What does the rise of online learning during COVID-19 mean for Southeast Asia?

Photo: Pikist

As schooling shifts online amid the COVID-19 crisis, there is a dire need for a more holistic approach to internet policymaking. Unless governments provide key internet services, education gaps will widen in Southeast Asia.

By Umair Jamal

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to mass school and university closures worldwide. Southeast Asian states are no different: the impact on the region’s education sector has been overwhelming.  

Like the rest of the world, the educational institutions in Southeast Asia are embracing virtual and distance learning.

However, the sudden shift to online schooling has raised concerns about whether Southeast Asia’s education systems are equipped for such a quick scale-up of digital learning.

There is a digital divide in Southeast Asia that runs across gender, income and geographic and social lines, with many lacking access to internet, computers or key technical skills.

If the existing digital divide is left unaddressed, there are fears that the internet will worsen the marginalization of already disadvantaged groups and widen educational gaps in the region.

Is Southeast Asia ready for online learning?

As millions of students suffer from school closures due to COVID-19, countries in Southeast Asia are rushing to deploy technologies and find alternative solutions.    

The last few years have seen extraordinary growth in internet access and mobile phone use in many Southeast Asian countries.

Southeast Asia’s people are considered the most engaged internet users in the world. According to a report from Google, there are at least 360 million internet users in Southeast Asia and around 90% of them connect to the internet mainly via their mobile devices. The region’s internet economy reached US$100 billion in sales in 2019 and the figure is expected to triple by 2025.

This is a remarkable feat compared to many other regions and the growth in internet and mobile use is now an asset during the pandemic. This also means that Southeast Asia has mobile and internet infrastructure in place if the region’s governments decide to improve access to quality internet across the region. 

Has COVID-19 exposed Southeast Asia’s digital divide?

Internet access in Southeast Asia has been far from homogenous. For example, in 2017, around 55% of people on average used the internet in Southeast Asian countries.

Only three countries in Southeast Asia have over 80% internet penetration, with Singapore leading the race followed by Brunei and Malaysia. Other countries in the region had less than 60% internet penetration in 2019, such as Indonesia at 56%, Thailand at 57%, Myanmar at 39% and Vietnam at 38%, according to civil rights organization Freedom House. According to an International Monetary Fund (IMF) report, more than 70% of people in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos and Myanmar still had no access to internet services as of 2017.

Additionally, there is a serious gap in data collection when it comes to indicators of internet access. The lack of such information limits information about real-time connectivity gaps across different geographic locations in Southeast Asia. For instance, data on Myanmar’s internet usage remains limited. Whatever information is available publicly focuses primarily on “connectivity rather than citizen internet use and internet regulations,” according to an internet policy project at the University of Pennsylvania in the US.

Besides, the underdevelopment of fixed broadband networks in some Southeast Asian countries is partially due to a lack of modern infrastructure such as electricity. According to an International Energy Agency (IEA) report, in Southeast Asia “An estimated 65 million people remain without electricity and 250 million are reliant on solid biomass as a cooking fuel.” As of 2016, only 57% of people in Myanmar and 50% in Cambodia had access to electricity.

In countries with large rural populations and mountainous terrain, measuring internet coverage accurately may be misleading. For example, according to Cambodia’s telecommunication regulator, 99% of the population was covered by 2G networks and 84% was covered by 3G networks in 2017. However, according to government data from the same year, only 73.7% of the country’s area was covered by 2G and only 29.5% was covered by 3G.

Affordability remains another important issue in access to quality internet in Southeast Asia. Income inequality has grown in Indonesia, Laos, Singapore and Vietnam during the last few years. A report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) argues that “internet prices are high relative to income levels and wealth distribution, especially for the most economically disenfranchised segments of the population.” This is perhaps one of the reasons that demand for lower data costs remains one of the key complaints of internet users in Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia’s rural populations experience a substantial digital divide that is characterized by a lack of availability and reduced choice. “This divide stems from the generally higher investment costs needed to establish communication infrastructures in rural areas compared to the cost in urban locations,” noted the OECD report.

Photo: Pixfuel

Analyzing trends of affordability and rural-urban divides in developing countries, Julian Thomas, a communications expert at Australia’s RMIT University, says that “The cost of Internet access can be prohibitive for low-income families, and the infrastructure and services necessary for everyone to be able to use the Internet at home [are] unevenly distributed across urban, rural and remote areas.”  

“We recognize that in government schools, many students are first-generation learners, so parents may not be able to help much. Nor does every student have access to a smartphone or tablet,” Julian added further.

Even as internet access grows in southeast Asia, women continue to be disproportionately left behind. Many Southeast Asian countries also face issues related to freedom of speech on the internet. Many governments have imposed online regulations, barring open discussions on subjects of academic interest. In some cases, frequent internet shutdowns have become a routine.

All these issues do not bode well for online learning during a pandemic. Simply announcing a move to online classes is not going to automatically result in universal access to quality internet.

What can Southeast Asia do to fix its digital divide?

To cope with the growing educational crisis due to COVID-19, policymakers in Southeast Asia will need to look at key data on the availability of internet for students.

This is how a recent report from the EdTech Hub described the crisis: “Currently, developing countries do not have a sense of how to reach every child (what technology is available within each household), where the gaps are (how much each child has fallen behind), what is effective (what EdTech works in their local context: local-level solutions that schools, communities, and teachers designed to support the provision of education during the crisis) and what can improve equity (to overcome persistent problems of access to education).”

Logically, the next feasible step is to map the connectivity and learning needs of students and teachers.

Governments across the region need to devise policies regarding online teaching.

Southeast Asian countries should start working on setting standards for data privacy and security related to online systems used for education. Effective monitoring and security systems should be put in place to prevent data piracy and hacking efforts.

Governments must also address the barriers to equal internet access and mobile devices for women. States need to introduce laws to prevent online harassment and violence, particularly of female students.

Teachers across the region may lack sufficient technology and digital skills. Thus, training for teachers and students on technology and practices is also necessary.

The availability of high-speed internet should be made essential across the region. All Southeast Asian countries need to allocate separate funds to address the question of affordability for low-income and poor families. To this end, meeting the needs of students in rural areas should be the foremost priority.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15