Second digital divide is harder to bridge, says report

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed inadequacies and inequalities in the access to learning networks and opportunities outside the formal education system. These connections are also critical to optimise learning opportunities, according to a new World Bank report launched online on 2 December.

The new report, Realizing the Future of Learning: From learning poverty to learning for everyone, everywhere, says that investments in education technology (edtech) can make education systems more resilient to future shocks and help reform and reimagine the way education is delivered.

The World Bank says edtech, the use of hardware, software, digital content, data and information systems in education, supports and enriches teaching and learning and improves education management and delivery. The report outlines a new vision for learning, as well as the investments and policies, including on education technology, that countries can implement today to realise this vision.

“Without urgent action, this generation of students may never achieve their full capabilities and earnings potential, and countries will lose essential human capital [with which] to sustain long-term economic growth,” said Mamta Murthi, the World Bank’s vice-president for human development.

“Having over half of the children worldwide in learning poverty is unacceptable, and so we cannot continue with business as usual in education delivery,” she said. “Through visionary and bold action, policy-makers and stakeholders around the globe can turn this crisis into a boon to transform education systems so that all children can truly achieve learning with joy, rigour, and purpose, everywhere.”

Increased risk

School closures have left most school pupils on the planet out of school: 1.6 billion students at the peak in April 2020, and still almost 700 million students today. The negative impact of the unprecedented global economic contraction on family incomes has increased the risk of school dropouts. Marginalised groups are likely to fall further behind.

Jaime Saavedra, the World Bank global director for education, said: “There is a window of opportunity to build on the lessons of the pandemic and to build back a system that is equitable, where all schools and homes have the conditions and support for learning; that is effective, where teachers and schools are equipped to support each student at the level [he or] she needs; and that is resilient, with education services that are well-managed and ensure continuity in the learning process between the school and the home and community.”

According to the report, countries can chart their own path with a political commitment to carry out investments and reforms in terms of five pillars that could ensure that learners are prepared and motivated to learn. The reforms include a stronger emphasis on whole-child development and support to learning continuity beyond the school, better preparation through quality, early stimulation, and nutrition; and teachers.

“While there is no single path toward the future of learning, high-performing systems share some common tenets: [they] pursue systemic reform, supported by political commitment and a whole-of-government approach that focuses on learning for all children; [they] focus relentlessly on equity and inclusion; [they] act on the basis of evidence and focus on results; [they] ensure the necessary financial commitment; and [they] make smart investments in education technology,” according to the report.

New connections

In an accompanying report also launched online, entitled Reimagining Human Connections: Technology and innovation in education at the World Bank, the World Bank notes that edtech can create new connections between teachers, students, parents and broader communities to create learning networks.

The digital divide in education goes beyond the issue of access to technology. A second digital divide that is harder to bridge separates those with the skills to benefit from the use of technology from those without. A focus for teachers and students should be on the use of effective digital pedagogies, and not only through the use of technology.

New technologies will replace some of what teachers currently do, thereby freeing them up to take on responsibilities with a greater impact on student learning. While technology won’t replace today’s teachers, teachers who use technology will.

“Investments in edtech can pay off if ministries of education ensure they are embedded in broad, sustainable policies and programmes that enable schools and education systems to provide blended in-person and multi-modal remote learning; geared to support teachers being prepared to navigate distance learning and personalise instruction in and beyond the school; and oriented toward assessing that learning is actually happening and using data to develop early warning mechanisms to identify and help children who are at risk of dropping out or falling behind,” notes the report.