Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are a crucial enabler of the learning process. Unequal pre-existing infrastructure in households and schools contributes to the digital divide and is a major driver of the longer-term crisis of learning, particularly affecting marginalized children, including children with disabilities, Roma and other ethnic and linguistic minorities, girls, and those from the poorest household.
School connectivity can equip schools to ensure continuity in education service delivery, whether face-to-face or at a distance. It can enrich teaching and learning by providing access to a wide range of quality content. It can support inclusion by enabling the use of assistive and adaptive technologies. Connectivity can improve the collection and use of data and the integration of education management information systems for better administration of the scholastic system, from the central to the local government and the school itself. And it can drive innovative, local solutions for connecting all young people to the internet and to quality learning and skills development.
The countries of the European Union (EU) play a leadership role in school connectivity globally, which translates into both the efficient management and use of resources from a public administration perspective and the possibility of implementing educational policies that include digital skills development in curricula. Some non-EU countries in Europe, however, face multiple barriers in this regard, frequently characterized by the high costs of both network deployment and access to ICTs equipment coupled with inadequately trained human capital, which often results in the lack of a sound strategic approach at the national level. In consideration of the above, nine countries have been identified as a priority in Europe: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Republic of Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, and Ukraine.21 In these countries, there exists a crisis of learning in education. Of the 25 million pupils of age from 6 to 17 enrolled in school in the 9 countries, close to 9.8 million (about 40 per cent)22, 23 are not achieving minimum proficiency in the foundational skills needed for further learning and over 2 million, or 8 per cent of children, are out of school. The Covid-19 pandemic laid bare the inequalities that can be exacerbated by the digital divide. In the 9 countries, 23 million primary and secondary school children were impacted by school closures.
21 Hereafter “the 9 countries”.
22 ITU and UNICEF (2021). Connectivity in education: status and recent development in 9 non-European union countries.
23 UNICEF calculation of the number of students in primary, lower and upper secondary not achieving minimum proficiency in math; data for Albania is calculated using the latest figures available from UIS and PISA.
While 34.6 million people have been brought online since 2015 in the 9 countries, 37.3 million (25% of the population) still do not make use of the Internet. Coverage by 4G LTE technology in these countries has grown from 10 per cent of the population in 2015 to 91 per cent in 2019.
Percentage of population using the internet 2015 and 2020
Note: Moldova (2015 and 2017), Ukraine (2015 and 2019)
Is mobile the solution? Devices such as smartphones and tablets have lower fixed costs, require limited digital skills, and allow for greater geographic mobility. But they may require higher levels of digital skills when used for learning, the efficacy of smartphones for delivering quality education and engaging in digital learning over long periods of time is disputed, and only one third of the population of the 9 countries has a subscription to mobile broadband.
Eleven million, or 24 per cent of households, do not have access to the internet in the 9 countries. In addition, the number of households with PCs grew by only 7.9 per cent over the period 2015-2019, meaning that 18 million of households are not equipped with a personal computer across the 9 countries. The national averages of PCs per student range from 0.21 in Montenegro to 0.72 in Ukraine, which is low by comparison to countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). An estimated 11.5 million computers are needed across these countries to reach the OECD average of 0.83 PCs per student.
Computers per student needed in school
The cost for filling these gaps could range between 1 billion and 12 billion United States dollars without counting maintenance cost and staff upskilling; with the low-range estimate being only for the cheapest-available devices that would not be ideal for education, and the high-range estimate assuming a higher-end computer and monitor.
There is a need to ensure that ministries of education in all countries are included in decision-making and that sustainable investment in ICT for education is accounted for in national budgets. The ministries have not yet capitalized on innovative funding mechanisms on a large scale to ensure connectivity in education. International organizations and International Financial Institutions (IFIs) have been active in closing the gap by facilitating partnerships with governments and the private sector and providing technical assistance or funding. These have aimed to decrease the costs of and improve access to household connectivity and devices and procure connectivity contracts in public administrations. A multi-strategic approach can catalyse the much-needed conditions for the digitalization of education management and policy planning and assessment, thereby spurring a virtuous circle of mutual reinforcement that is able to sustainably propel digital development and enrich the education sector at the national level.