The world has always been an unfair place with winners and losers. Technology is making lives better for everyone as a whole, but it is also responsible for exacerbating the inequality between the rich and poor. Relentless, exponential technological progress of our times is widening the class divide like never before. Now COVID-19 is ruthlessly laying bare this uncomfortable reality of ‘technological inequality’. In this blog, I will try to explain why the poorer children in Bangladesh are likely to lose more than the richer ones because of the COVID-induced school closure, and how technology is making it worse.
In many cases, the unfairness of technological inequality during the pandemic is blatantly obvious. Blessed by Meet, Zoom, and the like, most ‘office-goers’ have turned their homes into offices, albeit with a few hiccups. On the other hand, a vast swath of ‘working class’ people have found their customers disappearing or have been laid off by their employers because of the lockdown and the resultant economic shock; they are also disproportionately exposing themselves to the virus as they are crucial to running the essential economy. But then there are cases where the effect of technological inequality during the pandemic has remained insidious. One of such cases is children’s education.
There is evidence that prolonged school closure, such as 3-month summer vacation in the west and as an aftermath of a natural disaster, has a strong adverse impact on learning, though the evidence on whether poorer children suffer more is not so clear. Because of the pandemic, education of all children will be hampered, no doubt. But is the effect going to be the same for all children, rich or poor? If not, why? What role is technology playing in this inequality?
It is well-known that rich children all over the world have better educational outcomes than their poorer peers, and for obvious reasons. To start with, rich children are far less likely to be malnourished during their formative years, giving them a head start in cognitive development. Their parents are likely to be more educated and resourceful, thus better able to guide and support their children’s pursuit of education.
Studies have found that poor people spend a minuscule share of their small income on children’s education, as the majority of the poor children go to public schools, typically free and also that provide lower-quality education. Ill-educated poor parents cannot properly assess how well their children are learning; those who can, often take their children out of public schools and enrol them in private schools. But it turns out that the private schools for poor children are also of low quality.
And then there is this whole question of parental aspiration. Paradoxically, educated (hence richer) mothers spend significantly more time in childcare, including education, even though they often spend long hours working outside. And the ‘opportunity cost’ of spending time with their children is higher than that of their less educated, poorer counterparts. Is it because they aspire higher for their children? Maybe. For an educated mother, it is difficult to imagine that her children will not get proper education. She would thus work accordingly.
On the other hand, besieged by many urgent problems of life, with too many obstacles to jump over, and without relatable, close-to-home educated role models to look up to, poor parents have low aspirations for their children’s education and rationalize spending less time and money on this affair.
What does it mean for children’s education during the ongoing lockdown and school closure? It is obvious that the less educated, poorer parents would not have the incentive to spend close to enough time homeschooling their children. Struck by the loss of livelihoods, they are drowning in worries about how to feed their families. It is understandable that children’s education would be the least of their worries. Even if they did, a low level of education among poorer parents means that they may not be very effective in home-schooling. In contrast, educated, wealthier parents working from home may be able to and would want to spend more time in ensuring that their children would not fall behind in education because of the lockdown.
But what about technology? Can it help the poor children close the gap in learning with the wealthier ones during lock down? It is hoped that technology is the magic wand, which can close this great divide in education, if not eliminate it. In fact, technology does have unlimited potentials. For example, Khan Academy and endless other free online resources have brought international-quality education to anyone with a basic smartphone and a reliable internet connection. Can the poor children take advantage of these online resources during normal times, and especially now?
Quite unsurprisingly, poorer parents, and by extension, their children have limited access to technology. Even in rich countries like the USA, shortage of computers in the homes of poor children, who now require to take classes and do homework online because of the pandemic, is creating an uproar.
In Bangladesh, the wealthier private schools have started offering online classes. The government is also broadcasting classes for children on the national television and online. In a recent unpublished nationally representative survey in Bangladesh, we find a serious disparity in access to technology. Even though the ownership of mobile phones is almost ubiquitous, about 15-20% of the poorer households do not have one. Only about 59-77% of the poorer households have any kind of access to television. Almost every richer household has access to both. Only a small fraction of poorer households use the internet, the rate sharply rises with household income. To make matters worse, for the poor, often these technologies are shared by multiple members or even multiple families. So, a large number of poorer children are automatically left out of the television and internet-based education.
But, even if poorer children have access to technology, can they use it as effectively as the richer children? Eminent Harvard Professor of Public Policy, Robert Putnam, describes “Compared to their poorer counterparts, young people from upper-class backgrounds (and their parents) are more likely to use the Internet for jobs, education, political and social engagement, health and newsgathering, and less for entertainment and recreation.” It is not because the poor are lazy and stupid, it is because wealthier, more educated parents are better aware of the pros and cons of letting a child have a smartphone or a computer, they know what is available online and are more invested to make sure that their children use it well. Thirty percent of the rural mobile phone users in Bangladesh cannot even read a message on their phone, let alone do any other activity; this rate goes up with decreasing per capita income. It must be true in cities as well, even if to a lesser degree. How can we expect these parents to use technology for their children’s education?
Even during normal times, richer children have a better chance of using technology for education because of parental awareness. Now that their are parents are home, these children are more likely to be exposed to all types of educational and cognitive development contents online, on top of attending the distant classes offered by the government or schools .On the other hand, many poorer children are simply deprived of their regular classes because they do not have access to television or internet. Even when have an access, they may remain absolutely clueless about how to harness its power to learn and grow because their parents cannot afford to stay home, have other pressing worries, or do not know how to guide the children.
For sure, COVID-19 is disrupting the learning for all children. But, powered by technology, the richer children can at least hope to close in. And, the poorer children are drifting further apart, partly because of all the reasons why they are poor, but also because of the technological inequality, the new reality of their generation.
Nusrat Jahan is the Head of Business Development and Knowledge Management at BIGD, BRAC University.
Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0