The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the reality that for marginalized populations, inequalities in access to digital connectivity and infrastructure exacerbate the inequalities that characterize their access to basic rights like education. In the area of ICT development, the needs of marginalized populations have remained invisible, resulting in the perpetuation of a gap in access to even the most basic of technological resources. This gap impacts the ability of marginalized populations to access their basic rights.
In general, the education systems in the Mekong region need strengthening to be able to withstand any significant changes, shocks and stresses. The basic inequalities impacting fundamental aspects of the education systems must be meaningfully addressed in order to do this. These basic inequalities include barriers to access to relevant learning modalities, sub-par school curricula, gaps in teacher knowledge, little to no understanding of marginalized communities, and gender inequalities. Below, we go into these aspects in more detail.
Not all students have access to ICT, and the relevance of ICT to their realities may not be immediately recognizable. Yet, even without the use of ICT, marginalized students already experience difficulty in accessing basic education suitable for their needs, in the languages that they need, in modalities that support their learning needs. Print and in-person offerings remain necessary to ensure that gaps to accessing education do not continue to widen, with learning facilitated by teachers that are aware of the needs of both their communities as well as knowledge of methods to engage with children with different learning needs.
Some governments of the region have had the capacity to view this pandemic as an opportunity arising from a crisis. The Thai government in particular has indicated that it plans to revamp its curriculum by integrating ICT with teaching and learning.1 Given the level of ICT skill in the region, this constitutes a reasonable next step for improvement. The pandemic has created space for interesting online opportunities for designing digital curriculums and educational videos, as well as creating and supporting learning management systems. Providers such as CCEducare Myanmar provide these services alongside digital literacy trainings to improve accessibility. However, caution must be taken to ensure that the pre-existing inequalities in access in the region are not replicated. In order to do this, marginalized students must be provided with targeted support in accessing necessary tools (smartphones, laptops) at affordable prices. The relevant infrastructure (electricity, mobile connectivity, internet connectivity) must be in place in order for these tools to be usable. Further, teachers must be appropriately trained in order to be able to best transfer the necessary knowledge about these tools to students. Curricula must be made available in a range of languages to ensure that this learning is accessible to all students.
It goes without saying that teachers play a crucial role in education. Gaps in the knowledge of teachers translates into gaps in the learning of students. While improving the quality of teachers has been a crucial component of the global education agenda, the pandemic has drawn attention to an additional gap in digital skills that has not yet been considered but nonetheless has already impacted students. Thus, teachers need to be provided with training on ICT, including basic skills, as well as digital security and literacy. In addition, if ICT will be integrated into future school curricula, teachers must be trained in how to use these tools effectively and be able to transfer this knowledge to students in a virtual setting. This may require a reconsideration of the preference for rote learning pedagogies, which has reportedly contributed to the ineffective provision of education during the pandemic.
Teacher training should also include ICT development including on digital security and digital literacy. Organizations like the Open Development Initiative have worked in the region to provide this training to marginalized communities, and the localized approaches utilized have served communities well. While digital security and literacy should be included as part of the basic school curricula, such teaching need not be completed by school teachers, but may be more effective from sectoral experts who are also integrated into communities.
The needs of most marginalized communities have been poorly captured in statistics, resulting in blind spots in understanding how best to support them. The perspectives of national governments continue to be biased against most marginalized communities, perpetuating gaps. Thus it continues to be necessary to think about alternative structures for education that are vested in decentralised approaches to education that work at the community level, from their cultural perspectives and day-to-day realities, to ensure that marginalized groups have the opportunity to determine appropriate solutions for education that meet their needs in order for them access adequate and appropriate education. The pandemic saw some positive examples of this, in which educators in communities hand-delivered learning materials to their students, acknowledging their inability to access home learning programmes while also recognizing the importance of print learning materials for these students. Working with community leaders who have already built trust with their communities to deliver “education in a box” type solutions can be an effective way of supporting students.2 In the same way, appropriate ways to share knowledge about ICT, introduce tools and technology, and improve connectivity can be determined and thus move toward closing the digital divide.
While all marginalized groups require additional support, women and girls deserve particular mention. Half the population is more likely to encounter difficulties in accessing education as well as digital connectivity and infrastructure. Gender inequality adds to and magnifies gaps experienced by women and girls due to other vulnerabilities. It has a direct impact on girls’ access to education as well as digital resources.
As a systemic and cultural issue, addressing gender bias is difficult. Thus the work of understanding gender inequalities needs to be done both at the institutional level as well as at the community level. In both cases, women need safe spaces to be able to make their voices and needs heard, and also to learn. For digital skills in particular, a women’s network can be a helpful tool to support women’s learning, as it is an area in which women continue to be bullied, minimized, and presumed incapable. Similarly, a mentorship program, especially for young women interested in or already studying in the ICT sector, may be useful.
While ICT education should be prioritized going forward, specifically women-friendly digital literacy training sessions should be prioritized. Care should also be taken to ensure that the unique needs of female students are taken into account, alongside ensuring that teachers have the skill to share digital skills with all students. At the same time, men must be included in the conversation, even while women are prioritized in discussions to ensure that their needs are heard. These should be considered even within the usual education curriculum.
- 1. Office of National Higher Education Science Research and Innovation Policy Council. 2020. Major Changes in Thai Education Anticipated After the COVID-19 Pandemic. Accessed November 10, 2020.
- 2. See for example this product, “CaseStudy”, a waterproof and shockproof unit housing tools that support teachers with audio/visual tools and information even in unfavourable conditions. This was developed by The Patatas, a Singapore company working to support communities with digital solutions. Another example is the Internet in a Box, which was deployed in Cambodia by Tuk Tuk Mobile Library. It is a portable server of information, accessible by wifi hotspot by nearby devices, that runs from solar energy and is designed for standalone, offline usage.