A lesson on the pandemic – the lesson we didn’t learn about inequality

Une jeune fille se rend à l'école à pied. Une jeune fille se rend à l'école à pied.

School after this pandemic will be different.  To a large extent this is due to many actors – parents, teachers, mass media, the government, and others – who will have changed their views and perceptions about their role in the education process. This shift of mindsets will be critical for the future of the education system. 

Parents now have a better understanding of the need to work jointly with schools to foster the education of their children. They now know that they can be, and actually are, a major figure in the education process of their children. And many parents who are now struggling with supporting they children to maintain some of their learning process at home will have a better understanding of just how demanding and challenging the teacher’s job is.  Parents have a much greater appreciation for teachers and what they do. And parents now clearly recognize that education is a social experience – a lot of the magic of learning, of the development of ideas and creativity, come from the social interaction with teachers and peers. If someone ever thought that teachers could be replaced by artificial intelligence, it is now clear that is not the case.

Teachers now have a better understanding of the importance of digital technologies, and that digital skills are an essential element of their toolkit.  Without these skills and tools, providing remedial education, to teach each student at the level they need, and to address the diffident needs of different students will be very difficult.  And education ministries now realize that without technology it will be very difficult to provide all teachers, at scale, the professional development opportunities they urgently need.  

Mass media now has a better understanding of the critical role that TV and radio still play in the lives of people and in the education process.  They have a huge responsibility in the formation of character, in providing socioemotional skills, in providing knowledge, and, therefore, have a disproportionately critical role in the education process of children and youth in a country. 

But a fundamental lesson of this pandemic for government and societies is that we have an even better understanding of the immense equity gaps.  They have been made more evident, and the urgent need to act on them is even clearer. 

There are several fronts on which societies need to urgently act to rectify these gaps. 

One aspect of the equity gap was already evident in the policy discussions. Before the pandemic, school was not yet the equalizing factor that allows everyone to have a chance in life.  Across and within countries, the quality of learning was highly dependent on socio-economic background.  There has been some progress, but far from enough.  Successful countries were those that, while ensuring quality, were also ensuring that there is no – or little – sorting or segregation of students.  In those countries, the quality of the education you receive at school is independent of family income or wealth, race, gender, or where you were born.  

However, it became clear with the pandemic that in many low- and middle-income countries (and even several high-income countries), differences in school quality were huge, and were highly correlated to wealth income and other variables, leaving schools in poorer areas, in particular, grossly underprepared to adapt themselves to the new situation. Some (few) schools were able to provide classes online, their teachers were able – usually with a lot of effort – to switch to online, provide material to be used at home, and continue interacting with students, monitoring progress, and providing feedback.  But many didn’t. 30 countries have implemented multiplatform remote learning strategies, using online, TV, radio, social networks to try to reach as many children as possible, but effectiveness of these mitigation strategies are extremely varied.  

A second aspect of the equity gap is that there is a huge digital divide: both the differences in access to hardware, connectivity, and the right software, but also the huge shortfall of teachers with the digital skills.  We knew there was a digital divide… now this was a slap in the face – not having acted on this divide is precluding technology from being the great equalizer that it potentially can be.

The digital divide has several aspects.  One is that access to internet at home or at school is still very limited.  Much more limited than what we think. In low-income countries, only 10% of children have internet at home, and only 20% of schools are connected.  And in many cases, that connectivity is poor quality and is expensive.  In Latin America, only 50% of students have a device at home.  Even in high-income countries, many kids do not have access to a device, or it has to be shared among several family members. But the divide does not stop on connectivity or hardware. Unfortunately, sometimes investments in hardware, that even if useful, have no impact, if there is no system capacity to seamlessly integrate digital tools with curriculum.  

The digital divide is also evident in the lack of skills of many teachers.  Now people will go digital much more than before, some schools or some systems will have been suddenly exposed to technology, some successfully, other less so.  Google Classroom, Zoom, or Teams are there for many more schools than before.  More teachers and students will be aware of their potential, and shifts might be permanent.  But many teachers were not or are not prepared, so the efforts needed to bring all teachers up to speed, across all countries are gigantic and urgent.

Closing the digital divide requires an integral change.  It is not about hardware and software. Technology will never replace the teacher, but it can augment the effectiveness of the teacher. And there are things that technology cannot do.  One child has a short attention span, another requires motivation, etc. – the need to invest in teachers’ digital skills entails finding the right balance between technology and the human factor. 

There is a third source of inequity that this pandemic has made evident – it is that education does not happen only at school, but at home. This is suddenly obvious during this pandemic.  Not all children will have a stable home, with educated or, more important, motivated parents.  Not all children have connectivity or a computer, or a device for their own use at home.  Not all children have books at home or a space to work.  This is another area where opportunities need to be equalized. 

A few months ago, we were already discussing about how the world is living a learning crisis.  The baseline is now much more challenging, and inequities have expanded dramatically.  Learning strategies in the coming months, with education systems moving towards a new normal, should now give children not only a more equitable schooling experience, but a more holistic and resilient education opportunity.  At school, a blend of in-person and remote learning will be a new fact of life.  As the educational process continues at home, an effort is needed to provide internet and devices to poor children.  Children should have books and reading material at home.  And parents should be actively supported to be major figures in their children’s education.

Education is about technology enhancing the role of the teacher; education is about collaboration between teachers, parents, and the community; and education is about making sure that each child gets the support that they need.  This will not be easy, it and requires huge adaptation on the part of all players.  But good things are never easy to come by.


Jaime Saavedra

Human Development Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank

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