The Children's Update Episode 1: Barriers to an Online Education

Amanda Huang
Joyce Li
Publication Year:
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being
  • SDG 4 - Quality Education
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

In response to COVID-19, governments have implemented nation-wide school closures around the world. As technology becomes the immediate solution for remote learning, the rupture of in-person education has expedited a widening gap of opportunities for children from vulnerable communities. 

On this episode of The Children’s Update, Amanda and Joyce talk with professors and non-profit organization leaders on the digital divide, discussing the numerous barriers linked to remote education. The interviewees hail from the United States of America, Kenya and Ghana, with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and bandwidths. 

This episode is the first of our four part series on Online Education During the COVID-19 Pandemic, where we explore the challenges and opportunities of educational justice.  


The Children’s Update is written and produced by Amanda Huang and Joyce Li.


Amanda is an undergraduate student at Wellesley College studying Economics. She is particularly interested in how environmental challenges drive policy in the financial and governmental spheres.

Joyce is currently an undergraduate at Wellesley College studying International Relations with a concentration in History. Her field of interest lies in children’s right to education and institutions in relation to national politics.



AMANDA HUANG: Hello! And welcome to the Children’s Update, a podcast where we discuss child-focused Sustainable Development Goals with academics, professionals, and organizations. I’m Amanda.

JOYCE LI: And I’m Joyce. 

HUANG: Today we’re sitting down with professors and organization leaders from the United States, Kenya, and Ghana. In our conversations, we examine the barriers to digital education, including resources and internet access. We will also be diving into the many creative learning solutions and opportunities that our podcast guests have introduced into their own communities during this pandemic. Okay, let’s get started.

LI: With COVID-19’s disruption on education globally, UNESCO reports that more than 1 billion children and youth will be out of schools. Technology has become the immediate solution for addressing the issues of remote learning between the Global North and South. For some, using Zoom and Google Classrooms online has become the new normal. In fact, 73% of governments out of 127 reporting countries are now using online platforms to deliver education, despite stark differences in internet and technology access. What does education look like in the 71 countries worldwide where greater than half the population lacks access to the internet? Governments and institutions have launched learning programs on national television, radio, and apps including WhatsApp and Instagram. In contrast, how has COVID-19 impacted our educators and online teaching? And, what does it look like to translate education online?


HUANG: First up, we’re speaking with Professor Jaein Lee of Wellesley College to talk about the impact of COVID-19 on students and educators. Her research focuses on the college experiences of marginalized students. She is also the faculty co-chair of the Data Wise Coach Certification Program, where she provides training for teachers in the United States, Australia, and Chile. Welcome to the podcast, Professor Lee. Your current research focuses on the experiences of college students. How do you think COVID-19 related challenges translate to children?

JAIEN LEE: Hi, thanks for having me. So if I can start from like this college student level in most recently interacting and continue to interact with many of them, is that I think the most, the biggest impact in a challenging way is on the first-gen, low income students. We talked a lot about this issue, about the opportunity gap and difficulties for first-gen, low income students, but it was like this whole COVID-19 was the moment like you actually see it in front of you really happening. So, with the outbreak, a lot of universities closed down and they were asked to go home. But we were all still like, when I say we - faculty and administrators -, we were functioning in an understanding, assumption and norm that if they go home, they can continue to study. But the reality is that a lot of the students, when they go home, they don't have a room to go back to. They actually had to start sleeping on the couch of their parents’ house. Students were relying on the campus dining hall and now they go home and they don't have food. In a lot of these times also is a moment where their parents are also losing their jobs. They become the added individual to a family that no longer has income. A lot of these students are returning to take care of their siblings, right, their younger siblings.

So given all this reality, universities will assume that they can study. Classes are still running and the idea is like oh, as long as we can teach them online, you know, they should be able to study. But the reality is that once they're removed from the education environment, the reality is no longer a place where they can study. So that has been like the biggest impact that really challenged a lot of the students that I've been interacting with. And I would say that has been kind of translating into the younger children as well. Some of the anecdotes that I hear through this college students I talked to, you know, they talk about their own siblings is that when we think of, for instance, immigrant families, low-income immigrant families, like parents are still working outside even though it is social distancing with a lot of jobs are moving from in-person working to remote working, working from home. But in a lot of cases, low income and working class families, they still continue to work outside. But their children are home. There are no adults at home, to take care of them to really join classroom meetings to the classes that they're moving into. 

