Covid-19 lockdown measures meant that many schools around the world had to close their doors. Although for many this meant turning to technology and the virtual classroom, for those without access to the internet, this limited their access to education, threatening to further exacerbate existing social divides.

According to Statista, 41% of individuals worldwide do not have regular access to the internet.

The digital divide can affect many aspects of society, but can be especially significant for school-age children, with the non-profit Internet Society describing internet access as “essential for the development of an information society”.

In response, Swedish telecommunication company Ericsson has partnered with UNICEF to help map school connectivity in 35 countries by the end of 2023.

Mapping Connectivity

Heather Johnson, president of sustainability and corporate responsibility at Ericsson tells Verdict more about the partnership.

“What we announced is we are going to be the global partner in school connectivity mapping in 35 countries globally…UNICEF and the International Communications Union about a year ago they launched an initiative called Giga and that was really about setting an ambition for connecting every school around the world and they’ve broken that very audacious goal into four step,” she says.

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“And the first is to understand the gaps and the issues and map the school connectivity and then the next will be about raising the global funds in order to be able to fund that connectivity. The third would be the connecting of schools and the forth is once the classes are connected empowering the teachers and students.”

This is part of the Giga Initiative, a project led by UNICEF and the International Telecommunication Union that aims to connect every school to the internet.

A large part of this is understanding the connectivity landscape. Johnson explains that UNICEF approached Ericsson about a year ago to discuss the partnership, with the company’s “expertise in communication capabilities” as well as its team of data scientists means it is well-poised to map the internet connectivity landscape.

Ericsson will commit resources for data engineering and data science, as well as funding, and will play a role in the collection, validation, analysis, monitoring and visual representation of real-time school connectivity data. Using this valuable information, government bodies and the private sector can then plan the deployment of digital solutions.

The digital divide

According to Internet Society, internet access “has immense potential to improve the quality of education”, one of the pillars of sustainable development. However, according to the International Telecomm Union, around 360 million young people currently do not have access to the internet.

Zohra Yermeche, Ericsson global program director, Connect to Learn, explains that a lack of internet access has impacted students’ learning.

“What we have seen is that Covid-19 has exacerbated the issues related to digital divide. The world has had to close a number of schools, about 91% of the students worldwide had to study from home,” she says.

“While some schools have had the possibility of shifting to online classrooms, many due to lack of internet access have not been able to do so. We’ve seen a very strong impact on the students’ learning and basically the teaching practices around the globe have been adversely affected due to Covid-19. It’s been really exacerbated by this digital divide because we could see that those with internet access could have some sense of continuity in their education, even if education systems weren’t yet ready for this kind of situation, but those without internet access are facing an interruption  of their education until they can resume their schooling.”

Johnson explains that this goes beyond education, and can affect society more broadly.

“It’s a bigger issue than education alone…we see [the digital divide] more broadly in society affecting so many sector,” she says.

“So I think it is something Ericsson has understood for a long time. I think it is really becoming much more apparent to government stakeholders and across different public and private sectors how critical the infrastructure we deliver is in society if there is a silver lining to the Covid context I think it is that it will accelerate at a systems the connectivity that is deployed.”

Ericsson is perhaps best known for its role in the global rollout of 5G. Yemeche believes that 5G technology will have a role to play in the future of education.

“The way you see education going forward, as we are digitalising more and more of the aspects of education, looking more toward virtual learning, self learning, there will be very much space for 5G ultimately to be leveraged for aspects such as virtual reality, augmented reality, there are a number of applications out there that would very much benefit from the power of 5G.”

However, while improved connectivity has numerous benefits when it comes to education, enabling teachers to make the most of digital tools is another key aspect of the Giga Initiative.

“The way the programme is laid out, while the first steps of the programme are very much about establishing internet connectivity for schools, the forth and last pillar is really about leveraging this connectivity to build all kinds of education solutions, digital education solutions to empower the learners and the teachers,” says Yermeche.

“So we are working with partners such as UNESCO to develop technology solutions and platforms that would allow the teachers to learn how to adapt their methodologies and the pedagogies for the digital environment.”

Private-public partnerships

The partnership is also part of the Generation Unlimited Global Breakthrough on Digital Connectivity, which aims to equip young people with the skills they need to participate in the digital economy. Johnson believes that partnerships between private and non-profit organisations are a key part of tackling issues such as this.

“I think that the private sector absolutely has a role to play. I think we’re in a new era of multi-stakeholder engagement on global issues that no one government, no one company, no one international organisation can tackle alone and it will be this collective effort that will really make substantive progress in society,” she explains.

Yermeche echoes this, explaining that the digital know-how often found in the private sector can be greatly beneficial.

“These issues we are trying to solve require expertise from different sectors and from different angles. Which is why we do need to create the type of coalitions and partnerships across sectors to create the right solutions, sustainable solutions to addressing these problems,” she says.

“Because of our work with our customers, we have expertise that is often hard to find on the public side of the ecosystem.”

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