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The capacity to adapt is not only a challenge among students. In some countries, even teachers have only intermediate computer skills.
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Truly inclusive education demands fair access to technology

By Michael P. Cañares, Step Up Consulting, Philippines and Francois Van Schalkwyk, Stellenbosch University

COVID-19 forced developing countries to start delivering higher education online. While information and communications technology (ICT) has enabled teachers and students to continue working and learning remotely, it has also exacerbated pre-pandemic inequality: those with access to the internet and devices can adapt more productively compared with others.

Our research, funded by the International Telecommunication Union and implemented in South Africa and the Philippines, highlighted several challenges that existed pre-pandemic.

Making inequality visible
In South Africa, almost half of students surveyed reported difficulties completing assignments or participating in online discussions due to a lack of access to computer equipment or an internet connection. As campuses closed, and universities pivoted to emergency online teaching, it became apparent that some students either lacked computers or could not afford the data costs to access online resources and teaching platforms. 

The capacity to adapt, however, is not only a challenge among students. In the Philippines, for example, most teachers had intermediate computer competency, but had no training in online teaching. Despite the drive towards blended learning in the past 20 years, only a few educational institutions have implemented it because of weaknesses in technological infrastructure. Private universities that are better resourced have the advantage of devising systems and procedures to make flexible learning more adaptive to student needs. They have been able to efficiently pivot using technology and various online platforms.

Technology is not neutral
When it comes to ICT's effects on society, we have to admit that it is not “neutral.” Better-resourced universities and individuals are better able to leverage technology to manage severe systemic shocks, such as those delivered by COVID. The longer-term risk is that university-level stratification will become more entrenched and manifest in the form of unequal higher education systems. “Stronger” universities will accumulate more, at the expense of those at the other end of the spectrum. 

When people lack a connection, devices, or both, governments should strengthen broadband infrastructure and access to learning devices. Policies and programs in higher education should help eliminate the gap in digital infrastructure between private and public educational institutions and also the digital gap among students whose ability to own devices and use the internet is often dependent on their socio-economic condition. Private companies engaged in ICT should assist in ensuring access to technology by making learning devices and internet costs more affordable.

Digital as a teaching tool
The increased use of, and reliance on, digital technologies in education during the pandemic has also highlighted deficiencies on the part of teaching staff. The competency framework for higher education teachers should include using digital technology to design, deliver and assess teaching and learning outcomes. The government should provide public support for training to attain these competencies, focusing on public universities and higher education institutions with limited resources.

Higher education policies and programs should provide targeted education support to institutional providers, teachers, and students based on income and deprivation levels, to transition towards better use of technology in education. This can take the form of technical assistance, funding support, capacity building, or low-cost loans.

The extent to which online learning is a viable option in the developing-world countries  such as South Africa and the Philippines post-COVID remains uncertain. Any future integration of online education alongside face-to-face learning  will require substantial investment both in developing teachers’ capabilities and in digital communication infrastructure. Only then can we ensure equal benefits from tech-enabled higher education delivery.

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