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COVID-19 highlights the digital divide in distance learning

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As the world has raced to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, 191 countries have closed schools, from pre-primary to tertiary level, affecting at least 1.5 billion - or more than 9 out of 10 - students worldwide.

To minimize the disruption, many governments and institutions have turned to distance education to maintain teaching and learning. Online learning allows teachers to maintain a classroom-like environment for students, to send assignments and receive completed work to be assessed. It also permits teachers to maintain daily communication with students, checking not only their educational progress but also their well-being.

Yet, according to recent figures compiled by the Teacher Task Force, based on data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics and the International Telecommunication Union, almost half of the world’s students face significant barriers to online learning. Globally, some 826 million – 50 per cent – do not have access to a household computer, while 43 per cent – about 706 million – do not have access to internet at home. In low-income countries, rates of access are even lower. In sub-Saharan Africa, 89 per cent of learners do not have access to household computers and 82 per cent lack Internet access.

Mobile phones have demonstrated great potential for connecting learners with information and one another, but about 56 million learners worldwide live in remote locations not served by mobile networks, with almost half of them living in sub-Saharan Africa.

Some countries have turned to more traditional media to ensure access to those affected by this digital divide. In Peru, the Ministry of Education uses an online education platform, “Aprendo en casa”, to develop programmes accessible via television and radio for students with no internet and computer/mobile phone access. Countries were able to share their experience in distance education learning strategies during UNESCO’s fifth COVID-19 Education Response Webinar.

Moreover, an estimated 63 million primary and secondary teachers worldwide have been affected by the unprecedented disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even for teachers in countries with reliable information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure and household connectivity, the rapid transition to online learning has been challenging. For teachers in regions where ICT and other distance methodologies are not available, such as Cameroon, where only 20-25% of teachers have access to a computer, the transition has been difficult or impossible.

Teacher education is a particular challenge in low-income countries. Across sub-Saharan Africa, just 64 per cent of primary and 50 per cent of secondary teachers, have met the national minimum training requirements to teach. In many countries, training seldom covers ICT skills adequately.

In addition, there are not enough teachers in low-income countries, resulting in large classes in which teachers struggle to give personalized instruction to each child. Compared to the international benchmark of 1 teacher per 28 pupils in primary education, there is only 1 trained teacher per 56 pupils in low-income countries, and 1 per 60 in sub-Saharan Africa.

To ensure teachers receive appropriate support during this crisis, the Teacher Task Force joined UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition, and recently released a Call for Action to support teachers affected by the pandemic.

Infographic: COVID-19: a global crisis for teaching and learning

COVID-19 Education Response webinars: