- Business

WFH shows we must level up kids’ access to online learning

The COVID crisis is tearing through communities and businesses, upending our way of life as Governments around the world force their economies into an induced coma to slow the spread of the deadly disease.

No facet of society is immune, and that includes education.

In recent weeks, over 180 countries have shuttered their schools, affecting 1.5 billion students and over 60 million teachers. Exams have been cancelled, including GCSEs and A-Levels here in the UK, SATs in America and the dreaded Gao Kao university entrance exam in China.

Inevitably, this has caused enormous anxiety for students who are worried about their short-term college prospects and longer-term careers. There is a real concern amongst experts about a mental health crisis that this could trigger across Britain, Europe and other affected regions.

Many schools are stepping up to the plate, launching e-learning programmes with virtual classrooms and structured lessons. That cannot come too soon for parents stuck at home, trying to juggle their own remote working obligations.

However not all students are created equal in terms of opportunity. Poorer families are disproportionately affected in this crisis as often they don’t have laptops, while rural communities can suffer from poor broadband provision.

Legal activist group the Good Law Project has warned that local authorities in the UK may face legal action if pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds cannot properly engage in remote learning during the lockdown.

Poor connectivity infrastructure will also hamper e-learning: a survey recently found that only 40% of government‐funded schools in the UK would actually be able to broadcast a video lesson.

Britain also scores lowly in terms of bring‐your‐own‐device (BYOD) initiatives, where pupils can use their own laptops and other devices on the school network. BYOD has been rolled out across the United States, Canada, and New Zealand, but only in around 30% of UK secondary schools.

Meanwhile, we score more highly in other areas: around three quarters of students here have access to home educational software, compared to just 20% in Japan. But Denmark is streets ahead of us at 90%.

The pandemic may offer the opportunity to level up the provision of education.

Governments might just consider using their fiscal stimulus packages to create targeted funding policies for students and improve their connectivity infrastructure.

Industry experts believe the crisis may force governments around the world to accelerate the focus on device availability for all students, a policy commonly referred to as 1:1 computing.

Some nations are already one step ahead.

In 2007 Uruguay became the first country in the world to promote a successful 1:1 programme, promising every child the right to internet connectivity both at home and at school as well as the right to have a computer.

How to pay for it is always a tricky question, with so many demands for Government support at the best of times, and even more so during the current crisis. Still, the fiscal programmes unveiled around the world in recent days are truly unprecedented, including $2 trillion in the US, £330 billion (and counting) in the UK, and now $1 trillion in Japan.

Politicians may now debate whether some of that money could be invested in levelling up education opportunities across society.