The Debate | Opinion | Southeast Asia

Mind the Remote Learning Gap in ASEAN

As a result of COVID-19, the educational gap is expected to widen across ASEAN.

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Mind the Remote Learning Gap in ASEAN
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As the prospect of the pandemic’s end appears in sight, however many months away it may be, it is timely to shift the focus to some of its other impacts, particularly those that could do long-term damage to societies and economies. Of those, the impact on education looms large. The pandemic has extracted a heavy toll through widespread, and in some cases, long-term school closures. In the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region alone, these closures affected the quality of education received by more than 152 million children and youths.

Economic hardship caused by the pandemic has caused many families to defer or discontinue the education of their children. For some, these impacts could be permanent. Estimates suggest that in some parts of the region drop-out rates are set to rise. In the Philippines, for example, where the pandemic has caused the loss of millions of jobs, K-12 enrollment for school-year 2020-2021 dropped by 2.6 million (10 percent) compared to the previous year, even after school opening was postponed by two months. Historical data suggests that once students leave school, it is highly unlikely they will return in subsequent years. 

These negative impacts threaten to widen the educational gap within and across countries in ASEAN and could begin to compromise human capital development and the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4).

ASEAN member states were already at different stages of achieving SDG 4 prior to the pandemic, with poorer countries typically lagging. Within countries, existing educational gaps, pre-COVID, resulted from gender inequalities, socioeconomic status, ethnic minority status, or residence in rural and remote locations, among other factors. Students from vulnerable groups are more likely to drop out of school, to perform more poorly in standardized exams, and to lack 21st century competencies. 

A recent Rapid Assessment of Livelihoods across ASEAN, undertaken by the ASEAN Secretariat, supported by The Rockefeller Foundation and The Asia Foundation, looked at the national and regional policy landscape and those areas that need to be prioritized in order to “build back better” post-COVID. Among others, the report looked at the impact of COVID-19 on the quality, equity, and efficiency of education in ASEAN.

With COVID-19 forcing schools to adopt remote learning, the educational gap is expected to widen for three key reasons. First, poorer households and remote or excluded communities and regions have limited access to the internet and the devices needed to access online classes. Take, for example, the large percentage of the Rohingya population in Rakhine and Chin states in Myanmar, who do not have internet, mobile, television, and radio access to remote teaching and learning.

Second, the speed and urgency with which remote learning resources were developed tended toward a one-size-fits-all model. Vulnerable students who need tailored learning resources — such as resources in local languages or materials supportive of those with disabilities — were necessarily excluded. And lastly, the teaching model relied on the assumption that students’ home environment would be conducive to learning. For many students, in poor families in particular, the home environment is not one in which they can learn for a multitude of reasons, not least of which are common gender norms and expectations that require girls to look after siblings or do work around the house. 

These challenges present ASEAN member state governments with some clear policy options to facilitate improved remote learning options in the short to medium term and to make those more inclusive: 

Increase investment in digital infrastructure, devices and learning resources for remote teaching and learning. Many students, particularly those from vulnerable groups, still do not have access to remote teaching and learning. Governments should focus on increasing investment in network and communication infrastructure in rural and remote areas, providing or subsidizing devices for students from vulnerable groups, better coordinating technical support in schools, and sustaining and scaling up the development of remote teaching and learning resources.

Scale up professional development and support for educational professionals. Professional development programs need to include new key competencies, including remote teaching and learning, psychosocial support for students, and a stronger emphasis on monitoring and managing their own development. 

Provide learning support for students, including out-of-school children, from vulnerable groups.  ASEAN member state governments should diversify remote learning options to cater to different contexts and needs. They should coordinate inter-sectoral responses that consider social protection measures (including free school meals and meal subsidies) to support student engagement at home and in school. More guidance is also needed for parents and guardians to support home and remote learning, as well as remote learning resources that can be used in no-tech and low-tech contexts. 

Regional initiatives are also needed. The adoption in 2020 of the ASEAN Declaration on Human Resources Development for the Changing World of Work, its roadmap, and the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework lay out priority areas for collective regional action. These include revisiting the regional competency framework for teachers and developing a toolkit for high-quality remote teaching and learning, both of which would be welcome endeavors. 

While strengthening remote teaching and learning options is important, it is not the only priority. In reality, remote learning remains unaffordable for many families and communities. Governments need a mixture of policies, measures, and innovations to ameliorate the disruption of education as well as to minimize dropouts. These must be informed by data, including on school dropouts, that enables disaggregation across gender, socioeconomic strata, and other relevant contextual dimensions. 

ASEAN’s future prosperity rests on the quality of its human capital. While the health impacts of the pandemic are rightly prioritized as we enter 2021, minds must turn to the potential longer-term damage that the pandemic has done, not only to economies but also to key sectors such as education. The danger is that inequalities in education outcomes will be so exacerbated by the crisis that some of the progress made in improving the quality of education for all in ASEAN over the past decade or more will be eroded. This would bode badly for a region in need of a highly skilled workforce to take it into the next decade of the 21st century. And the effort to prevent this backsliding needs to be regional. 

Lim Cher Ping is associate dean of the faculty of education and human development and chair professor of department of curriculum and instruction at the Education University of Hong Kong.

Geoffrey M. Ducanes is an associate professor in the department of economics at Ateneo De Manila University, the Philippines.

Nicola Nixon is director of governance for The Asia Foundation.

Pitchanuch Supavanich is regional program manager for The Asia Foundation.