Uneven access to technology can undermine quality education - Hindustan Times
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Uneven access to technology can undermine quality education

ByHindustan Times
Aug 29, 2022 06:00 AM IST

The article has been authored by Mehdi Hussain, assistant professor, department of political science, Kirori Mal College, New Delhi

The expanding use of modern technology in education has brought a significant change in the way education is traditionally perceived. Education technology seeks to establish an enhanced learning with a potential of bringing far reaching implications on learning outcomes. Education technology or digital technology is the use of information and communication technology (ICT) for enhancing and supporting the learning and teaching experience of students and teachers respectively both inside and outside of the classroom. Virtual classrooms through Moodle, Google Meet, MS Teams, Zoom, and Skype allow students to learn online for which teachers can upload study resources in the form of documents, lecture slides and audio-video contents. It bypasses chalkboards, textbooks and overhead projectors. For this, students can use hardware tools such as computers, laptops, desktops or mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets.

Equitable access to education technology determines access to electronic devices and Internet connectivity, irrespective of students’ social backgrounds like ethnicity, socio-economic conditions, age, physical ability, or any other social aspects. (SHUTTERSTOCK)
Equitable access to education technology determines access to electronic devices and Internet connectivity, irrespective of students’ social backgrounds like ethnicity, socio-economic conditions, age, physical ability, or any other social aspects. (SHUTTERSTOCK)

The question of quality education for all is about ascertaining a lifelong learning which is based on inclusivity and equitability, which are determined in terms of opportunities of digital literacy and affordable e-learning.

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In developing countries, equitable access to education technology remains a challenge in promoting inclusive and equitable quality education. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reported that only less than two-thirds of global population have ‘actual’ access to Internet despite 95% of it falling within the mobile broadband. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the UNESCO estimated that above 258 million children, adolescents and youth constituting one-sixth of the global population of this age group were out of school in 2018. During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, it got worse affecting 91% of students worldwide due to temporary closures of schools. By April 2020, about 1.6 billion children and youth were out of school. About 369 million children had to look for different sources of daily nutrition after they were cut off from the school meals. Thus, the potential of e-learning is significant, however, the data is alarming for these children if they are not provided with opportunities for access to education technology and Internet connectivity.

Equitable access to education technology determines access to electronic devices and Internet connectivity, irrespective of students’ social backgrounds like ethnicity, socio-economic conditions, age, physical ability, or any other social aspects. It is also about designing courses combined with right pedagogical approaches keeping in mind diverse aspects of society. Affordability is closely related to the issue of equitable access to e-learning which can affect students coming from a weak economic background. Poverty affects the ownership of electronic devices or subscription of high-speed Internet or software. ITU says that in terms of income level, the region-wise mobile phone ownership rate is lowest in Africa and South Asia, while it is highest in Europe and it is in between in Latin America. The World Bank states that 85% of Africans live on less than $5.5 a day. Further, one GB data could cost about 40% of the average monthly wage in sub-Saharan Africa.

This can be exacerbated by the rural-city divide which can be understood in terms of poor Internet infrastructure in rural areas. In this situation, economically weaker families may find it discouraging in continuation with e-learning for their children.

Thus, affordable access to Internet is an enabling factor for equitable access to e-learning. Internet access should be available at affordable cost, which should be less than 2% of monthly gross national income per capita by 2025, as per the UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development. ITU states that only 47% of population are connected to Internet compared to 87% in the developed countries. It is only 19% in the least developed countries. The Covid-19 pandemic had impacted many students who could not participate online classes due to different reasons such as health protocols and family income, despite teachers conducting daily classes. It is reported that one billion students globally were out of classrooms due to quarantine measures.

Commercialisation of education is a worrisome concern in this context, wherein private sector’s profit motive can overstep public interest in promoting education for all. Commercialisation or privatisation of education can deprive the fundamental right to education of these children. The SkyQuest Technology reported that during the Covid-19 pandemic, the global education technology market value grew up to over $20 billion in 2021 from $15 billion in 2020. It is, thus, both an opportunity and a challenge to the quest of the United Nations for a sustainable and quality education, which is marked as one of the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Another issue related to equitable access to education technology is gender divide. UNESCO studied the gender divide in 10 countries in Africa, Asia and South America, and it was found that women are 30-50% less likely than men to use the Internet to participate in public life. Moreover, women are 23% less likely than men to use mobile Internet at the global level. The gap is widest in South Asia, followed by sub-Saharan Africa.

Digital learning at home can produce downsides in terms of a gap in performing home assignment for those marginalised children who do not have access to digital devices and stable Internet. Besides, teachers may not have an effective control over management of online classes. E-learning misses out on physical interaction between teachers and students that impart positive social and institutional behaviour amongst students. Virtual learning can affect social skills of students by dissociation from the public gathering, in addition to a limited time for further discussion. Another issue that impact quality education is that digital learning can cause an upset in education without reforming the course design and sufficient training of teachers and students on how to use digital technologies. Digital literacy is essential for an effective use of education technology. Digitisation of study resources should be done adequately for dissemination, in the absence of which quality of education may be affected.

Without institutional and financial help, students may find it challenging to match up with technological set up on-campus. The education policy should target this downside in e-learning. Thus, a harmonious and coordinated policy of education technology should define institutional strategies and practices such as adoption of a uniform technology across the institution and training of teachers in technology or uniform models of online lectures. A hasty implementation of education policies without proper preparation and adequate feedbacks from all stakeholders- teachers, parents, administrators, civil societies, media and IT partners may affect quality of education. At the global level, developing countries should actively cooperate with the UNICEF and World Bank in the global efforts of supporting governments and education partners in many developing countries for achieving an inclusive and equitable quality education. The target of the UN in ensuring free primary and secondary education for both girls and boys with effective learning outcomes by 2030 should be incorporated in digital learning by establishing safe and supportive learning environments.

(The article has been authored by Mehdi Hussain, assistant professor, department of political science, Kirori Mal College, New Delhi)

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