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26 Apr 2021
Abbas Abbasov

Digital inclusion in the times of Covid-19: A capabilities approach in understanding inclusion and education

Abstract: This NORRAG Highlights is written by Abbas Abbasov, PhD student in International and Comparative Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He recognizes that much of the vocabulary we use when we discuss inclusion in education is focused on deficits rather than capabilities. As Covid-19 has brought additional challenges to inclusion in education systems, Abbasov calls for a new comprehensive definition of digital inclusion that is more multifaceted and solution-based. 

Inclusive education has historically been defined through the prism of disability rights and special education needs (Qvortrup & Qvortrup, 2018). The Global Education Monitoring (GEM) 2021 Regional Report on Inclusion and Education in Central and Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia goes beyond this conception to include other forms of vulnerabilities such as low socio-economic status, migration/displacement, violence/abuse, etc. Yet the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the infrastructure and environmental barriers to equity in education. While recognizing some of these barriers, the GEM 2021 Regional Report’s deficit-based approach limits its analysis to problems without solutions. By drawing on Amartya Sen’s capability framework (Robeyns, 2005; Sen, 1993), inclusion in education can be envisioned through a solution-based approach. The digital divide in education that has been exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic can bring to the fore an argument for the capability approach in understanding digital inclusion across education systems.

Sen (1993) extended his critique of the development agenda preoccupied with economic growth to pose a framework that focused on people’s abilities to do and be depending on their circumstances. He claimed that by shifting the focus from GDP as a measure of human welfare to capability, i.e. “the opportunity to achieve valuable combinations of human functionings — what a person is able to do or be” (Sen, 2005, 153), social policies can address quality of life, freedom, and human rights. This approach quickly gained traction as an alternative. Furthermore, Martha Nussbaum built upon Sen’s framework to infuse it with the social justice lens (Robeyns, 2003). Capability approach draws attention to the ways governments can support and empower citizens through policy design.

Yet when it comes to inclusion in education, much of our vocabulary is focused on deficits rather than capabilities. Numbers of special education schools, limited scope of legal documents, vulnerability, among others, are just some such examples. One existing example of capability approach in the GEM 2021 Regional Report is the use of sense of belonging to understand inclusion. Due to its centeredness on the actions and behaviors that foster belonging among students, the sense of belonging index provides nuance into what kind of capabilities can further improve inclusion in education.

Nevertheless, as the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded, its devastating impact has deepened the digital divide in many countries of the region. According to the GEM 2021 Regional Report, 1 in 4 secondary students did not have a laptop, while 1 in 10 did not have access to the internet. Despite being useful in diagnosing the problem, the report’s deficit-based approach does not help the reader envision a solution to this. For instance, among multiple forms of vulnerabilities discussed in the report remoteness/rurality might somewhat explain the lack of access to broadband internet and laptops. But such operationalization of the digital divide during the Covid-19 pandemic is not only limited but also problematic. Access to the internet, a laptop, and/or PC is not a comprehensive definition of digital inclusion.

In other words, how could subsequent reports introduce the capability framework to discuss the digital divide and inclusion? Using the capability approach, one might want to consider the infrastructure and structural barriers to digital inclusion, i.e. seamless access to and successful engagement with technology. Existing research posits that “those who are most deprived socially are also least likely to have access to digital resources such as online services” (Helsper, 2008, 9). In other words, a measure of digital inclusion might comprise socio-economic factors and different forms of social exclusion to determine which group of students lack opportunities. In addition to making these digital resources available to them, another important aspect of digital inclusion might involve teacher training focused on competencies geared towards inclusive education. Today’s teachers are required to exhibit a robust set of competencies (e.g., digital skills) that are new in their repertoire (Kuyini et al., 2016). Without teacher competencies specific to digital inclusion it is impossible to imagine how students might experience successful engagement with technology.

While the GEM 2021 Regional Report is a step forward in recognizing the multifaceted nature of inclusion in education, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought upon education systems a new challenge to inclusion. Informed by the capability approach, I would like to see a new comprehensive definition of digital inclusion that encompasses infrastructural and human resource elements.


About the Author: Abbas Abbasov is a PhD student in the International and Comparative Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University. His research interests include higher education, educational philanthropy, and public opinion. Contact:

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