This is very anecdotal, because I have a seven year old, and he tried to do some kind of Google classroom with a friend,  and the parent wasn't there to be able to help with the sound system for the student. In those cases, children who don't have parents at home to be with them to learn, are oftentimes are going to get behind in. Those are just some specific examples that figures are all still functioning under an assumption, that as long as we do this online, students should all have access. But their reality is so different. When it's one thing when you bring a student and a child to a learning space and ask for their full attention. It's another thing when students are kind of putting their own contact where so many other things are happening. And a lot of schools are actually asking studying on top of all the things that are happening, which is a very different dynamic and opportunities for some children to learn.

LI: What you brought up is extremely interesting because sometimes we compare colleges as the ‘Great Equalizer.’ In the sense that we all technically have access to the same resources, that we’re taught by the same professors, we’re presented with the same opportunities, this becomes a way to equalize everyone from different backgrounds. But clearly this isn't true. And we have seen the unfair reality exacerbate through the challenges of remote learning. Serving as the Co-Chair for the Data Wise Coach Certification Program, which supports schools to bring justice, instruction and programming, what are the challenges and opportunities presented to educators during this time?

LEE: Yeah, so one of the challenges that I noticed is that schools and states are collaboratively creating and working together is not a culture that they live yet. So they come to learn that process of ‘okay, so how, what process do we need to follow to work together?’ So if you don't have that process already in place, a lot of teachers are now left alone to do their work, right? Unless you already had a system in your school where you used to meet teachers, once a week, if you used to collaborate in projects to adjust their teaching and learning for their students. If you didn't have that system in place already, now it's becoming a challenge because you're now left alone to do the work. And we all know that schools are not all the same. And especially some schools have less infrastructure, they have weaker and less resources. So the transition from in person instruction to an online platform, it's also a challenge in itself. 

Kind of if I can add the idea of equity. I think sometimes it's hard to change when you believe that what you're doing is working okay. But I think now that they have no option but have to change. And I think it's a great opportunity to start thinking about equity, right. So if the way we've been doing has been to serve certain groups of students, I think now as they're creating new platforms, new tools and resources for their students, I think some of the questions we include, as they develop new curriculum is, whose stories are we missing, right? Who is missing in our thinking process of developing our curriculum?

We have this tendency of looking at numbers and react to numbers. But oftentimes, the most marginalized students are not included in those numbers. So if I can add another anecdote, when in the past, I used to work with districts to create college-readiness frameworks in their districts. And one of the teachers told me that one of the most struggling students in their school was South Asian students, but because their number is so small, there's a confidentiality federal policy that they cannot count the numbers if the number of students is lower than certain number. 

So then those students are completely removed from statistics. And so this teacher was telling us like we can't even get funding for the students that who most need help because they can't make it into the statistics. As we're moving online and different formats of learning and teaching, I think it's really important to kind of break the way we used to work, or even look at data, or create some new questions of like, ‘who are we not addressing?’, ‘who the normal way we used to teach is not effective to certain students?’ I think those are really important questions, and I think it's a great opportunity to incorporate ‘Equity Lens.’ That's how we call it in Data Wise and into our work, so that we can actually address and bring change to education. And so in that sense, I think I'm really excited, and I think there's a great opportunity.

HUANG: What factors impact the types of resources educators are allowed to obtain? Like you mentioned before, not all schools and institutions are built equally. Not all of them have the same funding or infrastructure. COVID-19 has greatly revealed what institutions have those resources and have the ability at least to communicate with their students. And I think the transition to online learning has really accelerated that challenge. What initially differentiates the kinds of opportunities that educators are given?

