Digital learning can help us close the global education gap. This is how

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Henrietta H. Fore, Executive Director, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)


  • Some 825 million children around the world not learning the skills they need and gaps in access to education have been highlighted further by the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • Governments around the world are critical to the sustainability of digital learning but working with the broadest range of digital learning providers is essential;
  • Innovative technology and solutions that make sense in different cultural and regional contexts can then be developed to help equip millions of young people with essential skills.

Think education is a matter for governments alone? Think again.

The value of the online education market will reach some $350 billion by 2025 and the engine of this growth is private sector innovation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has opened our eyes to the amazing potential of digital learning to build skills, flexibly and remotely. Millions of children and young people have been continuing their education online in the past year – but even though the potential is exciting, these children and young people are in a minority.

UNICEF’s reachability index shows that three out of four students who cannot be reached by remote-learning options (including radio, television and internet) come from rural areas and/or poor households. The learning crisis – some 825 million children around the world not learning the skills they need – is already creating a gap between rich and poor. The digital divide threatens to exacerbate it further.

This does not have to be the case. Since the 1990s, mobile phones have been transforming the development of countries. Remote regions – many of which did not have access to landlines – suddenly became less isolated as mobile phones connected them to the world. In time, technology has enabled access to markets, banking and opportunities for improved healthcare and education. Mobile technology became a critical tool to eradicate poverty.

Likewise, digital learning can help children to leapfrog to a brighter future, giving them more opportunities and choice to build the literacy, numeracy, digital, future life, entrepreneurial and job-specific skills they need.

“A year ago, no one could have anticipated how dramatically the world would change. The way children go to school. The way we work. The way we think about the future,” says Bob Moritz, Global Chairman, PwC.

Image: UNICEF

“The need to upskill people, including our children and youth, and make sure everyone – everywhere – has access to learning opportunities, digital tools and connectivity, has never been more important. And – as highlighted in our new insight report with the World Economic Forum – it’s key to stimulating the recovery from COVID-19 and creating inclusive and sustainable economies where more people have opportunities to participate in goals of enhanced prosperity.”

In this 75th anniversary year since UNICEF was established, we see the impact of what the world has accomplished in developing and sustaining basic education. But now we have to look ahead. Just as governments and the private sector together led the charge in getting mobile technology to communities everywhere, we need public and private sectors to join forces to realize the enormous potential of digital learning to address the learning crisis. We need platforms, such as the World Economic Forum, to bring together multi-stakeholders – with their knowledge and expertise – and commit to urgent and collective action.

eLearning Market size worth over $375bn by 2026
E-learning Market size forecast to be worth more than $375 billion by 2026 Image: Global Market Insights

What we have learned since the launch of the Reskilling Revolution is that a radical scaling of digital learning needs to happen now. It needs to target children and young people, whether in developed or developing countries, lest inequities between those who have access and those who do not continue to widen. Generation Equality also highlights the role of technology and innovation to drive equality – for girls, disabled children and the economically vulnerable – so that no child or young person is left behind.

Governments around the world, working with the broadest range of digital learning providers – from big global players to start-ups – are critical to the sustainability of digital learning. Bringing partners on board will require cooperation on a global scale to create an environment where digital learning actions can flourish.

Here’s what we need:

  • We need investment to extend the reach infrastructure so when we work with private sector service providers to extend the reach of online and offline models of digital learning we can more effectively achieve scale.
  • We need to use multiple sources of funding – from the private sector, governments and foundations – to avoid proliferation of the-user-pays models, which restrict access for the most marginalized, and effectively level the financial incentive playing field.
  • We need to work with governments to link national curricula and certification systems with digital learning, which will help to unlock learning, work and entrepreneurial opportunities for marginalized children and young people.
  • We need to make government technological regulations flexible to give room to digital education models to grow and adapt to the given context.

Reimagine Education is building partnerships with private sector partners such as Ericsson, Microsoft, PwC, SAP, Sony and Unilever to help vulnerable children access digital education and prepare youth with 21st-century skills.

There is a role for all education stakeholders – and current and prospective private sector partners – in existing markets and, critically, new markets to provide expertise in digital and online technology. For example, to digitize national curricula, increase the availability of high-quality content for offline or low-connectivity settings and integrate technology into teacher training. This list is non-exhaustive and non-prescriptive. This is about solutions that make sense in each given cultural and country context, with partners who have a stake in the market – and the future.

Image: UNICEF

These efforts are being supported by Generation Unlimited – a global partnership to ensure the largest generation of young people is equipped with relevant skills and prepared for the transition to work and engaged citizenship. As a Gen U partner, Unilever has committed to equipping 10m young people with essential skills to prepare them for job opportunities by 2030.

The initiative pivots on public-private partnerships to provide expertise in platforms for digital learning and engagement. For example, in India, where GenU is known as YuWaah!, PwC is a major partner, working with young people on economic opportunities, employability, skilling and learning, and youth engagement. Also as part of GenU, UNICEF and ILO in Brazil have recently launched 1MiO, which engages private companies and other partners to provide 1 million learning, training and employment opportunities for young people in two years through a new digital platform.

Every child, every young person – this is an ambitious agenda and, thanks to the pandemic, it is now an urgent one. Learning losses as a result of COVID-19 school closures could result in a loss of income amounting to $10 trillion, with negative impacts for growth and prosperity of the poorest countries. Ways to mitigate these losses are literally at our fingertips.

Everyone has been hit by this crisis – every country, community, school, business, charity and child. Calling for any kind of investment on top of survival and recovery is a bold thing to do, but the surest way of guaranteeing a peaceful and prosperous future is to educate the next generation. Stimulating growth from the ground up is a strategy that benefits service providers as much as it benefits the child and young person. Learning can continue for a lifetime, but it must start now.

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