Online classes are the future - but for millions of households, Internet connectivity remains a privilege

Agnidrohee Spondon, a grade 10 student from Bangladesh, aged 17 years doing self-study at home during quarantine to keep up her academic progress.

When over 1.2 billion children are out of the classroom, that’s bound to impact education forever. Online learning, once a trend that only tech-forward educators were striving to push, is now the norm and, as schools in most regions of the world remain closed, families need to adapt.

Despite the wave of initial skepticism, online classes proved to be very effective. For millions of students, they provided a better experience than the traditional medium because it suits various learning styles and creates a more inclusive learning environment.

However, online learning is not without its shortcomings, and, in its current state, it still lacks optimization across the board. The biggest challenge that needs to be addressed is poor Internet connectivity, which is the main reason why online schooling fell short of expectations. According to UNESCO data, 850 million children and young adults worldwide have paused education because of the pandemic. Most of them are located in underprivileged regions, with low Internet penetration and poor infrastructure.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, nations were making great strides in offering pre-school and secondary school to all children by 2030. In fact, it was one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals that had realistic chances of success. However, the challenges posed by the pandemic pushed governments back by a few years, and it’s important to address the inequalities that can prevent children from receiving a quality education. 

In the US, 4.4 million households don’t have a computer connected to the Internet.

The transition to online schooling wasn’t as seamless as expected in the United States – one of the countries that should have, in theory, been more prepared to deal with the wide-reaching effects of a pandemic. According to a 2020 survey, 8% of homes with children in the US don’t have consistent access to a computer connected to the Internet. That may not sound like a big percentage, but that still accounts for 4.4 million households. Plus, only in 2.4% of the homes where the Internet was always available, the child’s school provided the Internet.

The survey also revealed that most of the families that didn’t have Internet at the time simply chose not to sign up for an Internet plan because they didn’t need it – and that is the most fortunate case because these families are the likeliest to set up a connection to ensure educational continuity. Still, 34% of families who didn’t have Internet said that they couldn’t afford a monthly subscription, 4% did not have a computer, and 4% said that they didn’t have Internet coverage in their area. The highest concentration of homes not connected to the Internet is in rural areas, and that’s something that the Government should continue to focus on after announcing the American Broadband Initiative in 2019. Access to broadband Internet can also be addressed through programs that offer smartphones and tablets to families in underprivileged communities. For example, the City of New York has so far donated 300,000 iPads to children in need, and NGOs have reached millions of caregivers, teachers, and students for coronavirus relief.

How education in lockdown differs across the globe

Unsurprisingly, the response of global education systems to the challenges of remote learning has been proportional to each country’s learning models and existing infrastructure. An audit conducted by the Education Development Trust revealed how students across the world are adapting to online classes.

Most of the time, there is a massive divide between rural and urban communities. In Chile, for example, most urban communities had generally good connectivity, but the audit identified over 3,700 schools that had no Internet access. To address the issue, the Chilean Government partnered with the national telecom company to provide free Internet in these areas, and they also distributed printed copies of learning materials to the schools. This no-tech solution was also followed in Papua New Guinea, where infrastructure developments couldn’t be completed in due time.

In Iran, there was also a discrepancy between expectations and reality. After deploying a national online learning platform, the Iranian Government found that only half of the teachers and a quarter of students were able to connect to it, and, in poorer provinces, attendance levels were as low as 7%.

Online attendance has also been problematic in India’s rural provinces. For example, students in the Bangaan region of Uttarkashi have had to trek for 12 km to reach a decent reception area in the forest and submit their homework. If students in urban areas have access to fast Wi-Fi and use laptops and desktop computers, those in rural India often rely on 4G connected phones to access the web, and the connection is usually slow and unstable. And while India may have one of the most diverse education systems, the regional disparities posed by the COVID-19 crisis call for a revision of existing policies.

But not all countries are struggling, though. South Korea has had a smooth transition to e-learning, and it is, to date, one of the best examples for other nations. That’s not exactly surprising, considering that South Korea has one of the best digital infrastructures in the world, along with Denmark and Estonia. When the lockdown began, an extensive audit was immediately conducted among all of South Korea’s 5.4 million students to expose the vulnerabilities in the education system. The results, however, were overwhelmingly positive: the vast majority of students had access to an Internet-connected device, and only 223,000 didn’t have one. They were later included in a loan scheme from the Ministry of Education, and there was no need for a no-tech approach because in the end everyone could join online classes. The effectiveness of South Korea’s infrastructure was further backed by an engagement audit, which showed that 98.8% of students were able to attend remote lessons and that participation levels remained consistently high even for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Even as nations are beginning to deploy a vaccine, addressing the challenges of e-learning, especially connectivity issues, should remain a top priority for governments. After all, the pandemic started a new era of education and some elements of online schooling will persist and change the education market. Virtual tutoring, video conferences, and online learning software will continue to be used, and without solving the connectivity divide, their benefits will remain a privilege for some students.