Following the lockdown, schools and universities in the UK shifted to remote learning overnight. After initial difficulties in adapting to online zoom calls, the fortunate took online lessons with minimal disruption. But while a shift to online learning offered greater flexibility for some, it added new challenges for nearly 1.6 billion children who lack access to the necessary technology.
The digital divide and the homework gap
The “Digital divide” — the gap between those with internet access and those without — is not new. In education, between those with facilities for digital learning at home and those without. The homework gap precedes the current crisis. While this divide is partly due to geographic challenges to install the required infrastructure for high speed internet, the more pressing issue is the socioeconomic digital divide: between the ‘have’ and ‘have-nots’ of digital means to learn.
According to the OECD, the homework gap persists within developed countries of the Global North, and more so between the countries of the Global South and North. Nevertheless, the nature of the homework gap varies. In the Global North, the concern focuses on how to use technology for education; but for much of the Global South, the more fundamental concern is one of access. For instance, despite regional inequalities in the UK being among the worst in the developed nations, 95% of British children can access the internet and a computer. Meanwhile, only 41.6% of children in Colombia, and a mere 12% in Nepal, have that privilege. The pandemic has exacerbated this homework gap. Moreover, as classes shift online, the homework gap will worsen yet further.
A recent UNCTAD report recognised that the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are the most vulnerable to the homework gap, as 4 in 5 people lack access to the internet during the pandemic. This lack of access limits the learning possibilities for children — in particular, those from LDCs, as schools and libraries close. While the lockdown is still in force in much of the Global South, learning there will suffer more than will be the case in the Global North. The impact on children’s general wellbeing will be even greater. A loss of nearly half a year of learning due to the pandemic is hard to recuperate. The takeaway is that governments should view this pandemic as highlighting inequalities in education and should shift policy to prioritise tackling them.
What does the future hold?
A new analysis from UNCTAD shows that the crisis has accelerated digital solutions. This trend, of using digital platforms for teaching and learning, is likely to continue in schools and universities. Some scholars believe the post-pandemic era will offer an opportunity to digitally democratise education, such as through online lectures. However, while the digitisation of education is likely to accelerate, policymakers have to make sure the benefits distribute equitably.
The pandemic has brought a sense of urgency to narrowing the homework gap and, more broadly, the socioeconomic digital divide. When we physically return to universities and schools, disparities will persist. Hence, the post-pandemic education policy should prioritise and accentuate the need to ‘bridge the digital divide’ in education when governments press the ‘great reset’ button after the pandemic.
International organisations like UNESCO have started to support the disadvantaged by introducing several innovations in digital platforms in education. Yet while this solution promotes utility among the digitally connected, it nonetheless leaves disparate access intact. Hence, infrastructure investment to solve the problem of unequal access is vital.
However, debt accumulation during the pandemic — which is also unequally distributed — frustrates any prospect of imminent infrastructure investment to solve the digital divide. This is especially the case in the Global South, as government spending is likely near term. Hence, debt relief for the LDCs, as some leaders suggest, would help free up resources for digital investment in education.
Nevertheless, the digital divide is a global problem that demands international solutions. The post-pandemic world should act accordingly.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.