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In the fateful month of March 2022, the outbreak of the new coronavirus caused schools
and universities to close and shift to distance learning in order to try and curb the
spread of the disease. Almost overnight, students and teachers found themselves sitting
at home in front of their personal computers to do their best to keep up with their
learning programmes. But how prepared were they?


A smooth transition for some…

According to UNESCO numbers, at least 63 million teachers and 1.5 billion learners around the globe – an estimated 90% of the world’s student population – were affected by the closure of educational institutions and facilities during the spring of 2020.

In the United States, however, more than a third (37%) of enrolled college students reported having already taken at least one online course before the pandemic. This might suggest that maybe remote education wasn’t completely unfamiliar to learners and lecturers after all, and that the forced transition to e-leaning may have actually gone smoother than expected.


… A complete shutdown for others

But to put things into perspective, yet another figure must be considered – and that is the proportion of students whose parents or legal tutors can indeed afford dedicated devices: PCs, Macs, laptops, tablets – coupled with broadband Internet, ideally fiber optics for a fast, stable connection and reducing the number of lags and slowdowns in the middle of a class.

And it turns out that those numbers are staggering: also according to UNESCO, around half of those 1.5 billion learners neither had Internet access nor the necessary tools to attend online classes on a daily basis. Still in the U.S., about 1 in 6 teenagers were struggling to complete their homework due to a lack of high-speed Internet connection prior to the Covid-19 crisis – a phenomenon referred to as the ‘homework gap’.

In Latin America and the Caribbean alone, school closures affected 71 million pupils, in what UNICEF calls ‘the biggest disruption to learning’ in the history of the region. To make things worse, over a half of Latin American households don’t have broadband access – a figure that reaches an alarming 77% in rural areas.

In East Asia and the Pacific, nearly a third of pupils didn’t have domestic Internet access already before the pandemic. Despite the fact that the region is experiencing the fastest growing Internet penetration in the world, 61% of students are still lacking digital literacy. As a result, an estimated 80 million were left without any online learning material during lockdowns in 2020.

As for Africa, a pre-Covid study across 34 countries found that over a half (55%) of respondents showed either low or very low levels of remote-learning readiness, meaning the majority didn’t own a computer and/or use the Internet. Besides, only one fifth of adults claimed to be ‘well prepared’ to help household members shift to e-learning. And when focusing on the Sub-Saharan region only, it turns out that a shocking 82% don’t even have Internet access.


What about in Europe?

Although Europe is arguably one of the richest continents to live in, it is facing significant disparities between countries when it comes to digital deprivation – that is, not being able to afford either a computer and/or an Internet connection.

While not exceeding 3% in the Baltic states and Scandinavia – even hitting numbers as low as 0.4% in Iceland and 0.7% in Estonia – the amount of digitally-deprived children rises up to over 20% as we dive deeper into Eastern Europe. In other words, more than 1 in 5 pupils between the ages of 6 and 16 are affected in the likes of Bulgaria and Romania – that’s four times the European average of 5.3%.


Map of the digital divide in Europe
Percentage of digitally deprived school-aged children (6-16), Europe, 2019 (Ayllón et al., 2021)


Joining forces for a global response

Two and a half years, seven epidemic waves and billions of vaccine shots later, the reopening of schools and universities has been a huge relief for many students and teachers, especially the most digitally deprived ones. Whether due to a lack of infrastructure or poor investment in education, the widening gap of digital divide during the global health crisis has led nations to take actions such as massive laptop distribution, large-scale digital transformation projects and even passing laws to increase free Internet access and define it as an essential public service.

But it is at an international level that the biggest initiative is taking place: launched by UNESCO, the Global Education Coalition (GEC) acts as “a platform for collaboration and exchange to protect the right to education during this unprecedented disruption and beyond”. It currently counts 175 institutional partners working on 233 projects, with over 400 million learners and 12 million teachers from 112 different countries benefiting from them.

Ranging from multilateral to non-profit organisations as well as private companies, associations and news media, notable partners include UNICEF, the World Health Organization, Google, Microsoft, IBM, Tencent, KPMG, Zoom, Moodle, Coursera, Creative Commons, Johns Hopkins University, BBC World Service and France 24. These can interact with the national governments of countries who request assistance from the Coalition. Such partnership effort boils down to four main goals:

  • Responding to educational disruption caused by school closures,
  • Connecting every student and educational institution to the Internet,
  • Managing effective recovery and the return to school and learning,
  • Advocating, collecting data, building and sharing knowledge.

All in all, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a real eye-opener for realising how big the gap of digital divide was getting – especially in the countries and regions that were already severely affected by this phenomenon beforehand, but also in more developed countries where an estimated 1 in 10 students still ended up being left behind.

A propos de Andre Vincart

Studying e-commerce at the University of Strasbourg and working in web content translation and mobile UX/UI design in Luxembourg.