International Day of Education: The Emerging Digital Divide


With the International Day of Education this 24th of January, it's a good time to reflect on one of the most challenging years for providing this most fundamental of human rights. The coronavirus has had detrimental consequences worldwide across all aspects of society and has served to reinforce pre-existing inequalities. Its impact on education has been constantly in the spotlight throughout, though the focus has remained broadly level for all students no matter the educational background. Yet the fallout from the transition to an online learning experience has brought one specific inequality to the fore. The need to recognise the growing "digital divide".

CDV's Matilda Hazael looks at one of the ways education has been affected by the Coronavirus: 

The debate surrounding the perceived need for students to continue attending school during the pandemic has rumbled on for almost a year with no clear consensus, even during times of full "lockdown" when all schools are closedConcerns about the disadvantages of the online learning experience, including a lack of motivation from students and parents alike, limited opportunity for one-on-one teacher support, reduced hours and finding the most suitable space for learning at home away from distractions, have not made the switch to online learning in the UK an easy transition by any means. This despite huge advances in online teaching platforms, programmes and curricula designed for a remote learning experience.

For those pupils who lack regular access to high quality internet, useable internet enabled devices or a suitable study space, the barriers to a strong education have been even more challenging. Pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are now said to be around 18 months behind their peers in educational progress, with areas of higher unemployment and rates of poverty, like parts of the North East of England, more likely to be the worst affected.

In order to bridge the UK's digital divide, steps have been taken to help allow all students to be connected. The government has pledged to provide over 200,000 laptops with a 6-month free internet pass to ensure no child misses out on valuable learning resources. Additionally, centralised sources including BBC Bitesize and the Oak National Academy, supplement mainstream teaching to help students stay engaged.

However, despite an obvious and growing digital divide in the UK, its strong infrastructure means that most households have the potential to gain access to a reliable internet connection, given adequate resources from National and Regional governments. In other parts of the world, where such vital infrastructure is lacking and only 59% of the global population are considered active internet users, alternative approaches are being introduced to combat the risk of a significant loss to education.

In Nepal, a lack of basic infrastructure coupled with ongoing Covid-19 restrictions and an already struggling education system still recovering from the devastating 2015 Earthquake, virtual learning for students is difficult at best. For those students with access to private education, online learning has in most cases continued. But for the majority who attend government mandated schools, as few as 6% of students have access to Wi-Fi at home, let alone a useable device on which to study.

Despite these challenges, educational initiatives to create community-based networks have been ongoing since 2015, aimed primarily at remote "off-grid" communities. One such network, RUCCESS, helped to provide IT equipment including computers and printers to numerous rural communities, whilst W4C Nepal helped to create an e-library of 7000 books.

Nepal has made every effort to preserve and develop its educational programme, but with a growing class and gender divide - exaggerated by the coronavirus epidemic - a struggling infrastructure and resources required for the ongoing upkeep and maintenance of such online programmes, the long-term sustainability of these programmes is at risk.

In the past year throughout India, over 1.5 million schools have been closed, affecting 286 million children in either primary or secondary education. Initiatives made by Padhai Tuhar Dwar, have been successful in attempting to replicate face-to-face teaching in the form of a digital learning space, but only an estimated 24% of households are known to have viable internet, a figure which drops to 4% in rural communities resulting in millions of children being excluded. As such, numerous approaches have been taken to try and boost student attainment in education. The Indian national teacher platform, DISHKA, has, with government support, created 32 educational channels for pupils at all different stages of learning.

The fact remains that none of these remote learning experiences will be able to adequately replicate the face-to-face learning experience of the classroom. All have their drawbacks, whether it's logistical, situational or merely the ability to truly engage with the students. The growth in online learning will continue even after the pandemic is over, much like the increase in remote working is likely to endure. Inequalities in access to digital learning need to be addressed now if a truly harmful divide in educational standards is to be prevented.

But across the globe, rural communities are creating new forms of schooling, unwilling to allow digital poverty or an ongoing pandemic disrupt the right of their children to an education, with a noticeable rise in volunteer-led community learning in accordance to social distancing measures.

Examples from India include Dumarthar village in the district of Dumka, which had volunteers paint blackboards onto the outside walls of students' homes allowing the pupils to take notes whilst lessons are conducted via loudspeaker. Meanwhile in the Ramgarh district, there has been a move to create audio lessons that help increase viable learning opportunities at home. For the rural tribal communities of Jharkhand state, a door drop campaign was launched, delivering schoolbooks and other materials facilitated by the district, helping support students in some of the most marginalised communities.

Community ingenuity has enabled communal-based teaching and increased the role of parents and guardians in their children's education. Whilst the global digital divide must be addressed, it can be overcome. Education and schooling is often seen as a regimented process with every child needing to progress through the same cycle, but it's by no means one size fits all process. Education will always innovate, even in the most pressing of times.

2020 will be remembered as the year online learning became more than a concept. As such education necessitated three basic requirements; access to a device, access to the internet, and finally access to a suitable workspace from home. Even in developed countries like the UK, this has proved more challenging than we might have thought. Meanwhile, for countries like Nepal and India, the absence of pre-existing infrastructure has resulted in an ever increasing risk to equitable education. Great initiatives have been implemented to try and either bridge or even bypass the divide, albeit with varying degrees of success. However, the main lesson we can learn is the innovative propensity of education and how, above all else, we as humans will continue to find a way to deliver such a basic human right.

CDV Global partners with NGOs who are on the frontline of the virus. Many NGOs are involved in providing education to rural communities most at risk of losing educational support. With the aid of CDV Global, individuals and companies are able to remotely create and deliver a programme that ultimately helps provide services - including education - to those most in need. If you or your company are interested in creating a long-term relationship with organisations who are supporting marginalised communities through the pandemic and beyond to a sustainable future, please get in touch. 

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Tuesday, 25 January 2022

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