More access means more equality

Sal Khan, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Khan Academy, one of the world's largest free online education providers, was hugely impressed by the rapid adoption of digital learning technologies during the lockdown. He believes it helped 'level up' the playing field for many students, giving more young people the opportunity to pursue higher education and a professional career. "It's about access," says Khan. "Learning does not have to be bound by time and space anymore. Online classes have no logistical barriers. A global connection is completely possible, and, thanks to a simple recording function, classes can be accessed in any time zone."

Online education creates better conversations in the classroom

According to a report from the Inside Higher Ed Student Voice survey, remote students feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts in class than those studying in person. Some educational experts believe this could be the biggest lesson learned from online education during the pandemic. An intellectually diverse classroom environment exposes students to ideas and opinions that differ from their own, encouraging them to develop important soft skills like empathy, cooperation, and negotiation. Moreover, a more welcoming and tolerant classroom can give all students, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, or sexuality, the confidence to speak up against preconceived notions and speak up about what matters to them.

Better teaching through technology

Many countries are struggling with teacher shortages, especially in core subjects such as science, mathematics, and computer science. Experts believe long working hours and relatively low pay are deterring many talented graduates from taking up teaching. For example, in the UK, many newly qualified teachers regularly work over 60 hours a week, with much of that time taken up by administrative tasks. Online learning can change this. Educational tools like Edmodo can automate many of these repetitive and time-consuming tasks, giving teachers the time to focus on what really counts - helping children learn.  It might not be too long before teachers are getting even more the form of robots. There have been various moves to implement robotics in the classroom. For instance, a team of researchers from Plymouth University has created a humanoid robot that can learn to become a useful classroom assistant by working alongside a human teacher for just three hours. "Using robots to help in a classroom setting can provide consistent support to all pupils, in a way that teachers can trust,” says lead developer Professor Tony Belpaeme.

Preparing all students for the future of work

Whether it's robotics, AI, data science, or software engineering, the future's most exciting and lucrative industries will be digitally based. So it's vital all young people are given a chance to get the skills and tools they need to succeed in the future of work. Some schools and universities are playing their part by providing laptops and other devices to students who can't afford their own. At the same time, companies and charities are offering free digital skills classes for educators, teachers, and parents. Earlier this year, Verizon Innovative Learning HQ expanded its online education portal to include courses on digital design, 3D printing, computer game design, and coding. Verizon aims to provide digital skills training to 10 million young people by 2030.

Investing in infrastructure and people

Verizon's plans to provide free digital skills training are part of a much larger project to bridge the 'digital divide.' The Citizen Verizon initiative includes giving one million small businesses the resources to establish a digital presence by 2030 and a $3 billion wireless infrastructure investment to connect people in rural communities to the digital network. Verizon Innovative Learning is also resuming its STEM learning programs for Young Men of Color and Rural Young Women. The year-round programs, which can now be done remotely, give 5,000 young people from underrepresented groups an opportunity to learn digital skills and explore career options in STEM subjects.

Digital development in Cambodia

Cambodia's adoption of virtual learning tools was recognized by the international community earlier this year when the nation's Virtual Angkor project won the 2021 Digital Humanities and Multimedia Studies Prize. Using innovative virtual reality technology, the Virtual Angkor project has recreated the spectacular ancient Cambodian metropolis of Angkor at the height of the Khmer empire's power and influence in 1300. Designers also created a learning app about the tragic events that blighted the country during the Khmer Rouge's brutal rule from 1975-1979. These digital platforms are ensuring that younger generations of Cambodians understand their country's past. Familiarizing young Cambodians with digital technologies from an early age is also the first step to creating highly-skilled tech entrepreneurs who can help Cambodia thrive in what experts are calling the fourth industrial revolution.

Putting students in charge of their education

Lindsay Tan is a design ecologist and Associate Professor of Interior Design at Auburn University. Like many teachers, Lindsay was worried that virtual classes would dilute the learning experience. However, she soon realized they can open up new opportunities for teachers and students. "I pre-recorded lecture videos and used Top Hat to distribute the lecture slides and weekly homework assignments," says Lindsay.  "My students really appreciated the flexibility of online learning. It meant they could balance their personal life with their education. And it helped them feel a sense of belonging and ownership of their education, even though many things were happening outside of their control. And it helped me ensure an equitable learning experience for everyone. I think online learning has empowered all of us."

Connecting the developing world

Around 60% of the world's population has no access to the internet. As such, over 4.5 billion people are still excluded from any form of online learning. Learning Equality is on a mission to change that. Set up in 2012, this nonprofit educational technology company provides low-cost computer hardware and free, open-source platforms to those most in need, including children in rural schools, orphanages, community centers, and refugee camps.

Learning Equality's newest platform, Kolibri, connects to thousands of free mathematics, languages, and literacy lessons. There are also special courses that encourage young girls in developing countries to pursue professional careers. Learning Equality recently sent 2,000 tablets loaded with lessons to school teachers in Uganda. These devices are ensuring children can continue their education while the country battles against COVID-19. They're also equipping young Ugandans with digital skills. "These devices are so important for us," says Micah Egessa, a 26-year-old secondary school teacher working in Uganda. "They help me do my job better, and they're rapidly improving the children's computer skills and boosting their creativity.”

There is still a long way to go in creating a world everyone deserves. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we learn forever, and it looks like it will be a change for the better...