The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the educations of more than 91 percent of students worldwide, exposing widening educational inequalities.
When schools shut down around the world to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, many switched to remote instruction. UNICEF got to work, keeping children learning through TV, radio and other innovative delivery methods.
The flexibility and interactivity of online instruction have made it a popular alternative when in-person classes are not possible, but two-thirds of school age children — at least 1.3 billion globally ages 3–17 — lack connectivity at home, according to the UNICEF report, How Many Children and Youth Have Internet Access at Home?
Closing the digital divide requires global cooperation, leadership and innovation
Even before the appearance of COVID-19, UNICEF recognized the need to address education for vulnerable children and digital exclusion.
In 2019, UNICEF and partner ITU (the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency) launched Giga, a global initiative to connect every school in the world to the internet and every student to information, opportunity and choice by 2030. The benefit for children who can't access the web is life-changing.
“Lack of connectivity doesn’t just limit children and young people’s ability to connect online, it prevents them from competing in the modern economy," UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said. "It isolates them from the world."
The digital divide is more than a gap, Fore added, “It is a digital canyon."
As a result, they have fewer resources to learn and to grow and limited opportunities to reach their full potential.
Mapping schools worldwide to assess demand and infrastructure
Working in partnership with governments, Giga is mapping the connectivity demand, using schools as a base point, and identifying where there are connectivity gaps. This information, combined with existing ITU mapping data, allows countries to take stock of their existing infrastructure and assess appropriate solutions for connecting schools. More than 920,000 schools in 40 countries have been mapped through Project Connect, a mapping and connectivity monitoring platform.
In partnership with industry, Giga will advise on the best possible technical solutions to provide schools with connectivity, and countries with safe, secure, reliable, fit-for-purpose infrastructure to support future digital development needs. Giga works with governments and advises them on building affordable and sustainable country-specific models for finance and delivery, subsidizing market creation costs and incentivizing private sector investment.
Picking up the pace of connectivity in Central Asia, Latin America and the Eastern Caribbean, and Sub-Saharan Africa
Below, an update on Giga's recent progress in three regions:
- Central Asia: 7,410 Kazakhstan schools have been integrated into Giga's global mapping platform. All 2,180 public schools in Kyrgyzstan have been mapped; 2,061 are connected. Information from the project allowed the government to renegotiate its school contracts, dropping the rate by 50 percent per Gigabyte — a savings of $200,000 per year.
- Latin American and the Eastern Caribbean: 9 out of 11 countries in the Eastern Caribbean states (OECS) have completed mapping of their school connectivity. In Honduras, 1,097 schools not part of official government registries have been identified and mapped using satellite imagery, and 545 schools have been connected.
- Sub-Saharan Africa: Giga is working with the governments of Rwanda, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Uganda to map school connectivity and develop business models to make connectivity affordable and sustainable. Next up is a feasibility study in Niger. Approximately 1,530 schools have been identified and mapped using satellite imagery in Rwanda; a request for proposals has been launched to test innovative models to provide broadband internet to schools in the Eastern Province. Of 100 pilot schools in Kenya, 75 have been connected, bringing the total number of connected schools to 926. In Sierra Leone, all schools have been mapped and 205 schools connected; a browser extension developed by Giga and mLabs has been launched in seven schools and will be deployed in 52 more. This pilot is set to expand to at least 80 percent of connected schools in other countries.
Meaningful connectivity will fast track young people's access to educational resources and opportunities
For UNICEF and its partners, COVID-19 makes it clearer than ever that reliable access to educational opportunities and the internet should be a universal human right. And the Giga initiative for connecting children and young people to the internet shows tremendous potential for return on investment:
- $2.1 billion can connect 150,000 schools in 11 high-impact countries in the next year to reach an estimated 40 million children and young people
- $8 billion can connect 500,000 schools over the next two years to reach an estimated 100 million children and young people
"Digital technologies can dramatically improve the lives of people and communities and deliver on the promise of the United Nations Agenda 2030 to leave no one behind," says Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of ITU's Telecommunication Development Bureau. "Multi-stakeholder collaboration and partnership will be key to connecting the 3.6 billion people still off-line. We all have to work together and increase our efforts to bring technology to the people, in every area and every walk of life."
Top photo: Children work together on a shared tablet at the UNICEF-supported Debate e-Learning Center in a village on the outskirts of Kassala, the capital of the state of Kassala in eastern Sudan. © UNICEF/UNI322862/Noorani