The COVID-19 pandemic prompted unprecedented educational challenges that forced schools and other learning institutions to undergo radical shifts. Based on information from UNICEF, over 90% of countries have implemented some form of remote learning policy. Among these countries, the remote learning solutions varied based on the communities that governments and educators worked to serve. With the onslaught of this pandemic, preexisting issues of digital equity exacerbated the issues of global education inequity. As the pandemic begins to slow down, what steps can we take to bridge the digital equity gap and inevitably bridge the education gap?
How did children receive their education during the pandemic?
When the pandemic hit more affluent and developed areas of the world, video conferencing and virtual learning became the de facto method of teaching. This solution, however, is not viable for less developed communities.
Take Mexico, for example. During the pandemic, most wealthy students in Mexico City who had access to the internet could interact with their teachers remotely, with these schools having a 92% level of enrollment. On the flip side, in the much poorer state of Chiapas, that rate stood only at 59%.
The Mexican government recorded a comprehensive set of lessons for all grade levels pre-K through high school and then broadcasted them on TV for less affluent students. The ministry of education worked out agreements with different TV channels to broadcast general educational content, 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, with different grade levels at different hours. The government also used radio programs to reach kids with no TV or internet access, most living in remote indigenous communities.
Mexico is just one of many countries working to make do with the limited distance-learning resources for specific communities in their country. Figure 1, taken from a UN policy brief, shows the contrasts between region, education level, and choice of distance learning. Overall, most regions still utilize online education. Europe, however, is the only region that uses online learning 100% for primary and secondary education while being one of the lowest users of radio, television and print material-based distance learning. As the most affluent region represented, Europe opted to use online education because it is the most effective in outreach and accountability for students out of all the remote learning solutions.
Even within the US, there was a disparity between income and choice of distance learning. According to the US Census Bureau, around 80% of households had children using online resources, while 20% used paper materials. Homes with higher incomes had higher usage of online distance-learning resources, as shown in Figure 2.
Globally, based on a UNESCO-UNICEF-World Bank joint survey, distance learning in high-income countries covers about 80-85% of the population. In comparison, less than 50% of the people in low incoming countries are covered. The lack of online learning boils down to an issue of access rather than preference.
EdTech Challenges: Hardware
The challenge for students to access online resources for remote education is twofold: hardware and software. Comparatively, hardware is a much larger issue to overcome. Hardware devices such as a monitor (computer screen), a computer system unit, a video camera, a modem, or a speaker can be too expensive for many people.
In addition, access to the internet is limited. Based on a 2016 report from the World Economic Forum, more than 4 billion people, mostly in developing countries, do not have access to the internet. Mobile online coverage is the primary means of internet connectivity for most people, and 31% of the global population do not even have 3G coverage. The cost to get online can be too high for most as well. There are only 29 countries where broadband is only affordable for the entire population.
These issues are not only exclusive to developing nations. As per a study by USAFacts last year, only 74% of students in the US always had access to a computer for educational purposes. In total, 4.4 million households with students lacked consistent access to a computer, and 3.7 million lacked access to the internet.
EdTech Challenges: Software
Once the hardware to access online resources is established, implementing efficient online education software is the next step to provide the best remote solution.
With the sudden transition to remote learning at the beginning of the pandemic, most educators were completely blinded-sided by this transition, particularly K-12 teachers. From a survey conducted by ClassTag during this time, around 69% of teachers in the US included document sharing in their remote lesson plan, while only 34% planned to use video recordings, and less than 13% planned to use live-streaming video conferencing.
This initial unpreparedness for distance learning highlights one key take-away: teachers were using various EdTech tools and platforms to do their best to recreate an in-person classroom. Several issues come from this. For one, efficiency. Using a separate video conferencing platform, a separate document collaboration platform, a separate LMS (learning management system), and separate IM tools (instant messaging) will make it more challenging for teachers and students to organize their work. Second, the use of multiple online platforms means multiple learning curves for students and teachers to overcome. Teachers (as well as students) have enough responsibilities, so requiring them to familiarize themselves with the functions of multiple online platforms is an unnecessary challenge. The third issue that arises from the use of multiple EdTech tools is the cost. School resources are limited, and purchasing various online platforms may not be viable depending on their budget.
All in all, the best software solution for virtual education is for schools and other educational institutions to commit to one integrated platform that meets all their professional and academic demands.
OMO Classroom: the best of both worlds
A well-integrated virtual classroom with multiple functions will be the best distance-learning option and significantly improve the learning experience with proper hardware and software. In short, what makes online classrooms so much more viable is their ability to recreate the physical classroom feature of real-time interaction between teachers and students.
However, an improvement from both the virtual and physical classroom is a mixture of both: The OMO classroom. The OMO (online-merge-offline) classroom provides remote teachers to teach virtually to a physical classroom of students. HiLink has taken advantage of this virtual classroom model by working with the Huang YiCong Foundation and DuShang Art School. Following HiLink's model with these two institutions, an OMO classroom in various rural and undeveloped areas worldwide can attract local students. This model could provide quality education more efficiently and affordably because rather than requiring each student to have their own individual hardware and internet access, the school could invest its resources into hardware and software for classrooms.
The OMO classroom is also the perfect solution to out-source teachers for advanced or niche subjects. In August of this year, HiLink teamed up with SAGE China to provide a customized version of HiLink's online platform to support its 2021 youth entrepreneurship virtual competition. In an interview with the winners of this competition, one of the members expressed his disappointment in not having access to any entrepreneurial courses at his high school. With an OMO classroom and the right virtual teacher, almost any subject could be taught at a more affordable price. Not only could this classroom model expand academic subjects, but it could also work to bridge the domestic educational gap within the US.
The most significant hurdle to overcome the global digital and education gap is hardware, which is not easy. Once improved, however, new developments of online education software are working to connect students and teachers across communities to promote quality and ideally more affordable education. Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic, which highlighted digital and education inequity, could be the same motivating factor creating technological developments to bridge these gaps!