Learning during lockdown
Is the right to education guaranteed to every student during this pandemic?
The global coronavirus pandemic has challenged every aspect of our lives: from the health system to the economy, including the school system. Students, teachers, and schools have suddenly seen everything change and standard lessons were immediately substituted by online classes. Some schools and universities were offering online courses even prior to the pandemic, but they have never been applied on such a large scale before. Initially, this shift to technological devices and online platforms seemed to bring a digital revolution that would flatten income differences and create a truly egalitarian school system. It was clearly a naive prediction: on the contrary, it was soon evident how it would exacerbate pre-existing inequalities.
In 2019 76% of Italian families had an internet connection at home, but unfortunately, 33% of them did not possess any computer or tablet at home and 42% owned just one device. So one in three families does not have the possibility to make their children attend online classes and four out of ten have to share just one computer, compromising the quality of learning and work. In fact, just 6.1% of students aged between 6 and 17 have the privilege of not sharing their computer with other family members.
These staggering figures highlight an old problem, that now in 2020 took away from many students the basic right of receiving a good education. In the past few years, the government focused on providing schools, not students themselves, with electronic devices.
Davide Di Staso is a former board member of EYP Italy who is currently studying e-governance and who worked, with a couple of colleagues, towards a solution. We talked with him about online teaching, what the state of things is and what his experience has been working in this field thus far.
Everything started at a hackathon called the Global Hack, where a Slack discussion among participants highlighted a scary statistic: 14% of Italian families with a minor don’t have an electronic device. The project consists in finding students who need a device and firms who can give used ones, mediating the logistics. As Davide says, the concept is really simple, but it could really make the difference. Discovering that other people from other countries, like Belgium or Estonia, tried to do the same, they started translating the Estonian website and the forms, receiving 1600 demands so far just in Italy. The Italian project is called ognistudenteonline.org
The Italian government reacted a few weeks after the beginning of the lockdown, allocating €70 million (or around €30,000 per school) in order to provide computers, tablets or other gadgets. But having the funds is not enough: many companies have stopped their activities and the requests are very high, there is a lack of equipment and schools are struggling to find them on the market. When asked about the problem of devices shortages, Davide said that it is not only about the funds, but also about the impossibility to use institutional sites to buy these devices.
He discovered that some headmasters bought them before the state fund arrived in the fear that the supplies would end too quickly.
Not only there’s a lack of technological instruments: we also do not know how to use them properly. In Italy, 66% of the population between the age of 16 and 74 are digital illiterates (that is people who do not have sufficient knowledge in how to use electronic devices or technological platforms), and having on average the oldest teachers in Europe doesn’t help. Students, but especially teachers, very often find themselves unable to use digital platforms and do not understand that frontal lessons are ineffective not only in normal classes but especially in online ones. Parents and students are protesting against the amount of homework and hours dedicated to lessons. Smart school and learning are not about spending the longest amount of hours in front of a screen, but quite the opposite. Despite receiving many complaints, the Ministry of Education has simply suggested limiting the number of hours, but nothing has practically changed since it did not make any binding decision in regards to this problem.
However, it is not just a matter of devices and hours per lesson, but also a geographical one. In poorer regions, the number of families with no device is 10% higher on average and in rural or isolated areas internet connection is sometimes totally absent.
In Europe there is a heterogeneous panorama, with countries where devices were already given by the schools because they abandoned the frontal lessons years ago and others that had problems similar to the ones Italy is facing. Davide explained his experience with the Estonian situation here: they had the same device shortage issue as Italy, but in three weeks they have been able to respond to the 1200 demands, also thanks to the help offered by the State.
Another issue is privacy. Some online platforms are frequently attacked by hackers who steal personal information, as it happened in the past few weeks with Zoom. It is important to remember that schools play a very important part in this choice: opting for the right apps can prevent many problems and safeguard students’ and teachers’ privacy. For these reasons many have suggested creating a safer national public platform, but nothing has been decided yet. Moreover, the privacy problem is also linked to device shortages. Davide cared to underline that the equipment they are trying to give to students needs to be wiped or reset, which obviously introduces another difficulty. The solution, he says, shouldn’t be to buy new devices, because basically, the system would remain dependent on funding. Instead, being able to build a network for used devices would work for years, since firms and enterprises always have electronics that they can’t use anymore.
After all, technology has not proved to be the magic solution to inequality as some expected, but it has definitely helped in managing this ongoing crisis. Nevertheless, some questions arise: when the pandemic will end, is the experience with online education going to disappear completely? Will it change and innovate the school system? Will it improve the digital skills of the entire population? No one knows for sure, but the future will reveal the answers.
by Sara Raimondi and Benedetta Stoiculiasa