Digital learning is the way forward: high population countries rally around UN initiative

Ministers from the E-9 high population countries expressed political commitment to scale up digital learning and skills and close the digital divide in order to accelerate progress towards the global goal on education (SDG4), in a virtual consultation held on 6 April 2021.

The meeting was organized by the Government of Bangladesh and UNESCO, with the support of UNICEF, Generation Unlimited, the Global Education Coalition and the Malala Fund.

It marks the first phase of an initiative spearheaded by the United Nations on digital learning and skills in the wake of COVID-19, setting the ground for a launch event with Heads of State in the next three months.

UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed recalled that before COVID-19, access to quality education was already profoundly unequal. “As we look to the future, it is clear that there is no going back to the education we had before the emergency (…) If we are to realize the ambition of SDG4, then we need to pursue pandemic recovery efforts that transform education.” She affirmed that this Initiative is an opportunity to narrow digital inequalities, reach the most marginalized, empower girls and young women and prepare workforces for the future, stating that the collective leadership of the E-9 offers a blueprint for scaling up progress in many countries.

The E-9 countries are home to half the world’s learners and have an established history of cooperation, providing a springboard to drive global educational progress. In several of the countries, schools remain fully or partially closed, making remote solutions the only means to ensure learning continuity.

Setting the tone of the meeting, Dr Dipu Moni, Minister of Education of Bangladesh and Chair of the E-9, noted that despite the best efforts of governments, remote learning is fraught with challenges, ranging from lack of infrastructure, connectivity and contents to inadequate teacher training. Over the past year, she said that the digital divide has widened the gap between urban and rural students, and between boys and girls. She stressed that strong political commitment and support from private sector partners is essential to ensure more inclusive and sustainable education systems. For this, “we need investments, we need technical support, we need to innovate a digital education system which is affordable.”

Presenting the Initiative, UNESCO and UNICEF underscored the importance of strong public-private partnerships and global solidarity to reach every child and youth with digital learning by 2030.

UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore affirmed that the ambitious initiative necessitates a diverse range of partners under the leadership of each country, noting that financial and technical resources are increasingly being galvanized globally to connect learners and schools to the internet and support digital learning. “Under your collective leadership we must seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to leapfrog children and youth into the future they want and deserve,” she said.

Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education, stressed the need to nurture strong and enabling ecosystems involving governments, universities, business and centres of excellence to scale up digital learning. She said that the Global Education Coalition and Generation Unlimited offer strategic alliances to power this initiative, and stressed the role of South-South cooperation among the E-9 to share solutions and narrow digital inequalities.

Taking the floor in succession, all countries described national initiatives to reach students during school closures through television, radio and the internet. Welcoming the digital learning initiative, they recognized that the pandemic was the opportunity to transform education and build more inclusive and equitable systems.

Bangladesh emphasized the need to develop a distance learning ecosystem that reaches all learners, evaluates learning outcomes and brings on board multiple partners including telecommunication operators. Citing several initiatives to promote digital technologies in education, support teachers and extend connectivity, Brazil encouraged joint investment in quality research to remedy imbalances among the E-9 countries. India highlighted the need to promote a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. The country has made digital learning a pillar of its national education policy and is strengthening its national digital architecture to support teaching and learning. China described measures to promote online teaching environments and educational innovation, and to encourage private investment in digital education. During the pandemic, the country conducted large scale online education and shared its expertise with developing countries. Going forward, it encouraged policy dialogue, mutual learning and technology sharing to close the digital gap. Indonesia said that teachers had become more confident in using technology, a key ingredient in fostering an innovative culture, referring to crowdsourcing models and online courses to support them. Nigeria stressed the compelling need for collaboration to upgrade infrastructure facilities, invest in the digital skills of teachers, make affordable devices available to all and expand broadband access. Pakistan said strides had been made to enhance access to remote learning, including through public-private partnerships, and stressed that digital learning is a necessity, with a target set to connect every school, child and youth to the internet.

Several partners expressed their support to the Initiative. Mr. Ziauddin Yousafzai, Co-Founder of the Malala Fund, drew attention to the gender divides in digital access and emphasized collaboration and collective targets, expressing confidence that “digital learning will help materialize the common dream of getting every girl and boy into school.” Dr. Jaime Saavedra, Global Director of Education at the World Bank, stressed the urgency to recover learning in 2021 through joint work at country level on remedial education, teachers and technology.

The meeting also hosted a marketplace showcasing promising local and global digital learning solutions with the goal of initiating strategic public-private sector partnerships. Several partners from the Global Education Coalition held exhibits, including Blackboard, Khan Academy, Pix, YOMA, Profuturo, Technovation and Worldreader, along with the Learning Passport.


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