COVID-19 Fuelling Education’s Tech Disruption, Deepening Digital Divide

The divide between those who have digital connectivity and those who lack it continues to make education a mark of privilege

The COVID-19 pandemic deepened inequities in accessing and benefiting from education but the future of learning could be a more equal one, participants told Reuters Next panels on Monday. The pandemic hastened a rise in virtual learning and a disruption of the status quo already under way but probably won’t eliminate in-person instruction for good, they said. COVID-19 forced the University of Oxford and myriad other schools online amid COVID lockdowns. “We surprised even ourselves” in their ability to do it, Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson said.

But in-person learning is not a thing of the past. “I think the way our undergraduate degree is currently structured wouldn’t allow us to enable something to be online exclusively. We’re doing it now, as we speak, because of the pandemic, but we would always want a serious physical component during the undergraduate degree.” During the pandemic, online learning company Udacity saw demand for its virtual courses surge, Udacity Executive Chairman Sebastian Thrun said. Its enrollment more than doubled. Its engagement with companies “massively” increased.

“Is online going to replace universities? It’s never going to happen,” he said. “Can we reach people that are currently not being reached? And there, the answer is a resounding yes.” Both Thrun and Richardson said the divide between those who have digital connectivity and those who lack it continues to make education a mark of privilege even amid efforts to level the playing field. But the pandemic has deepened not only digital divides but inequities at the household level: people who can’t afford at-home or private learning will be left behind. Women tasked with childcare and home education will be forced or pressured out of the workforce. “The biggest elephant in the room is the connection between career families, school, where students go and economy,” said Dwayne Matthews, Education Strategist and Founder of Tomorrow Now Learning Labs. “That primarily leans very, very heavily on career women. And those are very big concerns.”

Equity continues to be an issue, said Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, “because of COVID kids are getting even larger and larger gaps.” But Khan predicted the future of education would be more equal than the present. “For the less affluent, before they had nothing … Now, they’re using resources like Khan Academy,” he said. “I think you’re going to see a leveling of the playing field.” As digital learning loosens capacity constraints, that will also make education more equitable, he said. “I think as we go forward, we’re getting to a more egalitarian society.” In addition to forcing institutions of higher education to change the way they teach and reach students, the pandemic has also highlighted the importance of what these institutions do, Richardson said – and that goes beyond education.

She pointed to the anti-expert populism that drove Brexit. Now, she said, in the midst of the pandemic and as universities like Oxford create vaccines and discover the importance of dexamethasone, society can’t get enough experts. “Universities have been advising governments on the efficacy of mask-wearing, social distancing, the whole gamut … In a sense, our case is being made for us, which is not to say we don’t have to constantly work to keep the public on our side.” PBS’s platform traffic “nearly quadrupled” in the spring, said VP of Education Sara Schapiro. “That sort of resource will continue to grow and really be important, she said. “We’re in a different space than we were almost a year ago. … It was a paradigm-changing moment for education and I hope that sticks.”

The need for a more nimble and innovative approach to education will remain long after the pandemic ends, said Helen Fulson, chief product officer at Twinkl. “How many children today will be doing jobs that currently don’t exist? We don’t know how to train for these jobs,” she said. “If children can solve problems, they can apply that to anything they need to do in future. And that’s the key.”

Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny, Amran Abocar and Jonathan Leff; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Nick Zieminski Thomas Reuters Foundation

Photo: Eloisa Lopez