Children’s Right to Education in a Digitally Unequal World

Author: Dr. Cheng Yong Tan

In today’s ultra-competitive world, children deserve the right to quality education so that they can participate meaningfully in society and be equipped for work. The conventional wisdom of children being entitled to quality education dates back to 14 December 1960 with the introduction of UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education.  

49 States signified their commitment to pursuing this educational ideal when they ratified the  Convention in 1960-1969 and the momentum of this realization has only grown in the last 60  years. By 2020, a full 106 States ratified the Convention. 

The Convention affirms that every child has a fundamental right to education. It requires States  to provide free and compulsory education, prohibit any form of discrimination, and promote  equality of educational opportunity. Since inception, the Convention has raised global  awareness against discrimination that is based on, for example, race, religion, politics, social  origin, that nullifies or impairs the equality of treatment in education.  

However, the educational context has dramatically changed in the last two decades as  technological advancements propel the world from the Third to Fourth Industrial Revolution where information and communication technologies integrate all other infrastructures into  smart systems. 

Expectedly, education has been transformed in tandem with the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  The impact of technology on education is most evident after COVID-19 when schools have  switched to online or a hybrid form of teaching (“The New Normal”) in lieu of face-to-face  lessons.  

Unfortunately, not all students are able to meaningfully participate in this learning modality in  the New Normal. Therefore, digital divides in learning (i.e., different learning experiences and  outcomes arising from students’ access to and use of digital technology) represent a new threat  to children’s fundamental right to education.  

In Hong Kong, this phenomenon is stark during the prolonged COVID-19 school closure. With  more than half a million students enrolled in public primary and secondary schools alone in  Hong Kong, we can be forgiven for fixing our gaze on how the digital divides affect learning  of school-going children.  

Indeed, a large-scale study of 6,300 primary and secondary students, 1,300 parents, 550 school  leaders, and 790 teachers’ experiences of online teaching-and-learning during the school  closure in Hong Kong by The University of Hong Kong provides compelling evidence for the  impact of digital divides on student learning during the pandemic. The eCitizen Education 360 study unravels this impact at two levels. 

At the family level, the study finds that we have up to 5% of students without access to large screen devices and up to 19% of students with inadequate Internet access for learning at home  during the pandemic. Parents from lower socioeconomic status (SES) families perceive that  their children acquire less digital skills during the school suspension, are more worried about  their inability to provide adequate digital learning support (large-screen devices and Internet  access) to their children, are less likely to be involved in home-based online learning of their children, and have lower levels of expectations for their children’s upcoming examination  results. (Law, Tan, Lan, & Pan, 2020a, 2021b). 

The study also finds that school leaders and teachers are worried that students from lower-SES  families are less able to benefit from online learning and thus may not be able to catch up with  their learning after classes resume. (Law, Tan, Lan, & Pan, 2020b, 2021a). 

In addition to digital divides occurring at the family level, students may also have different  learning experiences depending on how digitally prepared schools are during the online  learning induced by the pandemic. Results show that students and teachers from schools that  are less digitally prepared before the school suspension report less effective online teaching and-learning practices. (Law, Tan, Lan, & Pan, 2020a, b). 

These results highlight the need to adopt a multi-prong strategy to mitigate the threat of digital  divides to children’s right to education in Hong Kong. First, schools and community  organizations need to provide technology access and other forms of support to needy students  from lower-SES families. Second, schools need to develop a comprehensive plan that  incorporates adaptive hybrid teaching-and-learning strategies. 

In conclusion, in the spirit of the Convention against Discrimination in Education conceived  60 years ago, we are now confronted with a new threat – digital divides in education – that has  prominently reared its ugly head during the COVID-19 school suspension in Hong Kong.  Therefore, we have a responsibility to ensure that all students have access to digital technology  and that all schools develop a comprehensive school-wide e-learning strategy so that we can  protect the fundamental right of our children to education. 

References

Law, N., Tan, C. Y., Lan, M., & Pan, Q. (2020a). eCitizen Education 360 Project – Bulletin  1: From outcomes and challenges of online learning to enhanced digital preparedness for the NEW NORMAL. Hong Kong: Faculty of Education, The University of Hong Kong.

https://360-cms.ecitizen.hk/uploads/bulletin01_v9_en_0868d8d54b.pdf 

Law, N., Tan, C. Y., Lan, M., & Pan, Q. (2020b). eCitizen Education 360 Project – Bulletin  3: Online-learning preparedness for teachers. Hong Kong: Faculty of Education, The  University of Hong Kong. 

https://360-cms.ecitizen.hk/uploads/bulletin03_en_27a076364b.pdf 

Law, N., Tan, C. Y., Lan, M., & Pan, Q. (2021a). eCitizen Education 360 Project – Bulletin  4: Multi-level School Leadership for online learning preparedness. Hong Kong: Faculty of  Education, The University of Hong Kong. 

https://360-cms.ecitizen.hk/uploads/bulletin04_en_ac768f3e5b.pdf 

Law, N., Tan, C. Y., Lan, M., & Pan, Q. (2021b). eCitizen Education 360 Project – Bulletin  5: Parent-Child Communication and Relationship are Key to Students’ Wellbeing at Home  and in School. Hong Kong: Faculty of Education, The University of Hong Kong.

https://360-cms.ecitizen.hk/uploads/bulletin05_en_a1e4363001.pdf