LEE: Oftentimes, people tend to put the wealthy versus poor school district in a very like, economic and socio economic terms only, which I’m not saying it’s incorrect, but I think it is time to start also thinking about, is it only just that? It's a very racially divided context as well, right? I'm sure a lot of us when we think of wealthy neighborhoods, we're thinking of very White communities. And when we think about poor school districts, we are thinking of schools with a lot higher number of students of color. When you think of a school with a lot more diversity, students need more resources, teachers need more resources to address all the different backgrounds and challenges that (inaudible at 00:10:55) students bring with them that is not only socio-economic issue, but also cultural, environmental. 

But oftentimes teachers don't have access to those. So all they end up doing is giving kind of a one-teaching way rather than kind of individualizing or providing culturally relevant teaching. In low income neighborhoods actually need more resources, not only just because they're socially and socially economically challenged, but also because of the diversity. So in that sense, I think the challenge has always been there. Now moving to an online platform, we continue with those assumptions that as long as we are teaching the same way, but in an online platform, students should be able to access them. But the reality is that now students are going to their own context that teachers are not aware. This is a part that still continues to be a challenge for a lot of schools, of not having built a relationship with community, organizations or community members. And now moving into online platform, schools really can't function by themselves. They really need extra other support to really take care of their children or their students. But if schools haven't built any relationship with communities, now they have to do all the teaching themselves. Communities are not part of this discussion of how we are going to take care of our students’ learning. 

For instance, like there has been so many research finding that talks about the reasons students of color improve their learning, is oftentimes through their community organizations such as churches, relationship with churches in ethnic community organizations. But schools oftentimes end up not working with them. So if that relationship was not there, I think schools are going to have to do everything alone where they're going to struggle to provide all those supports. And another challenge, so the transition from school closure to online learning, we all know, all the educators know by now that the gap is widening already because of this change of platform. And now there has been so many research already about that challenge of ‘summer melt,’ where students from low income families are going to experience the learning gap during this summer. So that gap is going even further widen now that the whole school closure happens earlier.


HUANG: The impact of COVID-19 on marginalized populations, particularly the youth, has really exposed us to the entrenched systems of injustice that exist right before our eyes. The question of equitable access to education becomes a great challenge for children from communities that have historically been overlooked. We rely on numbers and statistics as factual representations of the reality of things, so what happens when marginalized students are not included in those numbers? How does the choice of omitting this data shape our understanding of ways to effectively support and protect all community members?

LI: Right, and as young people, we need to know what inequality means, as well as being able to distinguish the difference between equality, equity, and justice. A visual representation I'm thinking of is Tony Ruth's version of Shel Silverstein's children's book of The Giving Tree. Imagine you see an apple tree, and two children are standing on either side of it. The tree is heavily leaning towards one child because of the unequal distribution of weight by apples. This example shows what inequality is like, because of the unequal access to opportunities. In this case, one child can get the apples, but the other doesn't. And even when two children are standing on the same ladders with the same height, equality comes into play, because of the evenly distributed tools and assistance, but it's still harder for the other child to reach because the apple tree is leaning away. What happens if one ladder is taller than the other, so now they can both easily reach and grab the apples?

HUANG: So, this would be equity, the custom tools that identify and address inequality, but the tree is still leaning more on one side to one child because of the weight of the apples. It isn't until we fix the system to offer equal access to both tools and opportunities in education, in this case a metaphor, readjusting the apple tree, so now there are the same amount of apples on both sides, and both children are on the same pedestal. This then, is justice.

LI: And now you’ll be hearing from the Dream Achievers Youth Organization, a non-profitable community-based organization in Kenya that helps empower youth through addressing social issues such as disease, poverty, and promoting education. Joining us today is DAYO’s Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Officer Gaetano Muganda, Programs Coordinator Enos Opiyo, and Finance Officer Jecinta Musau.

HUANG: Gaetano, Enos, and Jecinta, welcome to our podcast! I want to open today's discussion on the Dream Achievers Youth Organization’s programming. Many of DAYO’s programs and opportunities are aimed at disseminating and educating the youth community on issues like the lack of and access to education. How has COVID-19 impacted DAYO's response to education as well as its community outreach?

GAETANO MUGANDA: Communities and actually have first with first interactions with the community members. But after the COVID-19 outbreak, these were made impossible as we went into lockdown and also movement of  (inaudible at 00:16:43). So as DAYO, what we did, we had to be innovative. And as part of our engagement with the community, we came up with short video clips with COVID-19 messaging.

