The suffering and damage generated by the coronavirus pandemic has circulated across the globe, alarming everyone. However, do people truly understand the scale of the damage that it has done and the inequality it can ultimately result in? The outbreak has thrown the already unbalanced levels of suffering that pervades society into an even more precarious state. This existing disparity is caused by the increasing chasm of financial and lifestyle differences between the rich and the poor.
Due to covid-19, schools worldwide have had to be shuttered, making way for remote learning techniques to be adapted by education systems immediately. This lead to a massive loss in education and the World Bank reports that up to 1.6 billion children are suffering because of it. Remote learning techniques are of a dubious quality and their effectiveness varies. This fluctuation is due to difference in educational environments that children from distinct backgrounds experience. A child from an affluent family background might have all the digital tools necessary for digital remote learning as well as a suitable learning environment whereas another child in that same country might not have access to a simple smartphone or computer to even begin with. Nor might they be lucky enough to inhabit a suitable learning environment.
In a recent survey done by UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank, it has been discovered that only half of remote learning strategies are being closely monitored and in those cases, less than half of the student population is being able to make use of them. The students that are being able to make use of remote learning techniques are mostly using online platforms and belong to high- and middle-income countries.
But even in higher income countries, a growing inequality gap brought forth by the technological divide between the rich and the poor prevails. In 2018, almost 17 million children in the USA lived in homes that did not have access to high-speed internet. So if a country like the USA is grappling with these issues, how are children in poorer nations faring? According to a UNICEF report, a mere 6% of children in eastern and southern Africa have access to the internet. Furthermore, 31% of the world’s school going children cannot be reached via means of remote learning programs. With identical statistics across most under-developed and lower income nations, children will not be able to keep up with their counterparts in developed, higher-income countries, ultimately resulting in massive social inequality.
LEARNING FROM THE PAST
There are a number of steps that can be taken to tackle and close the learning gaps. Strategies of countries that were ravaged by war or struck by natural disasters can be examined to come up with an effective strategy for closing the learning gap the pandemic created.
One of the biggest barriers e-learning is that a lot of children across the world simply do not have the privilege of having access to smartphones, tablets, computers etc. In many cases, even when they do have access it is limited and with no high speed internet which is vital for using digital platforms and engaging in other remote learning programmes.
For instance, Sierra Leona, a country first ripped apart by war and later by Ebola, started an educational radio programme that was able to reach 90% of at-home students. They also started accelerated education programs which were designed specifically to help struggling students catch up.
New Orleans is another example of a place that was able to rebound from a natural disaster – Hurricane Katrina. The main takeaway from New Orleans struggles is that pairing the most effective teachers with the most struggling students during the catch-up period is extremely important. It took almost two years for New Orleans to recover from the learning loss and make up for the instructional time lost. Additionally, online training for teachers during a crisis helps teachers to remain motivated as well.
EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM REFORM
As schools reopen, educational systems will have to be more flexible and cater to students’ needs by modifying the syllabus and schedules, providing both teachers and students with tools, resources and support that are essential for a more customised and flexible learning experience, making the education systems more equitable. Furthermore, education systems and political leaders have to commit to bridging the digital divide which denies equal opportunities for all.
Another strategy that the education sector can implement is extending the school year to allow underprivileged students that have lagged behind to catch up with the rest of their peers. This would mean that instead of students completing one grade level in one academic year, they will instead take 1.5 to 2 years to complete that grade year, allowing struggling students to catch up with their peers in a more gradual but efficient manner.
Loss in learning is setting children of this generation behind both the past as well as the future generation. It is estimated that this generation stands to lose a minimum of US$ 10 trillion in forgone future earnings. This tremendous potential economic loss and loss in education are intrinsically linked with each other as is future productivity. Therefore, to preserve the growth and steadfastness of the world economy, it is crucial to effectuate the necessary steps to recuperate the loss in education saving millions of learners from withering away.
By Muhammad Fahim Shahriar