OPINION: Use tech to bridge the digital divide in East Asia and Pacific

by Karin Hulshof | UNICEF
Tuesday, 2 February 2021 12:11 GMT

Secondary school student Wendy attends an online class with a smartphone at home during the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Hong Kong, China March 16, 2020. Picture taken March 16, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

COVID-19 has exacerbated education inequities, but it has also catalysed digital transformations of learning systems

Karin Hulshof is the Regional Director for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific.

Dung, a 14-year-old girl from the Hmong ethnic minority, lives in Lao Cai province in northern Vietnam. During the COVID-19 related school closures in the country she and her brother began studying at home using materials their teachers shared through an online portal. But there is no internet in Dung’s home, so they walked daily to the nearest preschool, stood outside the gate and tried to catch its Wi-Fi to download their homework.

Dung and her brother are not alone. Although East Asia and the Pacific has the fastest growing internet penetration in the world, the education response to the pandemic has revealed deep digital divides between and in countries based on gender, geography, income, and abilities.

Before the pandemic, over 183 million (or 32%) three to 17-year old school-aged children in the region did not have internet at home. Many students also lack devices and adequate digital literacy. A recent UNICEF survey of youth in 10 East Asia and Pacific countries including Cambodia, Indonesia, and Vietnam revealed that 61% of students do not receive any digital literacy education in schools. Teachers are largely unfamiliar with new technologies and need training to effectively utilize new tools.

Pandemic-related school closures forced many students to rely on virtual learning, but for those who had no internet access, education became out of reach. UNICEF estimates that 80 million children in East Asia and the Pacific did not access any kind of learning during the 2020 lockdowns. With school closures returning in Malaysia, Mongolia, Thailand this month, the education of millions of children is once again at risk.

If it isn’t addressed, the costs of the digital divide will be high for the current generation of young people. As economies rapidly digitize with most jobs requiring digital literacy, those unable to acquire these new skills will not be able to participate in the workforce and will have less opportunities to succeed in life.

Gender aspects of the digital divide must not be ignored. Women and girls often have less access to technology and the internet than boys, either because they cannot afford it or because social norms consider ‘technology is for men’.

While COVID-19 deepened the learning crisis and exacerbated inequities in education, it has also acted as a catalyst for innovation and for including technology into the sector in many countries. Almost all education ministries in this region have adopted some type of remote learning policy and are seeking to digitally transform their education systems by harnessing the power of technology.

Technology was used in enabling teachers in Malaysia to embrace new approaches and learn new skills for teaching online. To support children like Dung, UNICEF Vietnam is rolling out the Augmented and Virtual Reality education solution for those minority children in rural areas whose teachers have no skills in teaching science, technology, engineering or math. In Lao PDR, where internet penetration is amongst the lowest in the region, the government is introducing the Learning Passport, a digital learning platform with both online and offline access to ensure continuity of learning of its children.

With ITU (the United Nations specialized agency for information & communication technologies), UNICEF launched GIGA, an ambitious global initiative to connect every school and its surrounding community to the internet. We have also partnered with mobile-network operators in 100 countries to help bridge the digital divide. 

Providing every child and adolescent access to the internet in a safe and responsible way can be a powerful equalizer to human resource development. With growing technology and diverse range of actors providing online learning, together we can deliver learning opportunities anywhere, at any time and to everyone.