Inside the Pandemic: The Inequality in Accessing E-learning Education Across Southeast Asia.

The ability to read, write and analyse; the confidence to stand up and demand justice and equality; the qualification and connection to get your foot in the door and take your seat at the table – all of that starts with education” – Michelle Obama.

Education, at its core, is one of the most essential instruments that drives human development and provides further growth for each generation. Generally, the issue of education is central to governments priorities around the globe. This is no different in the case of Southeast Asia as countries within the region are focusing on the education to grow their economies. Nevertheless, Southeast Asia faces a particular issue in education – the inequality in accessing education.

Inequality in education, described in the United Nations Development Programme, is calculated by inequality in the distribution of years of schooling across the adult population drawn from nationally representative household surveys. According to the United Nations Human Development Report, the expected years of schooling in Cambodia and Laos is only 11.3 and 11.1 years while the inequality in education percentage is between 20% – 30%. This means that there is still a considerable number of children and adults that have inequal access education.

Stated in the same report, the rest of countries in Southeast Asia also have a similar rate of inequality in education. The existence of this problem has remained active in the last decade and thus becomes an obstacle for the governments to develop their education standards.

In the current context – the global pandemic and the on-going predicament in the education system of the Southeast Asia region, the real question is, how will the government address this inequality issue while also maintaining students in class?

As the pandemic escalates, the world is now regularly facing new phenomena that dramatically impacts every single factor of our lives including human capital. In UNESCO’s report as of late June 2020, governments around the world have temporarily closed education institutions, impacting over 60 per cent of the world’s student population and affecting over 1.1 billion students.

Some countries have been able to partially reopen their education institutions and some are back to normal but in Southeast Asia, eight countries remain closed with only Laos PDR opening in localised areas and Vietnam opening nationally. The remaining eight countries, just like the rest of the world, are practicing remote learning nationwide.

While governments are fighting the pandemic, the issue of inequality in e-learning is inevitable.

As states exercise “quarantine” and shift to distance learning, students are required to have access to technology devices – smartphones, tablets or a laptop – in order to pursue their learning remotely. This may not be a problem for students living in major cities as they have access to these devices and an internet connection. Students living in rural areas and those who can’t afford such devices; however, become vulnerable to distance learning. According to the Brookings Institution, most of the developed world are practicing remote learning primarily through online platforms while the developing world uses radio and television to help populations that have no access to the internet.

Graph depicting how regions are providing remote education

The main barrier to remote learning is the lack of internet access nationwide. The problem , or the term “digital divide” is used to describe gaps in access or use of internet devices. Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia have the most internet availability with high rates of internet penetration, while the other Southeast Asia countries are still struggling with broadening their internet service for the whole population.

Since most of the students in remote areas do not have access to an internet connection, their distance learning cannot be processed thus results in a wasting of the school year, especially for children in middle and primary school.

Even though the government is using radio and television as alternative methods for education, the effectiveness of these efforts is still unclear. Unlike online platforms that connect students and teachers, the television method is a one-sided way of teaching as there is no such learning connection between watching lessons and learning at home. Students can choose to watch or not watch these lessons and without any incentives, it is uncertain whether this way of distance learning can provide fruitful results.

Graphic depicting Internet Penetration in Southeast Asia

The lack of access to the internet has now more than ever becoming a barrier that increases existing inequality in education. Southeast Asia is still a developing region and there are large populations that have become economically vulnerable as a result of pandemic. During such times, acquiring digital devices for children may become optional, thus making educational responses a more complicated issue.

Nonetheless, Southeast Asia is cooperating with UNESCO in monitoring distance learning. As the region fights the impact of the pandemic, this challenge also advances their social solutions during unpredictable events that shocks their countries. This experience will set a lesson for this prosperous region encouraging each country to strive for further digital advancement and work on decreasing the gaps in education inequality.

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