COVID-19: UN study reveals ‘baffling’ inequality in distance learning


A study by the United Nations (UN) and some partners has revealed a “baffling” disparity in digitally-based distance learning around the world.

This is coming amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that has forced the closure of schools in 191 countries, leaving most of the world’s students at home.

The study says about 826 million students, representing half of the world’s learners kept out of the classroom by the pandemic, do not have access to a household computer.

It reveals that no fewer than 706 million others have no internet at home, “at a time when digitally-based distance learning is used to ensure educational continuity in the vast majority of countries”.

According to UNESCO, about 1.5 billion students and 63 million primary and secondary teachers are affected by the “unprecedented disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic”.

The study was conducted by the Teacher Task Force, an international alliance coordinated by the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

It used data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics and the International Telecommunication Union.

The study says low-income countries, especially sub-Saharan Africa, are mostly affected with 89 per cent of learners lacking access to household computers and 82 per cent having no internet access.

It says about 56 million learners live in locations not served by mobile networks, almost half of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

This is in spite of the critical role played by mobile phones in enabling learners “access to information, connect with their teachers and with one another”.

“While efforts to provide connectivity to all must be multiplied, we now know that continued teaching and learning cannot be limited to online means.

“To lessen already existing inequalities, we must also support other alternatives including the use of community radio and television broadcasts, and creativity in all ways of learning.

“These are solutions we are addressing with our Global Coalition partners,” UNESCO quoted its Director-General Audrey Azoulay as saying in a statement.

The study notes that rapid transition to online learning has been challenging even for teachers in countries with reliable information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure and household connectivity.

“For teachers in regions where ICT and other distance methodologies are less available, the transition has been even more difficult or impossible.

“Teachers also require training to deliver distance and online education effectively, but such support is particularly scarce in low-income countries.

“Across sub-Saharan Africa, just 64 per cent of primary and 50 per cent of secondary teachers have received minimum training, and this frequently does not include ICT skills,” the study added.

UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education, Stefania Giannini, said the inequalities posed real threat to learning continuity at this time.