For many of us young people and students, degrees conducted exclusively on chalkboards or white boards had to go online overnight when COVID broke out. Curricula that had never been digitized had to transition swiftly. Century-old universities sometimes had to change from the old pen and paper exams to new modes of assessment.
The ensuing lockdowns have shaken years of precedence and resulted in a global shift in how our education systems work. It has also brought to light and exposed the many cracks that have existed in our systems. While technology played an essential role to keep things running, it also exacerbated inequalities in education, especially for those beyond the digital divide - leaving them likely to be left behind even further.
Differences in digital access increased inequality
For many of us, technology was more like magic than reality. For Armel, growing up in Comoros, accessing the internet meant traveling to the capital city to use a cyber cafe. This slowed down learning and kept only a few privileged students with information and knowledge. And Maryjacob in Nigeria studied computer science for years without ever accessing a computer – it was all just theory and books. These are still the realities of many children in Comoros, Nigeria, and across many other parts of the world.
Yet for many in countries with greater access to technology, the past two years also showed how technology can play a major role in education to democratize access and allow more inclusivity. Content and knowledge that had remained inaccessible except for a select few are now accessible at incredible scale.
And most of all, the new tools allowed those who were previously left behind to be included, whether it was through closed captions in lectures, accessibility features, or simply the ability to access things from anywhere. Students with different learning abilities, those with a chronic illness, young people who need to care for others, and many more - each of them previously left out to fend for themselves now at least had a chance.
For millions of other children and young people, education’s reliance on technology during COVID further reduced their access, rather than increase it. Admittedly, there was a huge gap in education access before the pandemic, children in rural areas and from low-income families, especially girls, were less likely to be able to access either education or technology. These factors played an important role in the huge divide created by digitizing education.
As a result, digitized and democratized education for some learners meant weeks and months of no learning at all. With increased reliance on technology for distance learning, the inequality gaps broadened, leaving many children, especially girls, even more behind.
As schools reopened, many students who had not been able to access education were expected to participate in the same national and regional exams as their more privileged counterparts who had been learning during school closures.
Students returned from the pandemic break feeling unprepared and uncertain. A parent from a school club that Maryjacob works with in Nigeria, did not register their 2 children for the Senior Secondary School Certificate Examination, worried that they had not learnt enough to sit for the exam.
Building on the lessons from the pandemic for better education for all
There's an urgent need for state actors and duty bearers to properly bridge the existing gaps in education. This means considering the range of technology options available to ensure children can continue learning even when not physically in school. Low-tech solutions such as radio and SMS may be perfectly suited to contexts where there is no infrastructure or financing to support expanding high-tech access in a way that is fair and equitable.