September 14, 2020

The Digital Divide as Children Head Back to School: UNICEF Project

In response to the unprecedented educational challenges created by school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 90 per cent of countries have implemented some form of remote learning policy. This factsheet estimates the potential reach of digital and broadcast remote learning responses, finding that at least 463 million students around the globe remain cut off from education, mainly due to a lack of remote learning policies or lack of equipment needed for learning at home. This data primarily stems from the UNESCO-UNICEF-World Bank Survey on National Education Responses to COVID-19 School Closures (June-July 2020), as well as household micro data from sources like Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS), Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS).

The actual number of students who cannot be reached is likely significantly higher than estimated in this factsheet, which reflects best-case scenarios based on policies that were implemented and the technologies available in households. In many situations, despite remote learning policies and the presence of the necessary technology at home, children may be unable to learn due to skills gaps among their teachers or a lack of parental support.

It is important to understand the characteristics and number of children who were not able to benefit from these remote learning policies so that the policies can be improved. By providing insights on which school children did not have access to digital or broadcast remote learning opportunities during school closures, this factsheet seeks to help policymakers make choices that will ensure more children can acquire an education during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

How Governments Responded:

In response to the unprecedented educational challenges created by school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, governments around the world responded quickly and have designed remote learning policies that have the potential to reach more than a billion students.

More than 90 per cent of ministries of education enacted some form of policy to provide digital and broadcast remote learning.

At the global and regional levels, most students (about 70 per cent) have assets at home that would allow them to learn remotely via digital or broadcast classes.

But at least 31 per cent of schoolchildren worldwide cannot be reached by remote learning programs, mainly due to a lack of necessary household assets or policies geared toward their needs. I know some of these children and they are not only in developing countries but right in our backyards, in cities and small towns in the heart of the USA and Europe!

And 40 per cent of countries did not provide remote learning opportunities at the pre-primary level of education.

The Digital Divide and UNICEF

There are more than 300 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 across the globe that are not connected to the internet at school [1].  They lack connectivity to information that the rest of the world takes for granted. These children are being left behind, while their peers from wealthier and more connected regions are getting better education, access to health information, and higher financial inclusion [2]. Children that are disconnected will have a more difficult time finding jobs given that they are unable to acquire digital skills - digital skills that are now integrated into most jobs and livelihoods.

A UNICEF initiative, called Project Connect, has embarked on a journey to map all schools in the world using satellite imagery, machine learning, and data science.  With real-time data, governments and network providers can locate schools that do not have access to the internet. These maps can be used to drive partners to provide connectivity to these schools. Project Connect, along with Blockchain, can introduce the ability to connect these children in a fair and transparent manner around the globe.  Blockchain is a system in which records information are maintained across several computers that are linked in a peer-to-peer network.

UNICEF can play a role in ensuring that every child has an opportunity at the best possible education with access to the internet at school.  It is a critical step to bridge the growing digital divide and providing modern skills for the modern workforce.

Teachers, educators and at home parents should investigate Project Connect and Blockchain while the pandemic continues.

—Deirdre Mullan rsm, PhD

Messages to: Deirdre Mullan rsm - Partnership of Religious Congregations with UNICEF

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