Giga – A journey to break down the digital divide
Last November I wrote about the launch of the Giga initiative by UNICEF and ITU, with Giga being a new partnership for sustainable development with a focus on school connectivity. The ambition of Giga is to connect every school to the internet and every young person to information, opportunity and choice – an ambition with highlighted importance given the current global situation.
A new fragmented world
In the 8 months since that blog was published, the world has changed dramatically due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of connectivity for educational purposes is firmly in the spotlight. The pandemic has brought change on an unprecedented scale to our educational systems. A global school shutdown has meant that some 1 billion students and youth across the planet are affected by school and university closures due to the COVID-19 outbreak. According to UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition, on June 24 of this year over 62 percent of the world's student population were affected by school closures.
Since the global school shutdown started, governments have struggled to provide alternative solutions to ensure that education continues for many of the world’s school-age children and youth. Connectivity lies at the center of such solutions, both in the form of internet-based distance learning solutions that deliver content in the homes of students, as well as support for teachers to provide online guidance for their pupils.
With schools closed, digital connectivity has become vital for students and teachers to continue the learning process. Broadband access at both school properties and private houses of teachers and students has shown to be indispensable infrastructure in providing equal access to education for all. The definition of a school now extends well beyond the physical school walls and into the homes of the students that they serve.
Connectivity for all
Some countries have been quick to react with the deployment of online solutions, but the lack of access to connectivity has hampered such efforts. The crisis has highlighted that access to the internet, even for educational purposes, is not equal, and there is a great risk the lack of internet access will hinder the ability for many children to continue learning when they are out of school. The global school shutdowns also highlight the issue where communities with limited or non-existent infrastructure lack access to distance learning and where future economic opportunities are limited. This current situation underscores how critical it is to accelerate connectivity, online learning and other initiatives for children and their communities.
While the lack of connectivity is most pronounced in developing countries, it is actually widespread across the globe. In the UK for example, there are estimates of some 1.3 million school-age children who lack reliable internet access at home, and in the US there have been examples of families who lack connectivity at home driving their kids to the parking lots of local schools to access WiFi connections in order to complete their online learning activities.
Connecting schools is a priority
So, what can countries and governments focus on to ensure there is equity in how the educational needs of children and youth are met? In his recent blog post, Harry Patrinos from the World Bank identified some practical ideas to ensure there is more equal access to connectivity for educational purposes:
- Target programs to include the most vulnerable children with equipment and connectivity.
- Improve connectivity for schools that need it most.
- Improve financing of digital curriculum and materials (digital libraries, lessons, learning items, etc.)
- Improve telecommunication capabilities for schools to be able to deliver education online.
As identified by the World Bank, connecting schools is key to providing equal access to educational opportunities. Connecting schools is also the primary focus of the Giga initiative, for which Ericsson recently announced its support through a global partnership with UNICEF. Despite the current restrictions in many countries, Giga recognizes the importance of connecting educational institutions, utilizing them as a focal point for people’s learning and local community activities, and leveraging their tremendous potential for enhancing the quality of digital literacy especially in remote areas. Schools are an ideal starting point for connecting unconnected families and communities because they represent a tangible and measurable success indicator.
Since the announcement late last year, the Giga team has highlighted four key pillars to create the infrastructure necessary to provide meaningful digital connectivity to an entire country, for every community, and for every citizen.
The first step, is about the Mapping of school connectivity - schools are used to identify the demand for connectivity both in the schools themselves and their surrounding communities around the world. In this critical first step towards connecting schools, Ericsson recently announced how they will support UNICEF with funding, as well as data engineering and data science capacity to accelerate school connectivity mapping. The end goal is to develop a solution that supports Giga in every phase through the collection, validation, analysis, monitoring and visualization of real-time school connectivity data. The visualization helps Giga aggregate demand, and collaborate with governments and the private sector to sustainably finance and connect schools, then design and deploy digital interventions to support uninterrupted learning to empower children and young people.
For more information on Giga and its progress check out the Giga site: https://Gigaconnect.org. You can also visit Ericsson’s Connect To Learn site to learn more about Ericsson’s digital inclusion initiative with a focus on education.
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