Pupils sit in desks with yellow dividers, set up as a measure against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Dajia Elementary school in Taipei, Taiwan March 13, 2020

Coronavirus deepening digital divide amongst Asian schoolchildren

Image credit: REUTERS/Ann Wang

Millions of children in Asia are at risk from falling behind in their studies due to school closures amid the coronavirus outbreak, with unequal access to the internet ‘hurting’ poorer kids as classes go online, technology and human rights experts have warned.

According to data released by the United Nations’ (UN) education agency UNESCO, an unprecedented 363m children and young people worldwide are already being affected by the closures of schools and universities.

This number is expected to soar as more countries implement lockdowns. The Philippine capital of Manila has become the latest Asian city to go on lockdown, committing to a month of school closures and community quarantining to contain the spread of the virus.

“The global scale and speed of the current educational disruption are unparalleled and, if prolonged, could threaten the right to education,” Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s director-general, warned in a statement. As countries deal with the global health crisis, it is important to “ensure this crisis promotes innovation and inclusion and does not exacerbate learning inequalities,” she added.

As a result of the lockdowns, many schools are deploying distance-learning programmes and education applications and platforms, including the use of radio and the internet to reach students remotely.

However, the so-called “digital divide” – which refers to the gap between those who have access to computers and the internet and those with limited or no access – remains a challenge.

Around 54 per cent of the global population, or 4.1 billion people, use the internet. Yet only two out of 10 in the least developed countries are online, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN’s internet and telecoms agency.

“Digital exclusion in general reflects and entrenches broader patterns of disadvantage across age, gender, social and economic dimensions,” said Julian Thomas, a communications professor at Australia’s RMIT University. “The cost of internet access can be prohibitive for low-income families and the infrastructure and services necessary for everyone to be able to use the internet at home is unevenly distributed across urban, rural and remote areas.”

Thomas added that low-income families are particularly dependent on mobile devices for internet access, which may not be suited for learning purposes. Such families also tend to rely on schools, libraries, workplaces and community centres for internet access and are “substantially disadvantaged” when these are closed.

Education charities have said they are worried about girls dropping out of school in India, where primary schools in Delhi and schools and colleges in Kerala state are closed until April to fight the spread of the virus. According to census data, nearly a fourth of the country’s girls leave school before puberty and that the female literacy rate in the country is 66 per cent compared to 80 per cent for men.

In Delhi, the closure coincides with the holiday period. If it extends beyond 31 March, then parents may be involved in lessons and some classes may be moved online, said Shailendra Sharma, principal advisor at the directorate of education in India.

“We recognise that in government schools, many students are first-generation learners, so parents may not be able to help much. Nor does every student have access to a smartphone or tablet,” he said. “There may be challenges if the shutdown lasts longer.”

Yesterday, Sir Tim Berners-Lee published an open letter, saying that the web is "not working" for women, as they are being made to feel increasingly unwelcome online, with abuse and gender discrimination rife.

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