Keeping Our Promise in Education
For the past couple of years, I’ve taken a personal interest in education. I’ve met students, talked to principals and teachers. And one thing that always amazes me is how passionate everyone is about education: the urge to learn and to teach is strong, especially in remote communities.
A Story of Two Brothers
Jietong is a high school student in Xichuan, a county in the middle of China. He lives with his mom, dad, and little brother in a small rented room. His parents are migrant workers and money is tight. With the spread of COVID, all local schools closed and started providing online coursework for the students. But this was a problem for Jietong and his little brother, because his family doesn’t have a tablet or computer − they had just one smartphone, which Jietong and his little brother had to share to take classes online. But even that was difficult. They had no Internet connection at home, and the smartphone signal was only strong enough on the roof of their apartment building.
So Jietong had to go up to the roof for class. When he’d finished, Jietong would give the phone to his little brother, so he could do the same. This was during the winter, when the temperature gets as low as 5-10 degrees below zero.
The urge to learn is strong. And so is the urge to help. When the local government learned about their situation, they gave the boys a computer and arranged for a Wi-Fi connection. Now they have more stable, reliable access to online courses. And they can stay warm inside. It’s a small fix, but it will have a huge impact on their lives.
I want to talk about that impact and what we can all do to help.
How the Pandemic Has Affected Education around the World
Education is a Promise
To me, education is a promise from governments to citizens, from communities to families, from all of us to future generations. It’s a promise that every child will have the tools, information, and environment they need to lead a better life.
In many ways, we have not kept that promise. COVID has made this painfully clear.
At the peak of the pandemic, more than 190 countries around the world shut down schools, affecting more than 1.6 billion students. The number has dropped now to about 800 million. But the fact remains that many students in vulnerable communities still don’t have access to online classes and won’t return to school at all.
There are many reasons for this.
One of the main reasons is a lack of digital inclusion at all levels of society created by a major imbalance in connectivity, access to devices, and digital skills. In terms of connectivity, according to ITU, 87% of the population in high-income countries has Internet access, compared with just 19% in low-income countries. Income gaps within developed countries tell the same story. For example, in the US, 60% of low-income families don’t have reliable access to the Internet or computers, so even if schools provide online classes, students in these communities can’t participate.
The gap is clear. In both rich and poor countries, children in lower-income communities have unequal access to learning opportunities as a direct result of the digital divide.
Starting Small with What You Know
For big challenges, it’s okay to start small. When there’s so much to do, sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. So we should start with what we know and what we do best.
At Huawei, we know connections and we know digital devices. So we started a program called TECH4ALL to make sure that every person can benefit from digital technology, and that every person has a place in the digital world.
In education, we are focusing on two main areas:
- Connecting schools for kids
- Building digital skills for young adults
Thembile Primary School, South Africa
Back in February, I took a trip to South Africa where I visited Thembile Primary School in Johannesburg. The kids were great: super smart, eager to learn, and full of potential. But they had a unique challenge at the school.
Their computer lab was basically a storage room full of computer equipment they’d never used. I asked the principal why. He said they don’t have Internet access, nor do they have anyone to teach computer class or to maintain the equipment. So having the equipment isn’t enough – they also need resources and capabilities.
So, we teamed up with local partners to see what we could do to help the kids learn better. The NGO Click Foundation provides online curriculum and content, local carrier Rain provides free network access, and we provide network equipment and mobile devices. Together, we moved quickly. The kids at Thembile will soon be able to take interactive classes online, starting with English. Our goal is to connect 20 primary schools in South Africa by the end of the year, and 100 by mid-2021. This will have a direct impact on over 50,000 young minds.
Read more: Building Futures: South Africa’s 5G DigiSchool
Training Teachers in Senegal
We’re not stopping there. With the pandemic, distance learning is more important than ever. To properly scale distance learning platforms, you need cloud. Cloud gives us the ability to fully connect schools, create and manage coursework, and bring accessible content to people’s homes.
So connecting schools also means connecting them to the cloud and connecting them to content. Here’s an example from Senegal.
When schools shut down in Senegal, teachers faced a difficult situation because they’d never created distance learning content before. Working with UNESCO and local partners, including the carrier Sonatel, we’re providing teachers with the equipment and digital skills necessary to create content for radio and TV.
To date, the project has helped more than 200 teachers provide their students with quality content during the pandemic. Moving forward, the goal is to train teachers in more than 60 schools, so they can bring distance learning to more than 100,000 students. We’re also working with UNESCO on an Open Schools project that will connect schools and build nation-wide distance learning platforms for remote communities, starting with Egypt, Ethiopia, and Ghana.
Read more: Learning Never Stops at Senegal DigiSchool
Enhancing Digital Skills in Kenya
Outside of school, many adults across the world lack the digital skills to participate in the growing digital economy. In September 2019, we joined up with local partners to build a DigiTruck in Kenya.
Fully solar-powered, the DigiTruck is a 40-foot steel cargo container that’s been converted into a mobile classroom and equipped with laptops, smartphones, wireless broadband, and VR equipment. Trainers from a local NGO drive out to remote villages to train young people in skills like using Office software, browsing the Internet, and starting an online business. So far, the DigiTruck has provided more than 25,000 hours of training for over 1,500 people.
This is a joint project with Close the Gap, Safaricom, and UNESCO. We’ll be expanding this program to many other countries including France, next year.
Read more about DigiTruck
There are so many people out there who want to learn, but can’t. Fortunately, there are many people like you and me who want to help. And we can.
Maybe you’re good at curriculum design. Maybe you’re good at training. Maybe you can develop applications. If we each do our part, kids like Jietong won’t have to study on the roof. Primary school students in South Africa can tap the benefits of a modern digital education, and young adults like Carolyn can learn the skills they need to thrive in a growing digital economy.
We can do this. Education is a promise. It’s time we work together to keep that promise.
Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Huawei Technologies.