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    By Silvia Guallar Artal, Martin Humburg and Nihan Koseleci Blanchy

    In the spring of 2020, the education of 1.6 billion children screeched to a halt.

    The coronavirus pandemic forced over 190 countries to close schools and to switch – abruptly and bumpily – to remote learning. At the peak of the crisis, more than 85% of students worldwide were out of regular school and, by October 2020, 108 countries reported missing an average of 47 days of in-person instruction – or roughly one-quarter of the school year.

    Governments scrambled to replace traditional school with remote learning options, ranging from online platforms to educational television and radio programmes to paper-based packages either physically brought home or disseminated via email. Despite the efforts, 40% of students globally lost all contact with their teachers. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds suffered the most, as they rely on schools for digital equipment and computer skills.

    It will be years before we know the economic and social consequences of the school closures and the abrupt switch to remote learning. Some children have thrived, but many others are falling behind. Those learning losses, unless remediated, will have long-term consequences for economic growth and social cohesion. We need to help these children catch up – and make sure their bond with education is not permanently broken. Digital tools can help. They aren’t a panacea, and they need the careful guidance of teachers to be effective. But they can help us bridge the educational gaps created by the pandemic.

    Unequal access

    The effectiveness of remote learning relies heavily on resources in a student’s home, such as internet access, digital devices and parental involvement, particularly for younger children. Disadvantaged students, however, are more likely to attend schools that lack the digital materials and infrastructure needed to teach remotely, and are less likely to get support at home. As a result, learning inequalities have grown significantly.

    The relatively large proportion of students lost during school closures was by no means limited to less-developed countries. A survey among German teachers showed that one-third of teachers in secondary schools and almost half of the teachers in primary schools only had regular contact with a small number of their students during the school closures at the beginning of the pandemic.

    The risk for societies is twofold. First, some students will never make up for the time lost during the pandemic, and they will lack the skills they need to succeed. Second, and probably more important, is that students who were already struggling risk falling so far behind that they eventually drop out.

    The problem is that we won’t see the pandemic’s effect right away. Education is a process of acquiring skills. Students who lost contact with school could carry that educational loss around like baggage for years to come. They could eventually disconnect from the system completely. One of the main threats, in fact, is that the number of people who drop out of education increases. Dropouts are extremely difficult to integrate back into the educational system, and they could end up entering the workforce without the skills needed to thrive.

    It’s a vicious cycle. Learning gaps could follow students into the labour market, translating into lower earnings throughout their life. That will exacerbate inequality. It will also widen the gap between rich and poor countries. Schools in high-income countries were closed 53 days on average in 2020, while lower- and middle-income countries closed schools an average of 115 days, according to Unesco. Given the strong relationship between educational performance and economic growth, developing countries with a less skilled labour force will struggle to catch up with rich countries.

    The pressure on societies comes as economies only begin to recover from the pandemic. In 2020, global growth contracted by 3.3% and about 97 million people fell below the threshold for extreme poverty – daily income of $1.90. The pandemic’s economic toll has been acutely felt in Europe, where output shrunk 6.1% in 2020, a steeper fall than during the financial crisis in 2008.

    Some countries, like Germany, France and Italy, expect school closures – and the learning loss associated with them -- to cost the economy trillions of euros over the long term.

    Reaching children during lockdown

    • 89% of schools worldwide distributed instructional packages (textbooks, worksheets, printouts) through existing resources including email.
    • 78% of countries also provided educational television, and 41% of countries broadcasted educational programmes on the radio.
    • Even in highly developed countries like Germany, interactive modes of online instruction, such as video conferencing, were used by only a small minority of teachers at the beginning of the pandemic:  9% at primary schools level and 19% at upper secondary schools.

    Source:  Schooling disrupted, schooling rethought: How the COVID-19 pandemic is changing education, (OECD, 2020); the German School Portal infographic on distance learning.

    Harnessing digital learning

    Digital technologies, when deployed effectively in the classroom, have the potential to help students make up for the loss in learning. One good thing that came out of the pandemic is the speeding up of education’s adoption of digital technology. The large-scale remote learning experience opened the door to more digitalisation, such as blending digital tools with traditional teaching methods. An example is adaptive learning software, which can assess the student’s skill level and adjust exercises accordingly, providing more personalised instruction.

    The crisis, however, exposed stark shortcomings in the digital readiness of education. While a lack of high-speed internet or digital devices sometimes hindered remote learning, the pandemic showed that even when these tools were available, digital technology did not necessarily enhance learning.

