The Online Learning Divide Brought on by Covid-19
The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic has caused the shutdown of many industries and institutions. As a result, in the education sector, most schools and universities shut down partially or completely, causing a move to introduce online learning. But a big part of the students across the world come from countries where inequality and poverty are a challenge. This means that many students have not been able to continue with their studies due to lack of access to digital assets.
In an advanced digital world, putting education online was to be expected. Students exercised the power of choice and chose the kind of learning environment they preferred. This guaranteed that students who learned online were well equipped to deal with the challenges of online learning.
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The early challenges of online learning
With the recent lockdowns in many countries in response to the spread of Covid-19, students had to quickly move into online learning environments and this came with challenges. With access to the internet, availability of mobile phones, laptops and tablets, it is easy to assume that online education is accessible. As a master’s university student, I personally have a head start in many areas. I have access to a laptop at work and school, good internet connection, and can efficiently make Google searches. As a result, when the rest of my semester moved online, the only issues I had were my distaste for online education over the classroom experience.
In the early days of lockdown, social media was filled with parents sharing their experiences of helping their children move into online learning. There were also news of university students completing the rest of the semester fully online. Some found the move challenging while others found it easy to manage. The general theme was that people on social media had access and could continue learning undisturbed. Their schools responded to the challenge of this change in norm. But there were students in the margins that not many could see. We probably did not think about them, because it took a lot of self-reflection to start thinking about how they were dealing with this challenge.
The inequalities of online learning
I did research to see how students and universities in various African countries were addressing the challenge. The results were that the countries with very high levels of poverty were not ready for online education. Teachers are not equipped and trained for online learning. Schools do not have computer labs and therefore students do not know how to use computers. Smartphone penetration is high but access to internet data and bandwidth is a problem because of the high cost of using the internet.
In addition, many of these students do not have home environments that are good for online learning. With those kinds of poverty levels, families are usually living in small houses and opportunities for privacy are very rare. Can we ask ourselves what has happened to the education of these particular students?
This inequality between students has created or brought to light some concerning issues that cannot be overlooked. The World Bank reported that 85% of students worldwide were impacted by the closing of schools. This lead to the loss of learning, higher chances of dropouts, higher levels of inequality and a depressed education system. The system was not ready for the impacts of a pandemic.
This put a special focus on education policy, an area that in many countries has not sufficiently developed to support today’s age of learning. More especially in the areas of primary and secondary education. At university level things were better. In South Africa, many students are coming from the rural areas to study in the universities. Their access to digital devices is usually best achieved on campus. When these students were sent home as their schools closed, they were thrust back into life without access as they went back to their homes.
No one should get left behind
Various solutions can be proposed in the short term to try and deal with the challenges brought on by Covid-19 to the education system. Now that the world has experienced how a pandemic can impact lives, it is important to look into the future and start adapting policies and innovations that make society ready. Unfortunately, bridging the inequality gap is not something that has been achieved and it will not be easily possible. This gap is one of the reasons why there is inequality in education.
Before proposing solutions, ways forward have to be studied and researched in-depth in order to assess what is possible in the short term and what can be delivered in the long term. Instead of working from the perspective of privilege, the work should be started from the point of everyone who is negatively impacted and as a result left behind. The key question should be: how can we make sure that no one gets left behind?
Solutions proposed for inclusive online learning
The World Bank published a paper titled ‘The COVID-19 Crisis Response: Supporting tertiary education for continuity, adaptation, and innovation’ which looks at how Covid-19 has impacted institutions of higher learning and how this sector can future proof itself. The paper goes into detail about how governments, tertiary institutions, leaders, organizations and researchers can implement some actions.
Solutions proposed include the consideration of dedicated financial, logistical and academic support programs for at-risk students. In addition, they propose a greater supply of no-cost educational resources for institutions serving disadvantaged post-secondary student populations. To read more of this paper, click here.
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