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Can Technology Bridge The Equity Gap in Education?

December 14, 2021

"Education for all" has been a popular slogan since the 1980s, when the World Bank launched its international initiative to make sure every single world citizen had access to education. For some, this may conjure up images of gap-year teachers bringing "western" education to sub-Saharan schools before they head back to Cambridge or Melbourne. Truly bringing education to the whole world, however, requires more than band-aid solutions.

More than half of children in low and middle income countries in the Asia Pacific region cannot read by age ten. The World Bank has set the goal of every child being literate by age ten because "a lack of foundational literacy skills in the early grades can lead to intergenerational transmission of poverty and vulnerability." The Covid-19 crisis has further weakened these efforts to end learning poverty, as so many children have lost out on almost an entire year of education, without access to digital connectivity or learning resources.

The Future of Learning report focuses efforts quite squarely on improving the quality of teaching and learning as a means to close the learning poverty gap. Making sure teachers are well-trained, that learning is personalized and based on progressive pedagogies, are just some of the key areas which will receive more attention and greater funding, but the report barely mentions technology.

How will the learner in rural Ecuador be affected by the next pandemic around the corner, if they still have no remote access to education? How will teachers be trained in Tonga, where less than half the population have access to internet? What role does EdTech play in bridging the equity gap and making sure that, regardless of the education system around them, learners can access education on their own terms? 

Improving digital infrastructure

Without an internet connection, the Khan Academy is, well...the Can't Academy. It all begins with access, and this is not only an issue in rural and remote parts of the world.

Sioux City in Iowa is not the Parvati Valley in India. Far from remote, it is a well-connected urban centre with a mature digital infrastructure that supplies homes, schools and businesses.

Yet in a single school district, a survey found that 300 children did not have internet access. Overall in Sioux City, around 70% of children had reliable internet access at home. During a pandemic, that means 30% of the poorest families fall behind in education, widening a gap that was already difficult to close.

School leaders managed to address this by increasing the Wi-Fi hotspots on campus, in the school bus, and even installing some in local trailer parks which housed some of the lowest income families. One school had a chat with local café owners to ask if they would mind "being friendly" to their students who came to do homework on the café Wi-Fi; something which grew into a community social initiative.

Outside the urban centres, the issue is more acute. Only 6% of Filipinos in low income areas have access to reliable internet connections, and almost a million have no access whatsoever. The government is exerting more pressure in telecommunications companies to let them know that they can't just focus connectivity on the wealthy areas where they can make most profit. To access those areas, they must provide service to the more remote areas of the country. Though the strategy is having a positive impact, the country still ranks 86th worldwide for internet connectivity.

This greater coordination between public and private sectors seems to be the best strategy of improving global access to the internet, but what happens when that connection is established? 

Learning the tech

Education does not just magically happen when the Wi-Fi appears, but learners are able to intuit the use of technology without much supervision. A decade ago, the Hole in the Wall project showed us what happened when a computer was installed in the street in an urban slum in New Delhi.

Over the days and weeks after installation, cameras observed children iterating their way to learning how to use the technology. There was no support, no instructions, no supervision. What came to be later referred to as "Minimally Invasive Education" showed children teaching themselves and then each other how to send emails, save files, navigate social media and a host of other functions. Learning the technology itself, it seems, is not as much of a barrier to digital education as we may have suspected.

Of course, not every street has a communal computer, and programmes such as the One Laptop Per Child have spectacularly failed to achieve real traction. The author, Morgan Ames put this as "the failure to locate technological opportunity within real contexts: real schools, real children, real families, real communities; real people with real hopes, real problems and real behaviours; real countries with real challenges of funding and of governance."

Ames concluded that, as with internet connectivity, the best hope of improving levels of device ownership was in partnership between private organisations and public or governmental bodies.

Tech to EdTech to Education

So when we have access, and device in hand, what next? 

In Ghana, only 62%of teachers have received the minimum training to work in a school. That is 50,000 teachers who are doing their best, but have not yet had access to training support. The government just cannot get there without support, and has partnered with the International Digital Publishing Forum and Sesame Workshop, the Non Profit organisation behind the Children's TV show Sesame Street.

Together, they aim to reach all of Ghana's teachers with an interactive TFET platform (Techniques for Effective Teaching), with the right to intervene in quality standards now part of Ghanaian law.

In Ecuador, Kipa are a private project working in partnership with the Ministry of Education and other bodies private and public to not only bring broadband connectivity to rural areas, but to ensure that there is ready access to education when the connection goes live. They work with organisations such as Khan Academy in Spanish and PhET Interactive Simulations to ensure that learners do not need to wait on formalized support from teachers and schools in hard-to-reach areas.

In the UK, the Connect The Classroom initiative which aims to improve Wi-Fi access in every classroom, has drawn in a range of EdTech hardware and software partners to help enrich the learning when the tech work is done. In the US, the Close the Gap Foundation helps engineer bespoke learning solutions together with each unique community, partnering with local and global EdTech providers, specialists, individuals and private funders to create solutions and make sure everyone has access to learning.

Marketing in partnership

NEO Academy's mission is simple. We work with partners who positively align with our core values of trust, integrity and creativity, to raise their voice. We are committed to doing our bit to help meet Sustainable Development Goal 4: quality education. Partners who we believe play a positive role in the future of education. If you work in EdTech (private or NGO) and would like to share your story of how your organisation improves access and quality in education, then get in touch to see how we can help.

Everywhere we turn in the face of the digital access and connectivity challenge, it is clear that no one entity, organisation or individual has the solution. We must work together to ensure that future generations are not left behind.

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