Current AffairsEducation

Part 2: COVID-19, Disruption Of Education And The Digital Divide

By April 7, 2020No Comments
african child learning

As discussed in Part 1 of this three-part series, COVID-19 is a universal crisis, which affects each person in each country of the world. This does not mean that it affects all in the same way. Part 1 provided a general overview of how the COVID-19 crisis has exposed vulnerability fault lines. Part 2 will look at how COVID-19 has disrupted education and the digital divide.

quote from UN secretary generalThe COVID-19 lockdown has given school learners and university students across the world unexpected additional time off this year. But with extended lock-down periods, the class of 2020 may battle to attain high levels of academic success unless they have access to reliable and affordable connectivity and appropriate technical devices.

For learners and students who cannot continue with their learning online during the COVID-19 crisis, the digital divide may well become a digital chasm, at least for this year.  For some, the shutdown of institutions of learning also has other implications such as loss of access to nutrition.

In relation to the socio-economic impact of COVID-19, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres emphasised that this crisis provides an opportunity to “deal decisively with those issues that make us all unnecessarily vulnerable to crises.”

Apart from the eradication of poverty and enhancement of food security, technological access and participation in the digital knowledge economy should be one of the top items on that list.

girl in a classroom chalkboard

The extent of disruption of learning

According to the UN’s March 2020 report[1] titled “Shared responsibility, global solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19”, the magnitude of the impact on the education sector is that:

  • 166 countries have implemented country-wide school and university closures
  • 52 billion children and youth are currently out of school or university (this is 87% of the world enrolled school and university student population)
  • Close to 60.2 million teachers are no longer in the classroom

The map shows the extent of school closures in the developing world, and particularly Africa.

map of areas affected by school closures


In the USA, it was recently announced[2] that schools in California, which is home to 12% American children of school-going age, will remain closed up to the end of the school year. Classes will continue through distance learning.

Impact on nutrition

The problem is not only that school and university closures are taking place, but also the extensive detrimental impact of these closures on learners and students. In addition to the obvious loss of opportunity for social interaction and associated social and behavioural development, an important impact is that some children lose access to food and nutrition, especially in developing countries.

“The World Food Program (WFP) estimates that more than 320 million primary school children in 120 countries are now missing out on school meals.” (UN, 2020: 9). This places an additional burden on household finances and food resources, and also has implications for unpaid work, especially for women.

Demands on parents

With children at home, there are also more demands on parents to support the learning of children during this time. Some parents may have free time because they cannot continue to work; others will be working from home. Having to support their children’s learning will have to be balanced with getting to grips with working from home.

While parents can provide some level of support, especially in the lower grades, not all parents may be able to assist their school-going children with all subjects, for various reasons including literacy levels of parents, and lack of access to relevant educational materials.

(See the section below on how South African schools are responding).

Technology to the rescue

Technology is definitely the hero of the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to helping people to stay connected during lock down, enabling some degree of business continuity, and exchanging key information on the medical and logistical aspects of the COVID-19 crisis, technology is also an education life-saver.

That is if you have access to technology.

As pointed out by the UN Report on the social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, “inequality of access to broadband connectivity and inaccessibility of ICTs hinders effective remote participation and access to remote schooling arrangements….” (UN, 2020:9).

The report also points out that worldwide, approximately 3.6 billion people do not have access to the internet, of which the majority are living in the least developed countries.

boy using technology

What the digital divide looks like

Zooming in on the digital divide, it is important to note that “the cleavages that may open are not necessarily between developed and developing countries or between people at the top and people at the bottom of the income distribution…more and more depends— to a great extent—on the ability to connect to digital networks.” (UNDP[3], 2019: 200).

The report points out the nuances of the digital divide:

  • Groups with lower human development have systematically less access to a wide range of technologies;
  • Gaps in basic entry-level technologies still exist, but these gaps are closing;
  • Gaps in advanced technologies are widening.

Despite these nuances, the report shows that higher levels of human development and greater access to technology goes together, and that despite the fast pace and enormous impact of the digital revolution, it is “far from universal”.

