Remote Learning Paradox in Developing Asia
The article has been authored by Ananya Raj Kakoti and Gunwant Singh , who are scholars of international relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Technology has been hailed as the ultimate emancipator of the inequalities existing in all the spheres of human life. Despite all its success, technology has further increased the gap which already existed in society by creating a new social division of haves and have-nots. Thereby, exacerbating the already existing human inequalities. This became more prominent when the world had to go virtual because of social distancing regulation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the significant sectors that witnessed revolutionary changes, during this period was — Education. Technology has transformed education in ways beyond one's imagination and played a much more important role during the pandemic. However, although it has enabled quality education to reach the remotest parts of the world, the other hand, unevenness in technological prowess has led to the denial of this basic right to millions across the globe.
The closure of educational institutions during COVID-19 led to the world offering remote learning opportunities to the students, however, the quality and the reach of such initiatives greatly varied across regions, thus clearly affecting the learning outcomes and highlighting the vast inequality in accessibility, which we understand as “digital divide”.
When it comes to Asia, the region is termed as the digital powerhouse of the new world with an ever-increasing number of people using the internet, and yet it is the region with glaring disparities in access to Information Communication Technology (ICT) due to the lack of basic amenities such as electricity, connectivity, access to devices and so on.
The most significant contribution of technology in the education field is the ease of to access information anywhere and everywhere in the world to the learners. A student can access unlimited resources with a click of a button. It has also helped in accelerating learning and providing fun opportunities by allowing them to engage and apply what they learn.
However, the differences in technological advancement across different regions of the world have resulted in the phenomenon of the digital divide. The gap between regions which have access to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and those that do not are referred to as the digital divide. It can also be seen between individuals who have access to technology and those who do not. The digital divide can exist between the developed and developing world, urban-rural population, educated-less educated population, men-women, and so on. Particularly, from 2020 onwards, one can notice the blatantly obvious impact of the digital divide on the education system. When the entire education system shifted to digital platforms, the lack of access to the internet or suitable communication devices impacted gravely the learning outcomes of the children who belong to the disadvantaged sections of society.
The COVID-19 pandemic which engulfed the world in 2020, had further exacerbated inequality in education. Globally, according to an estimate, school closures lasted for an average of 224 days, but this number was higher in low and middle-income countries. The response to online education was also very bleak. In middle and low-income countries the financial support required for the transition to remote learning was inadequate, resulting in poor learning outcomes and teacher-student engagement. Moreover, students belonging to financially disadvantaged households benefited less from the remote learning options simply due to the lack of basic requirements such as electricity, connectivity, devices, and so on.
During the school closures, some countries could transition easily to remote learning primarily due to better financial resources and technological prowess. Even within the countries, the ability to transition to online learning is differentiated due to regional disparities in resources and connectivity. According to an estimate globally around 463 million children could not access online digital learning, with 3 out of 4 such students coming from rural areas or financially disadvantaged households. In this share, the number of students coming from lower-income countries formed the majority in comparison to the students coming from high-income countries.
In a report published by UNICEF on online digital learning, they termed this phenomenon of shifting to online education as a remote learning paradox, as 1.38 billion school-aged children in the world do not have access to the internet at home. It was also found that the digital divide between urban-rural populations was greatest in Asian, Pacific, Latin American and African countries.
The Asian continent although one of the fastest growing regions when it comes to Information and Communication Technology (ICT), with an ever-growing number of internet users and fast-growing internet penetration, their response to the needs of the education sector during the pandemic revealed that the continent though hyper-connected, is also extremely under-connected at the same time. This also revealed that the digital divide is not only because of a lack of economic resources or technological under-development but also due to societal issues, such as gender discrimination.
According to a survey conducted by UNICEF, 61% of the students in the 10 ASEAN countries lacked digital literacy and access to devices. The teachers were also not given proper training concerning digital technology when it comes to the effective use of available digital tools. Another estimate by UNICEF revealed that more than 80 million children in the East Asia and Pacific region could not access any kind of learning during the pandemic-induced lockdowns in 2020. In India alone 320 million students were impacted due by school closures, out of those more than 60% were not able to access online education according to a study conducted by Azim Premji Foundation, thereby, a large chunk of students faced disruption in their education due to the digital divide that exists in the country, a story common across all developing countries. Disruption of such nature results in discontinuity in the learning process which ultimately hampers the overall standard of education. This creates a ripple effect and increases the already existing disparity between developed and developing nations, thus making the process of shrinking the gap much more difficult, considering how technology is taking giant leaps and impacting all aspects of human life.
Across the globe, learning has been severely impacted however, the developing countries in Asia were some of the many nations where its effects have been more severe because of the pre-existing fault lines. The criticality to bridge the digital divide has never been more crucial than during the COVID-19 pandemic, where due to lack of internet access millions of people have suffered disproportionately not only in education but have also witnessed setbacks in other spheres like health and other socio-economic parameters.
The future of the region’s education sector, a major contributing factor in development and prosperity, depends on how efficiently and promptly it develops the digital infrastructure that is necessary for the establishment and operation of an inclusive digital learning environment.
To realise this goal, Asia must re-examine how the region perceives and confronts its ever-increasing digital divide.
Ananya Raj Kakoti and Gunwant Singh, who are scholars of international relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University.