The last few weeks have witnessed heightened awareness of the threat from the outbreak of COVID-19 (coronavirus). As the virus spreads around the world, we also need to understand what it means for the education systems of Europe and Central Asia.
With the need to contain the virus, many countries are implementing measures to reduce gatherings of large crowds. Our schools are not immune to these actions, nor to the spread of the virus. Many countries have now implemented measures in their education systems – from banning gatherings to the temporary closing of schools.
At the epicenter of the virus – China – more than 180 million schoolchildren are staying home. But while schools are temporarily closed for quarantine, schooling continues. It’s just that it is a different kind of teaching. Students are being educated remotely using technology. This is being done through a variety of online courses and electronic textbooks.
To date, almost all countries in the Europe and Central Asia region have instructed their primary and secondary school systems to close completely or partially, to stop a possible virus spread among students and the general public.
The question is, from an educational perspective, what do these students do when schools are closed?
In China, a massive effort is underway to make sure children keep learning. Technology seems to be the answer. We will only know how effective this is after the crisis, but it does seem to be a good use of children’s time. Home schooling might be an answer, but this option is not very widespread outside of the United States.
In Europe and Central Asia, we have a diverse set of countries at different levels of income and development. The spread, use and availability of technology is key, as is the availability of online learning materials, as well as devices and the level of internet connectivity at home.
At the same time, one more important question is: can students actually benefit from technology at home? Here we clearly have an equity issue. While financially well-off families can afford computers and multiple devices, students from struggling families can hardly afford simple devices and may likely not have the internet at home.
For example, PISA 2108 data form Belarus confirms the lack of any device puts students at a large disadvantage in terms of educational achievement. It is also an indicator of poverty.
Using a quick survey of World Bank staff working on education in the region, we gathered some key statistics on the availability of technology and online learning materials in the region.
In terms of internet connectivity at school, most countries in the Europe and Central Asia region have the basic capabilities that enable schools to deliver instruction using technology. Only a few countries lack this capacity.
What is happening on the other end of the internet cable? In many countries in the region we see that home connectivity has become widespread and home internet connections may enable students to connect to different type of learning resources.
As many countries have been implementing computer equipment programs in the region over the last few decades, they are better positioned in terms of technological equipment in schools. For example, as per our assessment of the IT equipment and internet connectivity in schools, 50% of them have basic resources to ensure the minimum ability to deliver content.
At the same time, another 20% are in a position to provide good computers and networking with decent internet connectivity and robust security. Yet, with all this progress in a majority of countries, one-third are in the unenvious position of not being fully equipped nor fully connected to the internet.
Let’s look at educational content. Two-thirds of school systems do not use digital content in education. Another 20% of countries use some digital learning resources in teaching, but only in some schools. A mere 10 percent of countries have more robust digital learning capabilities with some of the educational content available outside of school. No country, according to our assessment, has universal curriculum-linked resources for teaching and learning, regardless of place and time.
Distance education capabilities are also limited. By our estimation, in 70 percent of countries in the region, we see zero to minimal distance education capabilities. The other 30 percent have better capabilities, but none have integrated curriculum widely delivered with a blended mode.
We need to think about the state of distance education. Traditionally, distance education was conducted by paper mail through the post office. This is not the case today. Yet, we do not see tremendous progress in terms of its use. It is very likely that the traditional school education just does not need distance technology.
At the same time, countries that lack access to good teaching in remote areas try to use this capability for education improvement, both by using the older and proven technologies such as radio and television broadcasting, and leveraging the potential of ICT. This is where teacher training with digital technologies and applications becomes important.
Media, and especially social media, can also be used to educate students about the virus itself and to teach basic hygiene. In Vietnam, for example, a cartoon musical video about handwashing and other precautionary measures to protect from the virus has gone viral.
As the region’s current education systems are designed for face-to-face teaching and learning, the lock-down and school closures may be accommodated if they happen in short periods of time. However, if the situation continues to last for months, it may need a dramatic change in delivery.
So, what could countries focus on? Here are a few ideas:
- Target programs to include the most vulnerable children with equipment and connectivity.
- Improve connectivity for schools that need it most.
- Improve financing of digital curriculum and materials (digital libraries, lessons, learning items, etc.)
- Improve telecommunication capabilities for schools to be able to deliver education online.
A time of crisis is also an opportunity for all education systems to look into the future, adjust to possible threats, and build their capacity. We believe that the Europe and Central Asia region has enormous potential for this to happen, regardless of COVID-19.