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Covid-19: An Amplifier of Educational Inequalities?

Covid-19: An Amplifier of Educational Inequalities?
 Eric Charbonnier
Education Analyst at the OECD

The coronavirus crisis has forced countries to make hasty transformations to their educational methods, including closing schools and implementing distance learning. While some States started this digital shift long ago, others had to rapidly implement tools to best meet the needs of both students and teachers. Eric Charbonnier, education analyst at the OECD, answers to our questions. 

How have countries adapted to distance education, and can we notice any similarities or differences? 

In terms of similarities, the first response of countries during the Covid crisis was a health response, and not an educational one. The consensus among most countries was to close schools. This decision required a quick reaction, and countries were not prepared in terms of an educational response. We were thus able to measure gaps not only in terms of the quality of distance education but also the ability of those involved to use these services. 

In the OECD’s 2018 PISA study, 55% of school principals in France said teachers had sufficient technical and pedagogical skills to integrate digital tools in learning (the OECD average was 70%). 

What made the difference during this crisis was the degree of preparedness to use these digital tools. For countries starting to reopen schools, measures to end lockdown are often similar to those in France. The progressive reopening of schools, starting with primary education levels, is beneficial to both economic recovery and the fight against inequality, which is essential to address from a very young age.

Concerning this ability to use digital tools, and in a context where the Human Development Index (HDI) could decrease for the first time in 30 years, would you say that the digital divide within countries had an impact on the social divide during this crisis?

Rather than caused by the digital divide, it’s the pre-existing social divide that was exacerbated. The PISA study shows that amongst 15-year-old students in France, 9 out of 10 say they have internet connection and a computer at home to complete their assignments, so there isn’t a huge divide in terms of equipment. However, those who don’t have computers are primarily in disadvantaged areas. The real gap was in helping children outside of class sessions. The French education system is often criticized because, compared to other countries, it requires a significant amount of work outside of the classroom. Yet it is this homework that exacerbates inequalities, as not all parents are able to provide the same homework assistance to their children or to pay for tutoring.

The real gap was in helping children outside of class sessions.

During this crisis, there were initially many problems related to digital learning platforms, as online classes were not systematically implemented during the first weeks of lockdown.

This revealed a lack of preparedness in using digital tools on the part of educators, and the crisis provided as much of a learning process for students as for teachers, who had to adapt to improve the quality of their educational resources.

In Estonia, as well as in Australia and Quebec, to provide examples outside of Europe, using digital learning tools is more common. No matter their level, students are used to using these tools. In Australia, distance learning was already a reality in certain disadvantaged or isolated areas well before the start of the crisis. But that isn’t the only problem. In France, educational programs are centered on disciplines and theory. Teaching through online tools and working on interdisciplinary projects are not at all part of the country’s culture. Priority is given to developing proficiency in foundational knowledge, which is certainly important, but insufficient to face the challenges of tomorrow. In addition, many countries including Canada, Finland, and Slovenia, to name a few, have long been prioritizing the importance of acquiring soft skills and the cross-cutting nature of learning. These countries are better prepared to be flexible, function in a team, and adapt to new methods of working. In France, this was more difficult at the start. 

Nevertheless, the crisis had the beneficial aspect of enabling progress, whether that was through developing digital tools or through educators adopting these tools. In that respect, the crisis saw the development of sharing useful practices that were not common before, and it is essential to keep these practices in the future. Once again, this highlights inequality within schools, not only between students but also between educators. Even inside an establishment, colossal gaps exist in teacher preparedness. Teachers’ difficulty in learning digital tools, coupled with a lack of educational support for certain students, widened inequality. The crisis has thus been more of an amplifier than a creator of inequality.

In your opinion, what are the takeaway lessons from this unprecedented crisis in education that can be used to improve the field?

The key point is to not go backwards. It is crucial to find ways to further integrate these new digital tools. The 2015 PISA study demonstrated that it wasn’t the excessive use of digital technology that had a beneficial impact but its moderate and targeted use. This transformation towards digital tools also brings skills that will be useful in the 21st century. It will be necessary then to continue to deepen educators’ knowledge of these materials so they can share them with students. 

This highlights inequality within schools, not only between students but also between educators. 

In addition, the assessment culture is central and it will be important to debrief in schools to come out of this crisis with a range of good practices that can be shared with the whole educational community. The response was unequal between and within establishments, so this experience must help to collect the information necessary to bring education to digital formats in a virtuous circle for students, teachers and parents. 

It is also important to reflect on those who suffered the most from the closing of schools, which of course includes underprivileged students, but also those who are enrolled in Vocational Education and Training (VET) programmes.. The reopening of these sectors is thus both a challenge and an issue. For countries that have a high share of apprenticeships, helping businesses keep their apprentices is crucial. Vocational fields are also likely to suffer greatly from this crisis; we should not forget them during the recovery. 


Copyright : Yann Schreiber / AFP

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