SEATTLE, Washington — With more than 1.2 billion children now out of physical school, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the gaps in access to education with the rise of virtual learning. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reports that half of the students in the 191 countries worldwide with schools closed do not have access to a computer and more than 40% do not have access to the internet. This means that students already experiencing socio-economic disadvantages will fall even further behind in their learning and development due to the digital divide. As schools are given the option to reopen with modifications, this also becomes a challenge for districts with less funding to pay for adequate ventilation and classroom expansion, among other modifications.
Virtual Learning Structure
For students who have adequate access to remote classroom technology, retention rates can increase from 8% to 10% from face-to-face education to 25% to 60% from virtual learning. Students can review past sessions or jump ahead as needed. Additionally, students also have access to practice exams and can even take redo exams with virtual learning platforms. This allows for a more individualized way of learning that can be more effective than the traditional classroom.
Educators argue that this lack of structure is not necessarily beneficial to learning since there is less monitoring, more distractions and no peers to motivate students. Without face-to-face interaction, it is also more difficult for educators to monitor students’ progress and struggles, which can be an issue as lessons build upon each other.
Disproportionate Access to Virtual Learning
Despite these debates over the effectiveness and equality of online learning, there is a consensus that even suboptimal in-person school is better than no school at all. For the many areas in sub-Saharan Africa that have reported educator shortages, virtual learning has boosted as an industry amid the pandemic and may provide some solutions to the issue of stagnated education.
However, virtual learning brings up the question of internet and technological access. But for humanitarian organizations and world development groups, internet access may be a simpler solution than creating a school with educators of various backgrounds in remote corners of the world. For potential students with household duties and far commutes to school, this is an especially compelling solution.
Advantages of Remote Learning
Moreover, virtual learning is also a great tool for smaller villages with few students and low funds for teachers. Programs that connect several smaller classrooms together and an online teacher have been successful in the impoverished regions of rural China. Classrooms with as few as five students simply require broadband internet and a projector for students to live stream a teacher living across the province.
Online learning offers flexible hours and mobility for children, as well as teachers. Though virtual learning will not solve global education gaps and the cycle of poverty tied to education, it is a step in the right direction as the pandemic highlights the importance of accessibility to education and other essential infrastructures.