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16 Mar 2021
Margarita Langthaler

Lessons from COVID 19: Digitalization calls for strong public education systems

Abstract: This NORRAG Highlights is written by guest-author Margarita Langthaler, senior researcher at the Austrian Foundation for Development Research (ÖFSE). In the light of accelerated digitalization processes of education systems triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Margarita draws on her recent Briefing Paper “Digitalization, Education and skills development in the Global South” to reflect on whether digitalization will be a solution to educational issues such as inequity, limited access and low quality.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified discussions about the digitalization of the education sector far beyond responding to the requirements of physical distancing. Rather, digitalization appears to be the inevitable future development path of education systems at a global level. Digitalization is seen by some as key not only to quality improvement, innovation, creativity and learners’ autonomy, but also to educational access and equity. Yet, the pandemic has brought to light the pitfalls of accelerated digitalization in terms of rising inequality and exclusion. Central to the issue are the digital divide and the power asymmetries associated with it. These are especially evident along North-South, rural/urban, affluent/poor, powerful/marginalised and gender lines.

What do we know about the impact of digitalization on education systems? 

There is not much evidence on the impact of digitalization on education systems in terms of compliance with the expectations. Yet, what we know gives rise to cautious interpretations. A 2015 OECD assessment of digital skills concludes that despite heavy investments in some countries there was no noticeable improvement in student performance in the PISA assessment (OECD, 2015). The report found the performance gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students was mirrored in digital skills, suggesting that digitalization in and of itself does not reduce educational inequities. Studies addressing digitalization effects on learning outcomes in the Global South mostly reported mixed results. While digitalization skills were found to improve, there was hardly any positive impact on the academic performance. 

About a decade ago, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were praised as the solution to the lack of access to post-secondary education, especially in the Global South. They were also expected to innovate conservative forms of teaching and lecturing. Yet, results are mixed. While well-designed MOOCs that offer a variety of interactive tools have proven to be more instructional than classroom courses, in average quality appears to be poor. For disadvantaged students, the lack of tutoring associated with MOOCs and their uncontextualized contents often represent pedagogical challenges (McCowan, 2016). This is reflected in relatively low participation and high drop-out rates (Liyanagunawardena et al., 2013).

Globally, commercialisation and privatisation processes have accompanied digitalization in the education sector, often reinforcing each other. Through the provision of digital tools, private edtech corporations have gained significant influence on curricula, methods and administrative procedures in schools and universities. Such companies increasingly dislocate educational data collection, storage and processing out of the realm of public policy for commercial exploitation.

In particular in Africa, international education providers use digitalization to marketize their business models. Digital technology allows companies to access remote communities, while managing systems from a centralised location. The goal is to replace costly professionals by low-skilled operators and to reduce the cost of infrastructure. The implicit risk of this corporate model of education is over-standardisation in terms of teacher training, curricula and assessments.

Experience from the USA (Burch, 2016) suggests that for the innovation potential of digital schooling to deliver, it needs to be accompanied by high-quality tutoring based on personal interaction between teachers and students. Digital tools have to be of good quality themselves. Yet, many products offered by technology companies to schools hosting poor, non-white children tend to reproduce the flaws of a poor analogous education based on rote learning and monotonous teaching material.

It appears, therefore, that digitalization in and of itself is not a panacea to solve educational problems. Rather, it needs proper public regulation and pedagogical embedding to reap and socialise the potential benefits of innovation associated with it.

Lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic

The necessity of minimising physical contact due to the pandemic has accelerated the utilisation of digital tools in the education sector at unprecedented levels. In so doing, the pandemic anticipates, in a condensed form, social dynamics associated with digitalization. The immediate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the education and TVET sector were revealing.

Already in early April 2020, about 1.6 billion students globally, equating 91 %, were out of school. In some countries, schools have remained closed ever since. This disruption adds to an already existing education crisis with 258 million children out of school before the lockdown (Save the Children, 2020). The WHO reported poor nutrition, stress, increased exposure to violence and exploitation, rises in childhood pregnancies, and overall challenges in mental development of children due to reduced interaction as immediate impacts of school closures (WHO, 2020).

Distance learning, as a response to school closures, mainly relied on digital tools in the form of online platforms. Yet, as data shows, 80 % of students in Sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to internet at home and, globally, about 465 million students, or almost 47 % of all primary and secondary students being targeted exclusively by national online learning platforms, are not connected to the internet (UNESCO, 2020a). In addition, obstacles such as lack of digital devices or parents and teachers lacking the appropriate skills to support learners further hamper online education.

The TVET sub-sector has proven to be even less resilient than general education due to its low social status in many countries and accopanying lack of resources and scarce infrastructure. The ILO estimates that during the first wave of the pandemic, 30 % of TVET institutions ceased operations completely (ILO, 2020). 

Experts predict a major negative impact on both public and private as well as donor sources of funding for education mainly due to the looming economic crisis in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and possibly shifting priorities (UNESCO, 2020b). And recent data confirms that two-thirds of low- and lower-middle-income countries have already cut their public education budgets since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic (UNESCO/World Bank, 2021). It is estimated, therefore, that the pandemic’s effects will substantially increase educational inequalities between and within countries and that it will reverse some educational progress achieved throughout the last decades. At the same time, education and TVET will emerge as a policy priority to respond to massive job losses and major transformations of work.

As Lara Patil has shown in her NORRAG contribution, accelerated digitalization in education has also greatly increased the influence of the private sector, in particular the global edtech industry, on national education systems. The necessity of fast solutions has left many governments without the possibilities to adequately test innovative digital tools offered by the private sector. According to recent research (Williamson/Hogan, 2020), the effects of these accelerated privatisation processes are likely to persist in the longer term. Indeed, the pandemic has acted as a catalyst for private investments seeking profit from extended crises of public education systems.

The Human Rights Council warns that risks associated with accelerated privatisation and commercialisation might include the capture of limited public resources, lack over control of data collection, harmful practices of advertising towards children and youth as well as long-term effects of handing over control of education to commercial actors (Human Rights Council, 2020). Further, digitalized learning settings might lead to poor cognitive learning results as well as notably reduced opportunities for social learning and personal development.

Harnessing digitalization’s educational potential to the benefit of all

What emerges as a necessary response to these risks is the strengthening of public education as a core concept. To achieve educational equity, systemic approaches that aim at building resilient public education systems are needed. Universal access to good quality education becomes an ever more urgent goal. This implies strong regulatory policies for digitalization processes in the education sector, public investments in infrastructure and teacher training as well as compensatory policies for disadvantaged students.

In the end, the key lesson to draw from the pandemic regarding digitalizing education comes down to the fact that layering digital technologies over existing inequality patterns will only exacerbate these. Therefore, it depends on political governance to complement the prevailing employability approach by a rights-based approach to education. The acquisition of digital skills and the participation in digital education, much more than a requirement of the future digital economy, has to be viewed as a basic human right.


About the Author: Dr. Margarita Langthaler is senior researcher at the Austrian Foundation for Development Research (ÖFSE). Her research focuses on education strategies in the context of development cooperation, on TVET and skills development and on education policies in developing countries. Contact:

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