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Coronavirus leading to ‘desperately unequal’ learning levels- UNICEF

FILE PHOTO: Children listen and note down via a radio teaching session in Uganda

Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | Inherent inequalities in accessing the internet and other tools to allow children to continue their studies threaten to deepen the global crisis in learning, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned on Friday.

UNICEF data reveals that in 71 countries worldwide, less than half the population has internet access. Yet nearly three-quarters of governments in 127 reporting countries are using online platforms to deliver education during the pandemic.

In Uganda, schools in the urban centres are using zoom, whatsApp, the google e-classroom and Khan Academy among others to create classes, distribute assignments, grade and send feedback to learners.  However, the country’s Internet penetration is estimated at 19 percent, a share of only 0.2 percent of the world internet users.

The government is also using radio and television to deliver educational programmes despite disparities in TV and radio ownership both across and within regions. Across Uganda, a sizeable number of the population have no access to these gadgets yet even those who have are limited by the lack of electricity for rural households.

Although almost all technologies used to deliver education while schools remain closed require electricity, only 65 percent of households from the poorest areas in the 28 countries with data have electricity compared to 98 percent of households from the wealthiest areas.

UNICEF reported that in 40 of the 88 countries with data, children living in urban areas are twice as likely to have a TV than their rural counterparts with the largest disparity found in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Access to the technology and materials needed to continue learning while schools are closed is desperately unequal. Likewise, children with limited learning support at home have almost no means to support their education. Providing a range of learning tools and accelerating access to the internet for every school and every child is critical”, said UNICEF Chief of Education, Robert Jenkins.

Education experts have already warned that gains made in increasing access to learning in the previous decade are at risk of being lost or even reversed completely. Last month, UNICEF announced a new partnership with Airtel Africa aimed at providing children with access to remote learning. Under this partnership, UNICEF and Airtel Africa will use mobile technology to benefit an estimated 133 million school-age children currently affected by school closures in 13 countries across sub-Saharan Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The benefiting countries include Chad, Congo, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. In all these countries, Airtel will be zero-rating select websites hosting educational content to provide children with remote access to digital content at no cost.

“COVID-19 is affecting access to information and education at an unprecedented scale,” said Fayaz King, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director for Field Results and Innovation. He added that by being out of school, children are facing increased vulnerabilities and setbacks.

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