In February and March 2020, the world was left upheaved and shaken to an extent not seen for a generation as the Covid 19 virus forced the world into lockdown. Governments put out mandatory orders for their citizens to remain indoors and to socially distance from each other. School students and teachers all over the world were told it was no longer safe to participate in classroom learning and schools were left to ponder how they would continue providing an education to their students. from their homes.
The news coverage covering the covid 19 pandemic has mainly focused on health concerns like case numbers and deaths resulting from the virus. Economic hardships and adjustments to house bound lifestyles have also made news coverage but what has gone largely unreported has been the long-term impacts on child education all over the world due to school closures.
A widening of the gap between the quality of education received by the world’s poorest and richest students has been one of the consequences of the pandemic. This is due to many schools relying on online education to proceed with their education programs, something that not all schools around the world are able to afford. For example, the OCED forecast that in Spain 68% of students in advantaged schools were in possession of sufficiently powerful digital devices compared to only 10% in disadvantaged schools. In Japan 30% of households with annual incomes under 4 million Yen (USD $37,000) said they had no access to computers and tablet devices.
Economics Lecturer of North Western University in the United States Matthias Doepke reported in The Economist magazine that the world’s youngest schoolchildren would be hurt most by school closures, saying that “kids can’t easily make up for lost time”. As further evidence of this, the UNICEF estimates that 463 million children had no chance of remote learning via radio, television or online content. Statistics from the World Bank in Dec 2020 indicate that 72 million children could be pushed into learning poverty by the covid 19 pandemic, defined by the world bank as being unable to read simple texts by age 10. The consequences of this are devastating on the global economy with 10 trillion dollars in future lifetime earnings risked being lost, the equivalent of 10% of global GDP.
So what have states done to address these inequalities?
Many schools around the world have sought to move education online and distribute smart tablets and computers to students so they can learn from the safety of their homes.
Before Covid 19 the Refugee, Migrant Children Centre (RMCC) in Melbourne, Australia was an organisation that would organise in person after school programs for refugee and migrant kids to learn, complete homework and participate in fun activities with mentors and fellow students. Upon mass business and school closures in Australia in March 2020 due to Covid 19, the after-school programs were moved online thanks to the distribution of older generation iPads from retail stores to RMCC who distributed them to each of the student participants. This meant students were able to participate in the programs at any time and were not further disadvantaged from school closures.
The Ministry of Education and Professional Training of Spain created a website that translates to “resources for online learning”. This website allowed teachers, families, and students to access online learning material from home. In addition, public television channel RTVE in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Professional Training created an Educlan (an educational tool for students and families) that has allowed audio and visual content for children aged 3 to 10.
Japan has had better luck during covid 19 assisting developing nations such as Cambodia launch their own online resources. The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport has worked with the Japan International Cooperation Agency to create an educational program called “Think Think”, a program that provides free online lessons to students and is then broadcast via the television channel Satellite Decho TV for those who don’t have internet access.
Cambodian teachers took advantage of the country’s high mobile phone usage (129 mobile phones per every 100 people) to send out homework and feedback via SMS texts. The Ministry of Education has sought to take advantage of the country’s wide ownership of mobile phones by delivering a Youtube channel, Facebook page and eLearning Centres that students from home can access and download material on.
In neighbouring Malaysia, public broadcaster Radio Televisyen Malaysia launched a channel called TV Okey that was designed to deliver educational television programs to all students. Not all households in Malaysia have access to internet, computer and tablet equipment that other students in other countries are using to watch videos and complete online work sheets and projects. These programs in Malaysia were broadcast for 2 hours a day on television and on the website of the Ministry of Education so that those who have access to a television will be able to have 2 hours of learning a day.
While these efforts are making smaller differences towards improving student access to education, there are still significant gaps in the access to education between poorer and richer households. Teachers who are unable to use or distribute online technology means that students and their parents also struggle to obtain or use the systems through lack of guidance. Peterson (2018) argues that efforts should come from school principals to support teachers in their usage of online teaching resources so the teachers can act as mentors to guide students and “help them remain focused on the learning elements of the tasks”.
Examples of this can be found in Western Australia, where the local state government sought to train teachers on how to best utilise the platforms and technologies. In schools that had the funding to provide their students with the technology to work from home, the result was higher productivity.
The common trend in these solutions are households and schools who have the resources and wealth to access online education programs will reap more rewards of government programs than those who can’t afford to have a computer or tablet. Students without internet access in Malaysia will have to rely on 2 hours of television learning, students in Japan are without textbooks, computers or even a quiet study space and students in Australia whose schools cannot afford to distribute computers will either be given significant amounts of paper handouts or rely on the generosity of charities to engage in online learning.
Governments around the world have implemented programs that have proven online education can be implemented from the safety of student’s homes. Where the challenges lie is making sure that students regardless of their socio-economic background have access to the very same resources. Making these resources available via television and internet is a step in the right direction. The next step will be providing training to teachers to be able to effectively teach their students using online or alternative technology and the expansion internet connections for those in rural areas who struggle to escape the cycle of poverty if they can no longer participate in school lessons. As outlined by the World Bank, all economies around the world will suffer if education standards continue to slide and those who cannot afford an online education will remain in a cycle of poverty.