The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted society in many ways, showing us the vital role technology plays in keeping everyone connected when social distancing. As we face the largest educational crisis to date with more than 1 billion students impacted by school closures, technology, Wi-Fi, and smart devices — and resources to support the training and use of them — must be more widely accessible to ensure that students can continue learning.
Around the world, there are 3.6 billion people, or 47% of the population, who do not have access to the internet. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this means a student's chance at continuing their education or earning an income could be more difficult, purely because they cannot get online.
"The lack of connection means a degradation in quality of life; it debilitates you," Nicol Turner Lee, director of Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, told Vox.
That unequal access to technology Lee describes is known as the digital divide.
The digital divide is a global problem affecting everyone, in high-income and low-income countries and rural and urban communities alike. In 2019, Microsoft found that 162 million Americans lacked internet access, and many experts believe that number to be a radically lower number than the reality.
People living in poverty around the world, however, are disproportionately impacted. A 2020 Save the Children survey looked at the experiences of 25,000 children and adults during the pandemic, and it found that less than 1% of children from poorer households had access to remote learning.
Now that nearly all educational activities are being delivered remotely, the inability to access technology and the internet is a significant issue for students trying to continue their education. In light of this year's International Day of Education on Jan. 24, it's imperative to find creative ways for students to access online educational resources.
Here are some of the ways that global leaders and communities can help close the digital divide and ensure that students everywhere can access the internet during the pandemic and in the future.
1. Increase digital affordability and accessibility.
In both high-income and low-income countries, the biggest boundary to internet accessibility is the high costs involved in purchasing and setting up Wi-Fi and technology.
Smartphones, laptops, and Wi-Fi routers are prohibitively expensive but often necessary for work and school which can cause major setbacks for low-income people. Most telecommunication companies do not see Wi-Fi and technology as a right, but as a commodity from which they can profit.
To make the internet more accessible, policymakers and telecommunication companies must work together to develop an infrastructure that can support everyone's access to technology regardless of how much they can pay.
A study on the Digital Divide and COVID-19, published by educational experts at the research organization the RAND Corporation, recommends that policymakers should aim to bring internet access and devices to every household by the start of the upcoming school year.
You can also take action by signing petitions for free internet for low-income families and advocating for telecommunication companies to improve and expand internet services.
According to EducationWeek, a vital component of this initiative is educating communities about affordable technologies and setting them up in their own homes. Making technology more accessible will not make a difference if there is no outreach to let people know how to access it.
2. Provide educational resources that reach children offline.
While making technology more accessible is an important goal, many students will not have access to any form of online learning during the pandemic.
"For at least 463 million children whose schools closed due to COVID-19, there was no such a thing as remote learning," said Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF. "The sheer number of children whose education was completely disrupted for months on end is a global education emergency. The repercussions could be felt in economies and societies for decades to come."
UNICEF encourages governments and educators to work together to devise creative educational resources through TV and radio to avoid prolonging the educational crisis.
The organization's analysis found that lessons broadcast on TV reach 80% or more of the school-aged population in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
The same study found that radio can be an important tool in South Asian and sub-Saharan African countries. In The Gambia, Suriname, Sierra Leone, and Ghana, educational materials delivered via radio could potentially reach 50% of school-aged children.
These unique forms of education can help students continue their education until they can safely return to school.
3. Adjust resources and assignments to rely less on Wi-Fi.
Another way to ensure that students without internet connectivity do not fall behind during the pandemic is to encourage educators to alter their instructional materials to be less reliant on the internet.
Doug Johnson, the author of Power Up! Helping to Close the Digital Divide, recommends that teachers use e-textbooks that can be downloaded and then accessed when a student is not connected to the internet. This simple change could dramatically increase the amount of time a student can study if they are only able to connect to the internet for limited hours.
Schools can also take steps to provide students with materials with tools such as a USB flash drive that already has all the materials needed for an assignment, instead of asking students to download material themselves from the internet.
In communities where internet access is extremely limited, educational instructors can also utilize paper packets with weekly assignments that teachers can prepare in advance.
4. Ensure access to technology on campus.
Although most schools have closed for in-person instruction during the pandemic, some schools are partially open and allow students to access the campus.
Johnson recommends that schools and universities should prioritize high-speed, free internet on campus that students can access safely. In the era of COVID-19, schools can also create systems where students who do not have their own computers can sign up in shifts to use the technology while still social distancing.
With most households now dealing with multiple family members living and working from home, safe and quiet spaces where students can access computers, Wi-Fi, and other technology at school can help them continue their studies.
Beyond the pandemic, technology at schools can help low-income students or students who live in areas without Wi-Fi connections access the same resources as their peers.
5. Empower technology users in their communities.
Getting people to access the internet is not the only factor in closing the digital divide. It's important that people also have a developed understanding of how online resources work and the skill set needed to harness technology's power.
For example, although a person may be able to use the internet and technology to access a TV show or a game, they may not know how to use technology as a tool to learn or study effectively.
“A lot of my students have smartphones, and that doesn’t mean they have a computer with Internet access at home," Rachel Warzala, a teacher working with the nonprofit Teach for America, told Mashable. "That doesn’t mean they can type or submit assignments.”
Many people may not understand the benefits of using technology to achieve economic or social growth and will need support in learning about different platforms' advantages. This includes educating parents of young children, who may need help setting up kindergarten Zoom classes and understanding the platform's benefits.
Training students in digital literacy should also be facilitated in a way that is accessible to students with various disabilities who might need extra support accessing online resources. For example, instructors should set up assistive technology such as non-visual desktop access or provide refreshable braille keyboards for blind students.
Closing the digital divide between students is one way to ensure that children worldwide can keep learning throughout the pandemic and in the future. Access to education can transform a person's life and often acts as the building blocks for a healthy and wealthy life.
Without action to support students' access to technology everywhere, many may face long-term adverse effects on their education, threatening the fight to end extreme poverty.