For example:

  • “…in 2017 almost 2 billion people still did not use a mobile phone…”
  • “…of the 5 billion mobile subscribers in the world, nearly 2 billion—most of them in low- and middle- income countries—do not have access to the internet…”
  • “…in 2017 the number of fixed broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants was only 13.3 globally and 9.7 in developing countries…”
  • “…the number of mobile broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants was 103.6 in developed countries compared with only 53.6 in developing countries…”

(UNDP, 2019: 201)

classroom of students

The implications of the digital divide for becoming part of the learning society

Unequal access to entry-level technologies, such as mobile phones including basic service has been shrinking in the past ten years (see table below).

Mobile subscriptions per 100 inhabitants 2007 2017
Developed countries 102 127
Developing countries 39 99

(Source: Development Works Changemakers. Derived from UNDP Human Development Report, 2019)

According to the Digital Infrastructure Moonshot for Africa Report (2019: 60 – 61), broadband access in South Africa in 2018, was significantly better than for Africa as a whole:

  • Broadband[4] penetration was 53%, and the regional[5] average was and estimated 31%; and
  • 4G mobile broadband[6] penetration was 32% in 2018, and the regional average was 9%.

Access to technologies described as “more empowering” (technologies that allow users to access more content and to produce content) have not improved to the same extent. Countries at lower human development levels have made the least progress, and this trend is consistent with widening gaps in installed broadband capacity.

According to the UNDP report (2010: 202), “…the distinction between the number of telecommunication subscriptions and the availability of bandwidth mattered little when there was only fixed-line telephony, since all the connections had essentially the same bandwidth. But as artificial intelligence and related technologies continue to evolve, bandwidth will be increasingly important (as will be cloud computing, which depends on the ability to connect computers with each other). “

Additional factors

Another factor that contributes to the digital divide is that new technology is often expensive, which makes it less accessible to persons with lower income, especially at the beginning of the diffusion process.

Also, inequalities are larger for advanced technologies, which include computer, internet or broadband. This means that while improved access to mobile technology has “empowered traditionally marginalized and excluded people… digital gaps can also become barriers not only in accessing services or enabling economic transactions but also in being part of a “learning society.” (UNDP, 2019: 203).

A third aspect of access to digital communication and learning is the cost of data. Econometric studies conducted by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)[7] suggests that a 10% drop in mobile broadband prices could boost adoption of mobile broadband technology by more than 3.1%.

inequality in the classroom and society

Opportunities for learning during lockdown

Whether or not learners and students will continue learning during lockdown will depend on a wide range of factors, and it is clear that for some it will be much easier to continue with their education than for others. In our society, which remains unequal, the impacts of school and university closures will have the greatest impact on poor and disadvantaged learners and students.

Despite various impediments to learning during lockdown, especially in disadvantaged communities, progress made regarding digital coverage in the developing world is encouraging and the COVID-19 crisis highlights that this is an area that needs further rapid transformation.

In South Africa, the February 2020 Competition Commission report which urged mobile operators to reduce data prices came none too soon, and will hopefully help young people to continue learning, at least to some extent during COVID-2019 lockdown. In addition, it is noted and commended that the South African government, including education departments, have made provision for access to resources that do not require data.

For more on what is needed for optimal access to the digital economy and digital learning, see Part 3 of this series, which also looks at the interim arrangements put in place for school learners to access educational materials during lockdown.

By Fia van Rensburg

[1] UN website

[2] Kohli, S. and Blume, H. 2020. Public schools expected to remain closed for the rest of the academic year, Newsom says. Los Angeles Times.

[3] Human Development Report. 2019.

[4] Defined as average download speeds of 256 Kbps or greater while the target download speeds by 2021 is 3 Mbps.

[5] Regional refers to Africa

[6] Defined as average download speeds of 10 Mbps or greater

[7] Broadband Commission Working Group on Broadband for All. 2019. Digital Infrastructure Moonshot for Africa.