Only Half of World's Learners Able to Take Part in Distance Learning

28 April 2020

Upali Sedere writes about education and serves as an advisor to Sri Lanka's Ministry of Education. He notes that online learning is available to children and adults in many areas, but not others.

"One section of the population is enjoying online learning, with virtual classrooms, with all kinds of apps, whereas recently the UNESCO indicated a total of 826 million students are kept out of classrooms - and only 43 percent of this number has access to some form of [online] learning today."

The numbers he gives come from the International Task Force on Teachers, also called The Teachers Task Force. The group is an international alliance of educators and organizations under UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The divide between the "haves" and "have-nots" is very clear in developing countries, especially those south of the Sahara Desert. There, 89 percent of learners do not have a household computer and 82 percent have no internet connection.

Some learners have mobile phones where they find information and can connect with their teachers and other learners. About 56 million learners live in places without mobile technology. Half of them are in sub-Saharan Africa.

How can young people and adults continue learning in the current coronavirus crisis if they cannot go online?

Audrey Azoulay is UNESCO's Director General. She notes the value of other technology, "including the use of community radio and television broadcasts, and creativity in all ways of learning."

FILE - Afghan girls attend a class at the Aschiana center in Kabul, Afghanistan March 5, 2019.
FILE - Afghan girls attend a class at the Aschiana center in Kabul, Afghanistan March 5, 2019.

Lack of electricity in Afghanistan

Ahmad Tameem is an online language teacher in Kabul, Afghanistan. He notes that the Afghan National Television is broadcasting educational programs for students who are not able to attend school. They are staying at home to protect themselves and others from the coronavirus.

Since internet access in Afghanistan is costly, Tameem noted, few students can spend much time learning online. He heard that some teachers are using phone apps to send study materials to students. He said that he does not believe online learning will continue after the coronavirus pandemic ends because students enjoy the social contacts and friendships they make at school.

Martha Young is Director of Educational Programs at the Professional Development Institute of the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. She spoke with principals of private Afghan high schools where all the subjects are taught in English. She found only one who was sure that every student has a computer at home. Afghanistan's public education system teaches children from kindergarten through high school. These public schools are not attempting online learning.

Young notes that some universities are trying to support online learning programs. But it has become nearly impossible for them to continue because of Taliban attacks on power stations in and around Kabul. Before the attacks, each neighborhood received enough power for only four hours a day. Now electricity is available for even shorter periods.

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

James Onyango is an education officer with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. He helps educators working in the Rohingya refugee camps at Cox's Bazar.

Onyango says these educators have "developed some guidelines to support caregivers and parents in facilitating some learning in their homes while the facilities remain closed."

He told VOA that the UNHCR acknowledges that parents cannot take the place of teachers for their children.

"We are not trying to convert the households into schools."

Instead, he said, the UN agency's guidance is more about general ideas for what a parent can do.

"For instance, encouraging the parents to try and assist their child to spend between one to two hours per day on education using the workbooks that they have been provided. If they could, identify an adult who is in their household who could work with these children for between one to two hours in a day in the home."

Helping children with their workbooks requires an adult who can read.

Onyango said the ability to read, while important, is not always the only way to help children learn.

"In terms of the younger children we are encouraging the parents to tell them stories or play with them just as a way of ensuring that during this period children are meaningfully engaged... It also has a positive effect in terms of further facilitating the desired social distancing."

The teachers who live in the refugee camps help to pass information along to families in their neighborhoods using megaphones. Islamic clergymen have been sharing information in messages broadcast from religious centers. In some areas, large signs are hung where people can see them.

Sri Lanka's public television joins with VOA

Education writer Upali Sedere spoke with VOA about conditions in Sri Lanka.

"The statistical department of Sri Lanka has done a household survey that indicates only 24 percent of our homes have got a computer at home. Particularly the digital literacy – somebody is able to use social media, Facebook and things like that – about 78 percent of the youth can use it. But not necessarily computer literacy, ability to do something with the computer, is much lower than that - it's about 43 percent in general."

Even families who have a computer or a mobile device may not be able to use it for online learning. Sedere said the less costly service plans they have do not offer them enough data for learning online.

"The internet access in Sri Lanka is very low. I think about 27 percent of the rural population, 46 percent to 50 percent in the urban societies, you get internet facility at home."

The solution to distance learning for Sri Lanka may be found in existing technology. The country's president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has asked educators to use television (TV) more as a teaching tool. Through a deal between the Sri Lankan Ministry of Education and Voice of America, Learning English videos are now shown daily on Channel Eye, one of two national TV broadcasters.

"What is widely available in Sri Lanka is the television and the radio. ... TV is available to over 90 percent of households. Generally a child has the privilege to watch that."

Sedere adds that he thinks the VOA programs will prove useful to Sri Lanka's educators as well as to the general population.

I'm Jill Robbins.

Jill Robbins reported on this story for Learning English with additional information from UNESCO. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

app n. a software application for an electronic device

access – n. a way of getting near, at, or to something or someone

mobile adj. able to move from one place to another

principal – n. the person in charge of a school

kindergartenn. a school or class for very young children

pandemicn. an occurrence in which a disease spreads very quickly and affects a large number of people over a wide area or throughout the world

facilitate – v. to make (something) easier; to help cause (something)

literacyn. the ability to read and write

acknowledge - v. to say that you accept or do not deny the truth or existence of (something)

encouragev. to make (something) more appealing or more likely to happen

positive – adj. good or useful

megaphone - n. a cone-shaped device used to make your voice louder when you speak through it

statistical – adj. using a number that represents a piece of information

data – n. facts or information used usually to calculate, analyze, or plan something

rural – adj. of or relating to the country and the people who live there instead of the city

How are children learning from a distance in your country? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.