    In short, having a good broadband connection and an array of digital devices in schools will not automatically improve education. Digital technologies, however, can act as a conduit. The pandemic made apparent how ill-suited some content was to digital learning. Schools often lacked the software and content to make digital devices compelling educational tools. A more wide-scale digitalisation of education, however, will encourage content companies to improve their digital offerings and to develop more effective pedagogies.

    More effective digital learning, however, goes beyond simply putting conventional pedagogies or methods online. While digital technologies allowed schools and teachers to ensure a minimum level of learning during school closures, their real potential lies in the diversification of materials available to teachers (See the related blogpost “Learning through looking.”).

    The school environment remains important. Teachers have their role. Replacing a textbook with an iPad will not necessarily improve education. But combining a good textbook (digital or paperback) with a chemistry experiment that you can simulate on your iPad for a “virtual” experience – changing the ingredients to see what happens when different compounds are mixed together – can actually add value.

    Big data can also help. Data can be used to track performance and alert schools about students that are in academic trouble or at risk of dropping out. Early warning systems, for example, use student information and national test scores to model potential outcomes. The systems can identify students at risk of dropping out. If schools can identify students at risk, then hopefully they can focus their attention and give them the extra support they need to succeed.

    Education needs investment  

    All these solutions—high-speed internet, digital tools and teaching assistants—cost money, and investment in education is severely lacking. 

    The Bertelsmann Foundation in Germany has estimated that equipping EU schools with basic digital technology, networks and devices would cost €584 a year per primary school student and €825 per secondary school student. The European Union has 24.5 million primary school students and 36 million secondary school students, which means that digital equipment would cost a whopping €44 billion – and the equipment would have to replaced every five years, on average. Maintenance and support for that technology is expected to cost an additional €261 per primary school student and €402 per secondary school student, according to the Bertelsmann Foundation.

    Many countries’ education budgets, however, are strained. The backlog of infrastructure investments needed for German schools rose from €42.8 billion in 2018 to €44.2 billion in 2020. Before the pandemic, $148 billion a year in fresh investment was needed to achieve universal pre-primary, primary and secondary education by 2030 for low- and lower-middle-income countries.

    The European Investment Bank can help shore up investment. The Bank lent roughly €47 billion to educational projects in the last 20 years. Lately, we have been focusing on digital projects, like school connectivity in Serbia or computers for remote learning for university students in Morocco.

    The coronavirus pandemic put pressure on government finances, and education spending often gets cut during crises. The impact, however, of cutting education budgets is huge. The National Bureau of Economic Research in the United States measured the impact of cuts made to education budgets during the recession of 2008. The research found that children exposed to spending cuts had lower test scores and lower college attendance rates. They also experienced rising inequality. The impact of cuts was even larger for children in poor neighbourhoods.

    About 10% of Europe’s total public spending goes to education. Those education budgets need to be spared any cuts. We also need to spend more efficiently and in a more targeted way that supports disadvantaged students or those at risk of dropping out.

    Avoiding a social crisis

    If we do nothing, the COVID-19 crisis could have a devastating effect on students’ learning, public investment in education and international student mobility. In 2018, roughly 250 million children, adolescents and youths were out of school. Most of those people come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The pandemic threatens to swell that number further.

    At the same time, the International Labour Organization is warning that child labour statistics started to increase during the pandemic – rising for the first time in 20 years. The world has made tremendous progress in abolishing child labour, but the pandemic threatens to undo some of those gains.

    The pandemic isn’t all bad news. It gave birth to new, innovative ideas on how to reach children. For example, an experiment in Botswana proved that low-cost alternatives, such as sending SMS messages and making phone calls to parents with information on how to support their child, can improve learning. The pandemic is also creating interest in the Giga initiative, which uses big data to track the connectivity of schools worldwide and then raises funds to help address gaps. The initiative, led by Unicef and the International Telecommunication Union, is also providing open-source educational tools to support learning in case of future school closures.

    Without policies to close the learning gaps caused by the pandemic, socio and economic inequalities will persist or even grow over time. Sending students who lived through the pandemic into the working world without the proper skills could lead to greater social unrest and hamstring efforts by poorer countries to improve lives.   

    The stakes are huge. We need to invest in the future – and there’s no better way to do that than to invest in education.

    Silvia Guallar Artal, Martin Humburg and Nihan Koseleci Blanchy are education economists in the European Investment Bank’s Education and Public Research Division.