LI: What you mentioned about the videos is very interesting, because it's definitely a really great way to educate people. And of course, since digital education has now become so widespread for those who have access to digital technology, it has definitely become the new normal, for sure. Enos, as DAYO’s Program Coordinator, what does the shift of in-person programming to the digital space look like for families faced with limited resources from technology and background to formal education?

ENOS OPIYO: The challenge that's been posed by the shift or transition, a traditional classroom setup to learning with direct contact has been impacted by either the poverty levels as well that's compounding it, because then access to classroom room lessons then becomes even a challenge. If at all, they have to use the internet to access the same. Or rather if the parent doesn't have a television, you know, to begin with, or the area that they are living in doesn't have electricity. So there are a couple of other challenges that this, whatever shift, or rather the emergence of COVID-19 poses.

HUANG: Children who are excluded from online learning or technology, mainly learning on television or radio are left even more behind than their peers. Enos, you just mentioned this, beyond the pandemic, do you expect the future of DAYO’s programs to change?

OPIYO: In this area that we come from, which is Mombasa. We have a local television I think, just one, yeah. So we are working with them. We are partnering with them and are looking forward to starting a program that would then allow continuous changes to the ones in dire need, the ones that cannot be reached to. So looking at things that we have been in, which are still virtual, and then the gadgets that are required, like the forms and television sets. If DAYO’s programs are going to change to be able to address the current, you know, era where we have in the COVID-19 era, I was saying we have some platforms that we've been working with a different tests on the classroom, alternative ways of breaking down that this information that we also access that we do.

LI: In our chat inbox, we’ve received a message by Jecinta. She says that DAYO has also started to work with community libraries to ensure that children can borrow books from these institutions to learn in the convenience of their homes. Expanding on her point, I think it’s a great way to ensure that more community members are able to access resources. Programs such as this can help minimize the opportunity gap, especially for families who may not have access to technology at home.


HUANG: Despite the fact that many learners in the Global South do not have access to household computers or the internet, education continues to go on in various forms such as through radio and television. 

LI: Did you know that in Ivory Coast, the Ministry of Education, Technical and Professional Training’s efforts are encapsulated through their initiative named “École fermée, mais cahiers ouverts!”, which means “school is closed but learning goes on!”

HUANG: No I did not know that! I think it’s a great example of how different ministries of education across the Global South are working to help students and teachers get online and stay online. I know that many are working with mobile operators, telecom providers, and various other companies to increase access to digital resources, as well as working on streaming national educational programs, again through radio and through television. Now we’ll be hearing from Professor Kwabena Opoku-Agyemang of the University of Ghana on how he is communicating with students. He lectures at the department of English and is the Academic Director of the School for International Training in Ghana. His research examines the cross section of African literature, gender, and the digital platform. 

LI: Thank you for joining us today! To start off, in response to remote learning, what types of online platforms have you been using to help your students stay engaged?

KWABENA OPOKU-AGYEMANG: In the US, you are able to use Zoom and other platforms without much of a problem. Mainly because, of course I lived in the US for seven years and I know that it’s not everywhere that has stable internet, but relatively you have better access. Here, sometimes just having the gadgets and having access is a challenge. So what I have used is a mixture of WhatsApp, Instagram, and of course, Zoom. So each one, I have used for different purposes, and ultimately I try to ensure that as many students as possible come along with it and you see the change that’s necessary.

HUANG: Can you expand a little bit on that? How exactly are you using the different platforms?

OPOKU-AGYEMANG: Sure. So I'll talk about one of my favourite classes this semester, which was Introduction to African literature. So African literature is a broad, vast, expansive body of work. For instance, I wanted us to speak to musicians and poets, and performers of African literature. So what we would do then is we’d each have an Instagram Live session. And before the session we’d meet on WhatsApp, exchange ideas, and then we would go onto Instagram Live and people would ask questions. Sometimes, what we would do is we’d each just have class on WhatsApp and that could involve people sharing their voices on what they’d say, or they would type their questions and answers. And it works fine for the most part. Some students didn't like it because they felt there was too much information. Then Zoom was a regular [inaudible at 00:22:51]. 

