The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the inequality that persists in Asia.
While students in higher-income communities can continue learning using technology, those in low-income communities are struggling to access education resources.
UNESCO data shows how stark this digital divide can be: 800 million children with no access to a computer, 700 million without even an internet connection.
As an NGO working in tens of thousands of low-income communities across Asia, spanning Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, through to Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Viet Nam, Room to Read bears witness to the benefits and limitations of new approaches to technology in education.
Leveraging digital networks
The education sector must innovate with new online tools to reach larger global audiences than ever before.
One of the positives to come from this pandemic is a realization that education information should be free of charge and easily accessible – and cloud advances in technology make it possible. Universal access to education resources is essential for ending the education inequality gap.
Our experience in Asia has shown traditional forms of education and online sites can work in unison to deliver meaningful results.
In 2017 we partnered with Google.org to increase the availability of children’s books in primary schools in Indonesia. We created a cloud site where teachers could download books remotely to teach literacy in person. LiteracyCloud.org has now been expanded not just in Asia, but across the world, and the site now hosts over 900 high-quality, culturally-relevant titles in 19 languages.
Power of smartphones
Future conversations about technology and education should look at how children can be empowered and kept safe using smartphones – whether that be in the classroom or remotely.
I’ve seen my organization use simple everyday apps such as WhatsApp and FaceTime to achieve extraordinary education outcomes. Room to Read uses readily-accessible apps to keep vulnerable girls safe and educated during the pandemic. We know girls in Asia are particularly at risk of not returning to school after the pandemic. Girls in low-income communities instead face pressures to marry early, take up manual or care work, and are at higher risk of human trafficking during difficult economic times.
As a result, we have pivoted our Girls’ Education Program so our local mentors can speak to the girls using everyday phone apps to check on their safety and act if necessary.
Bridging the digital divide – a layered response
There is much to celebrate about how technology has enabled education to endure during COVID-19, but sadly, there is also a much more worrying trend due to the limitations in our technology.
Recent research by Brookings found less than 25 percent of low-income countries provide any type of remote learning, in stark contrast to the around 90 percent of high-income countries where it exists.
So what can be done in the short-term to bridge the divide and ensure no child is left behind?
We need to layer our response. Technology should be seen as complementing, rather than substituting the physical learning environment. Technology alone cannot be relied upon to help all in society.
So let’s use the internet, digital tools, classroom learning and much more to reach as many children as possible. As part of this response, let’s learn from older forms of technology too, which still has the capability of teaching many low-income communities.
Old tech is still relevant
UNESCO reports that 75% of households in low-income communities have access to radios. Even for those without, we know neighbors and communities can share a radio for news or education purposes.
That is why so many governments, and NGOs like Room to Read, are teaching children through broadcast technology, including lessons recorded by teachers.
A layered response, of old and new, remote and physical, is the way to truly bridge the digital divide.
The way to increase the role of technology further is to learn from the likes of television and radio, which proves accessibility is king.
If technology is to narrow the education inequality in the long-term, we must empower communities with access as a supplement to physical learning. Otherwise, technology will continue to fall short as a solution.