Not lesser than 31% – some 463 million – of schoolchildren worldwide cannot be reached by digital and broadcast remote learning programs enacted to counter school closures, UNICEF has revealed.
As students around the world are returning to school after the summer break, the debate over whether or not in-person classes are a safe and sensible option in face of the COVID-19 pandemic is raging on.
While those in favor of a regular return to school point out the limitations of remote learning, others fear that the risk of students getting together in often badly ventilated classrooms outweighs the benefits of in-person classes.
And while the debate is loudest in countries such as the United States, where remote learning is a real option, it’s important to remember that large parts of the world don’t have the privilege of arguing about the pros and cons of digital learning.
According to a recent UNICEF report, at least 460 million students across the globe cannot be reached with remote learning programs, because they simply lack access to the necessary devices or infrastructure.
“Globally, at least 31 per cent of students from pre-primary to upper secondary schools cannot be reached due to either a lack of policies supporting digital and broadcast remote learning or a lack of the household assets needed to receive digital or broadcast instruction,” the report says, with Africa and South Asia the least prepared for prolonged school closures.
As the following chart shows, the youngest students are most likely to be cut off from remote learning opportunities, as two out of three pre-primary students cannot be reached. In purely numerical terms, the problem is most pronounced at the primary school level, where more than 200 million students lack access to remote learning tools.
Children across Africa were most likely to be “left behind”
Children across Africa were most likely to be “left behind”, with at least 49% of school children in Eastern and Southern Africa being unable to be reached via digital or broadcast instruction, statistic showed.
“School closures, coupled with limited or non-existent opportunities for remote learning, have upended children’s education”
In Latin America and the Caribbean, 9% of students could not be reached, making its pupils the most connected to remote learning programs, however, UNICEF emphasised that its research reflected best-case scenarios.
The actual number of students who cannot be reached via digital and broadcast including TV, radio and internet is “likely significantly higher” than it had estimated, UNICEF added.
The humanitarian agency has also announced a partnership with multinational telecommunications company Ericsson to help map school connectivity in 35 countries by the end of 2023.
“The deepening digital divide is one of the many inequalities that the Covid-19 pandemic has underscored,” said Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, deputy executive director, Partnerships at UNICEF.
“School closures, coupled with limited or non-existent opportunities for remote learning, have upended children’s education worldwide. Our partnership with Ericsson will bring us closer to giving every child and young person access to digital learning opportunities.”
The Ericsson partnership is a part of the Giga initiative – led by UNICEF and the International Telecommunication Union – launched in 2019, with the aim of connecting every school to the internet.
The telecommunications giant is the first private sector partner to make a multi-million dollar commitment to the initiative, the partners noted.
“Ericsson is uniquely positioned to be a key partner in helping address this important issue due to our technical expertise, global scale, decades of experience in public/private partnerships, and proven results connecting students and educators,” said Heather Johnson, vice president of Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility, Ericsson.
Earlier in 2020, celebrities including singer Shakira and football legend Pele joined UNESCO in calling for more to be done to target inequities in global education.
Additionally, speakers at the 2020 Education World Forum warned that Sustainable Development Goal 4 – including universal primary and secondary schooling and universal literacy for children – will not be met by the 2030 deadline.
The lack of access to the internet results in exclusion, fewer resources to learn, and limited opportunities for the most vulnerable children and youth, according to the ITU.