By prioritizing access to devices and the internet, and building a hybrid online and physical learning environment, students can be equipped – and, indeed all citizens – for a life of continual learning.
Narayanan Ramaswamy, Partner and National Leader for Education and Skill Development, KPMG in India
The last 2 years of lockdown have rapidly accelerated the growth of digital learning, as students worldwide switched to online lessons, homework and exams. But the pandemic has also brutally exposed the huge digital divide that’s deprived countless millions of access to education.
With half of the world’s population lacking an internet connection, it’s estimated that one-third of students globally – 463 million – have been unable to benefit from remote learning1. In some countries as many as 89 percent of learners don’t even have a household computer. According to the World Bank2, ‘learning poverty’ – the share of 10-year-olds who cannot read a basic text – has dramatically increased to around 70 percent in low- and middle-income countries – reversing decades of progress.
In my country, India, a 2021 survey3 showed that more than 82 percent of students had forgotten basic mathematics and over 92 percent had lost their core language skills during COVID-19.
The United Nation’s (UN’s) International Day of Education, which this year fell on 24 January, is a timely reminder of the need to reinvigorate the efforts towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4, to help “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030.
Digital leveling up
Digital learning has an incredible potential to increase access to education for students of all ages, especially those in more remote areas. When you’re online, it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl, wealthy or poor, urban or rural: you receive the same quality of teaching, which should promote greater equity.
India’s National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, for example, has a range of ambitious goals to expand digital teaching and learning, which, along with the rise of ‘EdTech’ companies, aims to make technology a central part of schools, universities and other institutions. There are especially exciting possibilities for more personalized learning based upon individual needs, including greater vernacular content suited to students from different regions.
But this can only work if mine, and other nations, find ways to build a suitable digital infrastructure and provide students with the devices they need to get online.
The digital lifelong learning opportunity
It’s not just younger students who stand to gain from the digital revolution. In a world of constant change, where many children born today are likely to live to 100, the concept of lifelong learning has never been so relevant.
My father trained as an accountant and went on to have a 40-year career. Today’s graduates, by contrast, don’t even know if they’ll be doing the same job in 5 years’ time, so fast is the pace of disruption. They face the dual challenge of having to earn an income into their 80s, as well as constantly acquiring new skills to stay employable.
Once again, digital technology can enable the lifelong learning revolution, opening up new education and training sources to all, and avoiding the time and cost of attending colleges or universities full-time.
Bridging the digital educational divide
The UN is on a global mission to expand digital learning and skills and target marginalized students, in a bid to connect every child and youth – some 3.5 billion by 2030 – to digital learning.
And it’s not just students that need help; teachers and educational establishments require significant support to build up robust online capabilities, calling for investment in training and resources. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than two-thirds of teachers are currently unable to access tools, resources, and internet for remote learning.
And, while extolling the virtues of online learning, I must urge a word of warning. During the pandemic, being away from the physical classroom led to a tsunami of mental health cases, and a subsequent struggle to readjust to being in the presence of teachers and fellow pupils once schools and colleges reopened. Which highlights the expected benefits of a hybrid approach that keeps open the human side of education; indeed, digital learning will likely increasingly take place both at home and within schools, universities and workplaces.
Like many advances, technology can only realize its full potential if it’s available to all. Through initiatives like India’s National Education Policy and the UN’s efforts, they can help bridge the digital divide and create a platform for a lifetime of learning.
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1 UNESCO, Scaling up digital learning and skills in the world’s most populous countries to drive education recovery, 4 April 2021
2 The World Bank, Pandemic Threatens to Drive Unprecedented Number of Children into Learning Poverty, 29 October 2021
3 Central Square Foundation, Unprecedented Disruption of School Education