From government officials to mainstream media and even celebrities, COVID-19 has been touted as “the great equalizer.” It is a pandemic that transcends wealth, fame, prestige, or age. We are all at risk. Superficially this is true, however, it is more accurate to say that COVID-19 reveals life’s harshest reality: the inequality between the haves and have-nots is accentuated. How the different classes cope and survive COVID-19, depends on the resources the classes have access to.
One key area where COVID-19 has highlighted class inequality is in the area of learning and education. According to the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 90% of the world’s learners, around 1.5 billion students, in 190 countries are not able to go to school. Online learning has become the main way for students to access educational classes and support. However, access to these online resources is at best, spotty, constrained by the students’ ability to access online resource infrastructures such as computers and laptops.
The challenge to secure adequate and suitable hardware to support online learning while prevalent in third-world countries, is a problem even in first-world countries like Singapore. In Singapore when the government announced the circuit breaker and closure of schools, schools and relevant organisations had to scramble to ensure that students are equipped with not just laptops and tablets, but that they could access stable internet connection from home. To this end, more than 1,200 routers and 20,000 laptops were sourced and donated.
The online learning divide between the haves and have nots is further exaggerated when one considers that a conducive learning environment is equally important to the student. A student with a stable home background, with parents who are equipped to support their child’s online learning journey and prior experience with online resources, could benefit tremendously, from the freedom that online learning offers to him: he would be able to use his creativity to leverage on the online resources to extend learning outside of the specified teaching syllabi. On the other hand, a child newly introduced to unfamiliar online resources and equipment, ripped away from personal support he had obtained from teachers and other schools resources, could be struggling to adjust to remote learning.
Beyond the challenges posed by the lack of hardware/devices and unfamiliarity to new technologies (e.g setting up Google Classroom, troubleshooting technical issues and upgrades), with online learning, students lose the support that a physical school offers. Resources such as pastoral care, after school care (for latchkey kids), or even sustenance and nutrition support provided by the school, are absent in an online learning context. These have been resources that students from lower-income background have relied on to support their education and learning journeys, so it is not surprising that the new online learning environment has not been conducive for such students.
It is no doubt that information and communication technologies have revolutionised virtually every aspect of our lives, making it possible for us to continue to learn and work in a COVID-19 environment. However, COVID-19 has also revealed the limitations of what technologies can do; that humans being humans thrive on real interaction and learning without humanity is handicapped learning. This is especially true for our brothers and sisters who do not have the benefit of opportunities and resources afforded to our better-heeled counterparts.
Consulus is bringing to you the Shape the World Webinar Series on Global Education 4.0 for Inclusion and Sustainability. Join us in our first webinar of the series, Online Education in the Age of COVID-19: Sudden Boom and Digital Inequality, on the 22nd of July 2020 from 3pm to 5pm SGT/9am-11am CEST.
About the Author
Rita King is a Senior Consultant with more than a decade of experience serving in government and international trade initiatives. She had worked on helping SME in trade issues and launched the iAdvisory programme when she served in International Enterprise Singapore.