HUANG: Did you have any immediate challenges with moving all your lessons online?

OPOKU-AGYEMANG: Yes. So actually, the University took about three weeks to adjust from offline to online, because honestly, we were not prepared for it. So and again, I think it was because students had a lot of stress and a lot of pressure in changing from one place to another. Some had to travel back to their hometown, some had to adjust to their living situation, so they weren’t able to transition immediate. Some simply may have the internet connectivity so they couldn’t come online. But what I tried to do then was record messages and record sessions and so on, but even then I also sometimes forgot to do it. So we've all had our own shortcomings and so on and so forth. But the main challenge has been a lack of internet access, but I have to acknowledge the university’s work as well, we’ve worked with local telecom providing companies. 

LI: To mitigate the inequity of accessible resources, The Ghana Chamber of Telecommunications has been providing zero rated access to essential websites. Different Ministries of Education in various parts of the Global North and South have also been working with mobile operators, telecom providers on improving connectivity through “zero-rating,” bandwidth shaping, lifting data caps and even distributing devices to communities. Can you tell us a little bit about the educational challenge that’s imposed by the regional disparity between the North and South in Ghana? And how has this been affecting your students?

OPOKU-AGYEMANG: Yes. So actually I did chat with one student who went to some parts of the North at that point and could not access the Zoom class. This, we have to have discussions and then make sure that we're all sort of up to speed. So it is a real thing. The challenge with the North is historical and it’s [inaudible at 00:24:49], it’s where the British had their intentional policy to not develop the North, and up to today they’re struggling to push that gap. But it’s real and has all kinds of historical, cultural and economic implication issues.

LI: Considering that younger students are much less autonomous or capable with their own education, can you tell us how the government of Ghana helped facilitate with these challenges?

OPOKU-AGYEMANG: So what happened was the high schools were also closed down. And then they started having classes via television [inaudible at 00:25:31]. So that was, I think easier for people to access because there is more access to the media than there is to the internet. So people were able to watch maths, social studies, history lessons, and they were able to adapt. But I think one of the things that we haven't talked about as much has been the social implications of the problem, because it has disrupted [inaudible at 00:26:02]. A lot of people seem to assume that you have to live a normal life out of this, but it’s really not possible. You have to re-adjust. It is also important to investigate alternative modes of [inaudible at 00:26:17]. In other words, something like the Internet has to be made more accessible, has to be made, it has to be made much more reliable. It needs to have [inaudible at 00:26:30]. And that makes it easier for people to adjust to the new normal. 


LI: Professor Opoku-Agyemang brought up the critical question of what a “normal life” actually is, either before, during, or after COVID-19. This idea of a so-called new normal following pandemic presents itself as an opportunity to be more inclusive and just in the policies, education, and social practices that shape our everyday lives. 

HUANG: He gives some examples towards the end of our conversation on what can be improved… things like greater accessibility to reliable internet is so important when we talk about what education looks like in the future. Leveraging all of the tools available to us, and not just working on a single platform is definitely a starting point. But circling back to Professor Opoku-Agyemang’s last point, though, I think we really need to get to the root of the challenge which is a stable and accessible internet for all. To wrap up this episode, Joyce and I would like to leave you some food for thought. If you are safe and able to do so, we encourage you to engage in your school community, whether that be primary, secondary, or even post-secondary education. Talk to one another about the types of lessons you are learning, where that material comes from, and how education can be better shaped to reach greater numbers.

LI: How do you deal with injustice in education? How do we define learning outside of the classroom? And finally, how can we use the youth voice to demand greater action? 

HUANG: The Children’s Update is produced and edited by Amanda Huang and Joyce Li. Special thanks to Jaein Lee, Gaetano Muganda, Enos Opiyo, Jecinta Musau, and Kwabena Opoku-Agyemang. And remember to check out the Global Development Commons, UNICEF’s first crowdsourced digital platform. Thanks for listening! 


And here’s where you can learn more about the ideas, and the amazing people we talked to in this episode: 




The Children’s Update cover art is designed by Angela Huang.


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