In many places around the world, schools are left with deserted classrooms, quiet hallways and empty playgrounds. Covid-19 has forced students and teachers to rapidly adapt to extended school closures, a phenomenon that most have never experienced. Even though the response to school closures varies across the Asia-Pacific region, the SDG Progress Report 2021 indicates that by September 2020 more than 850 million children had missed out on almost half of their academic school year.
While technology has helped break down some longstanding barriers and brought about more inclusive societies, increased reliance on technology since the start of the pandemic has contributed to a growing digital divide. Consequently, the immediate transition to online learning posed a great challenge for many students, especially those in remote communities. The report further reveals that the most vulnerable students in the Asia-Pacific region do not have access to technology that enables them to participate in remote learning.
Even before Covid-19 struck, the Asia-Pacific region was not on track to reach any of the SDG targets by 2030. Though the South-East Asia sub-region has made significant progress on SDG 4 (quality education for all), countries still need to pick up the pace in bridging the digital divide. While Internet users account for a large share of the population in some countries such as Brunei Darussalam (95 per cent), Malaysia (84.2 per cent) and Singapore (88.9 per cent), they account for less than 30 per cent of the population in other countries such as Lao PDR and Myanmar. Slow progress is also observed in broadband subscriptions, especially for higher speeds (more than 10Mbit/s) which stood at 5.4 per 100 population, less than half the world average.
On a national scale, students without access to online learning would need extra support from governments as the absence of connectivity perpetuates inequality of opportunity. Correspondingly, there are several ways policymakers can contribute to protecting the future of students and ensuring that even the most vulnerable are not left behind.
Firstly, there should be a consensus that access to internet and computers are no longer a privilege, but a basic need. To make education accessible for all students, policymakers could work towards providing laptops or tablets as an essential item in every student's backpack. Furthermore, internet access for educational purposes should also be affordable for every student and teaching staff.
Secondly, to provide quality education to students, there needs to be an increase in the number of quality teachers who can adapt to non-traditional methods of teaching. To ensure that courses are delivered effectively in the online environment, policymakers should consider the launching of standardised how-to-teach-online courses for teachers. In addition to being trained on the technological component, the course should also cover methods teaching staff can use to remotely assist students with special learning needs.
Thirdly, existing school curriculums are not designed to be fully taught online, nor are they entirely relevant in preparing students for a post-Covid future. UNICEF explains that many schools tend to jump straight into online learning with the assumption that students and teachers can continue from where they left off in the classroom. However, it does not mean that class content, concentration levels or assessment marks are directly transferable due to the changed circumstances. Additionally, policymakers should consider integrating financial literacy classes to current school curriculums.
The Decade of Action, particularly in the context of recovery from a pandemic, makes it necessary for countries to scale up e-resilience and inclusive broadband across sectors and communities. Addressing the digital divide among students, which is exacerbating not only inequality in education, but ultimately inequality of opportunity, should be a top priority. To this end, governments need to make the transition more resilient and equitable, and ensure the sustainability of education as a centrepiece of their post-pandemic recovery plans.
[The piece is excerpted from www.unescap.org/blog]