjects, but what happens to the study of other subjects in the cases of emergencies? Furthermore, given the implementation of policies varies according to the country priorities, even when national development plans seek to integrate ICT, on-ground realities call for prioritization of more pressing issues such as increasing enrollment, focusing on reducing gender disparity etc. This shows that the ICT integration in education at the policy level and consequently at the implementation level, for many countries, is symbolic rather than practical.  

Now more than ever is the opportunity to address the policy and implementation gap. In response to COVID-19, the measures taken by different countries appear to be sporadic and unconnected. What is required, however, is a sustainable plan for ICT based education in emergencies for the future as well as long term integration of ICT. On a long-term basis, a proactive approach should be adopted by countries. At a national level, countries should prioritize on building digital infrastructures with the inclusion of the private sector. Open and competitive market for broadband internet should be established in order to drive down cost of the internet and the private sector should be incentivized to develop low cost education technology innovations. Lastly, global and regional policy analysis platforms should be established to analyze and review response mechanisms during and after the crisis.

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