COVID-19: The Digital Divide Drives Inequities in Virtual Learning

A. DeCarlo
A. DeCarlo

Summary Bullets:

  • With 872 million students relying on some form of virtual learning this academic year, lack of access to reliable technology for some is translating into an academic disaster for millions.
  • While the pandemic drags on, observers are urging a concerted effort to fill in technology gaps to support all students as schools work to find a safe path back to physical school.

COVID-19 sent billions of students into a new virtual reality as schools in 192 countries closed their doors. At the pandemic’s peak, 1.6 billion students were impacted. Even the most well-funded school systems struggled to adjust, with technology platforms that faltered. In poorer systems, the lack of technology and connectivity meant many students’ education for the year effectively ended in March.

Now the United Nations (UN) is sounding the alarm that continuation of distance learning during the COVID-19 crisis may leave too many students without the right technology tools in an academic abyss. UNICEF said 872 million are still not back in a physical school.

While many are adjusting to what is largely considered a more dynamic and structured distance learning environment than they experienced in the spring, UNICEF said there is still a sizable percentage facing a major educational deficit due to the digital divide. 463 million students received no distance learning during the pandemic because of lack of internet access, computers, or mobile devices.

A recent UN survey of 158 countries found that one in four nations had no firm date for allowing students to return to school. UN officials noted that protracted periods of time away from educational institutions have implications beyond the classroom.

Schools provide a safety net for students, without which students are placed at a higher risk for physical and emotional abuse, child labor, and other issues. These students are far less likely to break the cycle of poverty. This year, at least 24 million children are projected to drop out of school because of the pandemic.

The UN did cite positive examples of schools that were adapting their physical classrooms successfully during the time of COVID-19. Schools in Senegal are spacing desks to keep students physically distant. Rwanda is constructing new classrooms. Egypt is staggering school hours to support smaller cohorts of students.

However, big concerns remain about unaddressed issues in making education accessible to all children. Technology clearly will play a bigger role going forward, even when all children are able to return to a physical classroom.

Most major technology vendors including Amazon Web Services, Google, and Microsoft are contributing to research and development to support advances in education.

The lessons from 2020 will most certainly inform how students learn for years to come. Innovations in areas like virtual reality have the potential to open up future learning opportunities to all children. But without access, those opportunities are off the table and children are left behind.

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