Education is a fundamental human right, and an important lever for achieving the global development targets set out in the 17 United Nations Sustainable Goals (UN SDGs). It therefore becomes imperative for government responses to socioeconomic issues, such as a global health pandemic, to incorporate measures to advance the education goal, which is to ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’.
According to a United Nations policy brief on education during COVID-19, it has been reported that the pandemic has caused the largest interruption to the delivery of education ever seen, with a negative impact on approximately 1.6 billion learners in over 190 countries, and 99% of those school learners coming from underserved communities in low and middle income countries.
In as much as the predictions for flattening the curve are linked to lockdown regulations or the development of a vaccine, which are respectively social and scientific solutions that give hopes that this pandemic can be handled so that social interactions resume, the biggest worry is that an education deficit will devasted progress in many countries, especially in poor communities.
There is no dispute that the closure of schools and other learning institutions is an appropriate policy action by government, politicians, teachers and civil society across many countries in order to protect the livelihoods of learners and teachers. Lockdown regulations have also been applied in various business and civil society sectors, in order to mitigate the transmission of the virus, and to sustain lives. The latter policy imperative adjudicated by governments through legislations is appropriate, however a long-term vision is lacking. What is needed is a new approach on the delivery of education, specifically in low- and middle-income countries.
A new approach for the delivery of education can promote continuous learning, which is vital in order to limit interruptions in learning, and to continue the progress towards education targets and curriculum outcomes. The learning supply chain which is systematic in its approach of taking learners into higher grades, universities and the labour market also needs to be revised, as there are gaps in access to education tools, facilities, and access which are unaccounted for in many cases.
An approach of halting education for a short-term period during this pandemic is understandable, yet an ongoing deficit in education due long periods of not accessing education has the potential of discouraging learners to continue learning at a later stage. The latter can be detrimental for disadvantaged learners, whereas advantaged learners are not dependent on physical interaction for accessing education, as they usually have a learning environment and support structures at home and academic tutors that encourage continuous learning through online platforms.
Policy decisions on closing or reopening schools have largely been politicised, and in developing countries the debates surrounding the transmission of the virus to adults by school learners (who have been deemed largely non-susceptible to the negative impacts of the virus) has been founded as a criteria that makes it safe for schools to be open for children, or not safe for teachers, due to the veto of this decision by educational institutions to protect teachers due to their high risk profile susceptible to infection.
These debates generate an opportune time to rethink approaches of delivering of education from physical interactions, and to pivot education to digital platforms. Much of the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged private enterprise to rethink ways of working, which has led to an exponential uptake of digital platforms, even when various organisations may have assessed their technological readiness for the digital world at a basic level pre-COVID. However, the survival of these organisations is now dependent on fully grasping digitisation, or bear witness to closing down, loss of funding or profits and retrenchment amongst many consequences of halting operations.
The latter is an important point of departure for the opportunity for government, civil society and business to create an environment that is enabling for education to be delivered digitally, especially in low and middle-income countries that still require the policy efficacy that is crucial for the implementation of a education ecosystem that is digital. The latter will also be enabled by technological infrastructure, digital skills, access to devices, localised digital content that is zero-rated and secure for learning.
It is important that legislation is the driver for the promotion widely accessible education through digital platforms, which is important for curbing the negative impact of education interruptions during this pandemic, and future unforeseen events. The key focus areas for this delivery model will require an understanding of the digital landscape from the following angles:
- Regulations on technology and education:
Education is a building block of the economy. On a practical level, skills gained from education are a factor of production in the labour market and drive the development of products and delivery of services, which contribute to wealth generation in industries and economic growth.
It is therefore important for government to champion new approaches to learning, as digital learning secures continuous education. The latter also requires that government take another look at regulatory environment so that it provides the right incentives for businesses to offer products and services for digital learning on a wider scale, and prioritising zero-rated platforms for marginalised communities.
Another key lever to the delivery model is merging the policy imperative on technology and education in order to drive an agenda to foster a digital education economy.
- Infrastructure, networks and internet access:
A digital delivery model will require a thorough understanding of the networks that exist throughout countries from a global, regional, national and local level, as this will assist in identifying how people access the internet, and how networks are established and interact to enable access for the end-user.
- Data costs and zero-rated learning platforms:
Driving the cost of education down through zero-rated digital learning platforms will be a game changer to addressing inequalities in education. This means dealing with disparities of quality of education content that is delivered in private and public education or advantaged and disadvantaged schools. The driving force will be government incentives and policy’s that will regulate the zero-rating of education that is delivered digitally, as education is a human right.
This has to be coupled with extra-curricular content that can offer learners vast knowledge area platforms, so that learning is not traditional, but rather it is innovative and provides learners with opportunities to tap into creative, practical and technical content for various learning capabilities, and offering opportunities to advance in learning areas chosen by the end-user.
- Digital skills audit:
An analysis of the level of digital skills is important to shifting to a widely accessible digital delivery model for education. If government is to drive the policy agenda for a digital education system, then a baseline of the skills level, access to internet and technologies devices, comprehension and interaction with digital tools, to decision making on digital platforms will be evidence required to implement this delivery model in an equitable manner.
- Localised digital content for achieving education curriculum outcomes:
The results that come from a digital skills audit can inform how intended educational curriculum outcomes can be facilitated and taking into account levels of engagement that will be required to provide a support structure for the teacher and learner to track educational progress. The latter will also assist in determining grading that is fair and consistent.
It is worth noting that digitised scoring of education should be aligned to the level of education, and resource available to learners for continuous learning. Localised digital content and education resources will be a key determinant of transformational education, and closing education gaps in our societies, and ensuring the delivery of education that is more needs basis, than an umbrella approach.
- Education ecosystems – hub of learning institutions:
The final focus area is ensuring that a digital education system provides for the establishment of a hub of learning for institutions to interact with one another for peer learning purpose, and finding approaches of adapting to delivery mechanisms, and ensuring that there is a central point of access of education content, experts, teachers and learners to interact on a continuous basis.