Distance Learning Denied

Over 500 million of the world’s children and youth not accessing distance learning alternatives

By Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education

Most countries around the world have mandated school closures as part of public health measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since February 2020, school closures in 190 countries have caused widespread disruption of the education of 1.27 billion children and youth or some 95% of primary and secondary students worldwide. This situation is dramatically exacerbating inequalities in access to educational opportunity in multiple ways. Data shows that despite government efforts worldwide to provide alternative remote learning, at least 500 million children and youth are currently excluded from public educational provision.

While governments in four out of five countries with school closures have proposed national distance learning alternatives in efforts to ensure continuity of curriculum-based study and learning, other countries have not. Indeed, school closures in many other contexts have been implemented with no apparent national distance learning alternative to offset the interruption of learning. In these situations, the closures of physical schools amount to a temporary suspension of publicly provisioned education for some 45 million students.

Figure 1: Government-initiated distance learning solutions and intended reach

Source: UNESCO May 2020

Note: The diagram includes distance learning solutions initiated and endorsed by Ministries of Education and does not account for initiatives by private or other providers. It does not reference distance learning solutions reliant on print materials and which do not require information communication technologies.

Furthermore, even when national distance learning alternatives are being deployed, as most governments have done, there are significant challenges of access. Over 60% of these national distance learning alternatives rely exclusively on on-line platforms. Yet, as many as 465 million children and youth, or almost 47 % of all primary and secondary students being targeted exclusively by national on-line learning platforms do not have access to the Internet at home (Figure 2). While the share of students with no access to internet at home is less than 15% in Western Europe and North America, it is as high as 80% in sub-Saharan Africa. These students – most often from lower-income or rural households – are de-facto excluded from national on-line learning alternatives during times of confinement.

Figure 2: Share of students with Internet at home in countries relying exclusively on on-line learning platforms

Source: UNESCO, based on connectivity data from ITU (May 2020).

Note: Only countries that mandated countrywide closures are considered in this analysis.

Moreover, even Internet connectivity at home does not guarantee effective access to on-line learning. Many homes lack adequate access to computers or connected devices for proper on-line learning.  Even a household that is connected may only have one or two devices to use/leverage the connection for the learning of several children. Recognizing this device gap, a number of countries have made efforts to quickly provision devices to learners/families that do not have them.

Finally, beyond technical connectivity, even when parents/caregivers have the time, they may lack the requisite skills to facilitate home-based on-line learning of younger learners. Indeed, recent survey evidence among national education authorities (UNESCO, April 2020) indicates that digital skill gaps are perceived to be one of the most important barriers for effective national distance on-line learning programmes where a majority of parents/caregivers and teachers are believed not have the requisite ICT skills to facilitate remote learning in countries in both North and South.

It is arguably too early to fully assess the effectiveness of the current global experience in distance learning during this unique period of school closures worldwide. Nonetheless, preliminary evidence on the dramatic scale of incomplete and inequitable reach of these alternatives is cause for concern. The predominance of on-line distance learning alternatives in national responses to the disruption caused by school closures has laid bare the scale of existing connectivity gaps. There is now arguably greater recognition that significant gaps, both in household connectivity, as well as in digital skills, must be urgently addressed if equal opportunity to on-line learning alternatives are to be ensured.

Beyond this, however, governments are arguably over investing in online learning solutions when more mixed provision of distance learning would be more inclusive and have greater reach. Currently, only 20% of governments combine both on-line platforms with TV/radio in their national distance learning strategies and less than 20% are TV and/or radio-based. Expanding the use and reach of more inclusive technologies such as TV and radio would certainly help fill the gaps in access to remote learning opportunities.

Failure of doing this represents serious risks for disengagement and drop out of students potentially swelling the ranks of the 258 million children and youth currently out of school.



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  3. Fantastic blog, could you provide references to the following:
    1) Where did you get Figure 1 from: UNESCO May 2020 – can you post a link of the document?
    2) Can you also provide a reference for: UNESCO, April 2020

    1. The figure was created for the purposes of the blog based on UNESCO monitoring of distance learning strategies deployed and estimates of reach – there is no additional background document to share.

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