Online learning isn’t just for those who can afford the technology
The dramatic shift to online learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to increasing educational inequality.
Hundreds of millions of students, teachers and support staff engage in a learning revolution every day: The COVID-19 pandemic has broken centuries of tradition of students traveling to physical institutions to learn. In many places, school and university classrooms now use laptops and smartphones, and the internet has replaced physical books.
It was a tremendous – and extremely fast – transition affecting everyone from the youngest kids in school to the young people at university. Researchers are beginning to explore their full impact and implications – for students, staff, and organizations that create and implement educational technology platforms.
Higher education has been paying attention to online education for some time. Long before the pandemic, universities around the world were offering massive open online courses (MOOCs) in addition to face-to-face teaching and learning. Now that online courses are becoming increasingly important for higher education, it is important to carefully evaluate the impact of this change.
We already know that this educational revolution carries significant risks. Prior to the pandemic, countries had made good progress in ensuring that children had completed at least basic education by 2030 – defined as the years between pre-primary and secondary education. It is one of the few potentially accessible United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. This may no longer be a problem – a prospect that should concern us all.
According to the United Nations Organization for Science and Education (UNESCO), this week an extraordinary 850 million children and adolescents – half of those enrolled in schools, colleges and universities worldwide – have never attended education or training because of COVID-19. . The agency also monitors the closure of secondary schools on a daily basis, and although schools are open in many locations, they remain closed in 52 countries.
It is mostly affected in the global south and includes many low and middle income countries. This means that students there are much less likely to participate in the online revolution. Internet penetration in this part of the world is low – and according to the International Telecommunications Union, some 360 million young people don’t have access. Many countries use terrestrial television and radio to broadcast lessons as a cheaper alternative to broadband.
With the ongoing pandemic, rebuilding educational institutions in poorer parts of the world – including poorer areas in high-income countries – is often impossible. Overcrowding prevents social distancing and there is no way to keep COVID-19 schools safe.
All this means that students from the poorest families who do not have access to the internet are more likely to be denied education, which adds to the deepest educational inequality. Because education is closely related to work, income, and health later in life, failure now will last a lifetime.
At universities, the transition to online education has allowed institutions to reach students from disadvantaged areas and under-represented communities. Yet paradoxically, fewer people could get higher education if children from these communities had no prior access to education.
The pandemic will force a large number of institutions to remain closed and online learning will replace reality. However, if broadband and laptops are compatible with teachers, libraries and labs, it may not be acceptable to only be available to a small number of students.
To make online education more inclusive, public education institutions – and those who fund them – need to do more to ensure that more students can benefit from new technology. This includes prioritizing access to broadband, smartphones and laptops – which are increasingly available in many countries.
This is a small price to pay now for a decades-long educated and sustainable population.