Digital learning gains prominence amid COVID-19
As COVID-19 disrupts societies and irrevocably changes certain aspects of daily life, the education sector has been particularly hard-hit by the fall-out of the pandemic.
Frequent lockdowns, strict curbs on movement and a slew of health guidelines have prevented students and teaching staff from returning to classrooms, leaving many anxious about their future.
According to the United Nations (UN), nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries have been adversely affected due to the coronavirus-related restrictions. The closure of schools and other educational institutions impacted 94 percent of the world’s student population and nearly 99 percent in low and lower-middle income countries.
“The crisis is exacerbating pre-existing education disparities by reducing the opportunities for many of the most vulnerable children, youth, and adults – those living in poor or rural areas, girls, refugees, persons with disabilities and forcibly displaced persons – to continue their learning,” the UN warned in a policy brief.
Technology spearheads innovation in education
The challenges faced by the educational sector are myriad, but the pandemic has also spurred the adoption of innovative techniques that are helping to maintain a semblance of normalcy. From virtual classrooms, online exams and performance assessments to monitoring mental well-being, schools and universities have put in place several unique programs to engage with pupils at multiple levels.
IT-enabled learning is providing students with the critical tools to carry on with their studies despite being deprived of the opportunity to attend classes in person.
In all this, connectivity has been the game-changer. The rationale for reducing the digital divide has never been so pressing, more so in developing nations where hundreds of millions of children are yet to gain access to affordable internet services.
“We can overcome the digital divide by accelerating access, connecting schools and finding the most innovative ways to provide learning materials and experience,” said Marja-Riitta Ketola, the Executive Director of UNICEF Finland.
Connecting schools in Kenya
To give a boost to digital learning and improve the quality and equity of education for young people, particularly girls and children with disabilities, UNICEF Kenya, the Finnish National Committee for UNICEF and Nokia, officially launched the shared value-partnership in June 2019 in Kenya. The partnership, however, traces its origins back to 2018.
The initiative, which targeted the northern counties and urban informal settlements in the capital Nairobi, helped children gain access to digitally-enabled learning through several strategies.
First, accessible digital content that is aligned with the new competency-based curriculum, including a digital textbook, was developed and tested with partners in several schools.
Second, teachers were trained on the meaningful integration and use of digital learning materials in their teaching and learning processes.
And third, connecting selected disadvantaged primary schools to the internet using Nokia’s Fixed Wireless Solution. All these activities were conducted in close partnership with the government of Kenya, local mobile network providers and teachers. The exercise gave valuable insights on how to expand digital learning techniques and internet connectivity to even more schools in the county.
Empowering classrooms with the internet
As part of the COVID-19 response, UNICEF Kenya worked with the government to ensure continuity of learning and advocated for the safe re-opening of schools. To provide 21st century digital education to children, the first ten schools were connected to the internet through the shared-value partnership with Nokia.
This connectivity is currently reaching more than 1,000 students who have already returned to classrooms during the partial re-opening and will cover more than 6,000 students, once schools fully re-open in Kenya in January 2021.
The Valley Bridge Primary School in Mathare, Nairobi was the first to experience the benefits of connected digital learning. Marilyn Hoar, Chief of Education at UNICEF Kenya pointed out that “Internet connectivity can be a fundamental enabler for digital learning and is helping to achieve inclusive and quality education in Kenya.”
Kenya aspires to connect half of its 23,000 primary schools to the internet by 2023 and all other schools by 2030 under the National Broadband Strategy. Under the National Digital Literacy Project more than one million tablets have been distributed in order to facilitate primary education. The Kenyan government’s objectives are in line with UNICEF’s and ITU’s initiative called Giga, which aims to connect all the schools in the world to the internet.
Rajiv Aggarwal, Head of the Central, East and West Africa Market Unit at Nokia, said: “At Nokia, we believe ‘broadband for all’ is key to achieve sustainable development worldwide, and are committed to providing a versatile array of advanced network technologies to ‘connect the unconnected’”.
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