East Asia and the Pacific: Spearheading digital transformation of education

Maida Pasic
United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
Publication Year:
November 13, 2020
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being
  • SDG 4 - Quality Education

How can digital technologies help transform education systems and prepare students for the future? And, how can we institutionalize and scale up digital learning and narrow down the digital divide for the most marginalized children?

These were questions posed at the virtual High-Level Ministerial Conference on Digital Transformation of Education Systems throughout Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), held on 15 October. Organized by the Ministry of Education of Vietnam, UNICEF Vietnam, UNICEF EAPRO and the ASEAN Secretariat, the event brought together Education Ministers of 10 ASEAN countries[1], private sector, academia, development partners and young people, to discuss how education systems can be made more resilient through digital transformation and fostering digital literacy and transferable skills.


Although East Asia and the Pacific has the fastest growing internet penetration in the world, the education response to COVID-19 has revealed deep digital divides between and in countries based on gender, geography, income, and abilities. Many students in the region lack internet access, devices and adequate digital literacy. Teachers are largely unfamiliar with new technologies and lack training to effectively utilize the new tools.

“Providing every child and adolescent access to the internet in a safe and responsible way can be a powerful equalizer to human resources development," said UNICEF Regional Director, Karin Hulshof, at the start of the Conference "This can be a real game changer and transform the lives of millions of children.”

Ministers of Education, private sector partners and young people went on to describe the challenges in ensuring continuity of learning for all students during the pandemic. They also recognized that the new approaches are needed to accelerate access to digital opportunities and transform the ways in which students learn and are taught.

Providing every child and adolescent access to the internet in a safe and responsible way can be a powerful equalizer to human resources development.

An important example of how this can be done came from the host government, Vietnam, who with UNICEF’s support began development of the Digital Skills Framework long before the pandemic.

“We have worked with the Ministry of Education to integrate digital literacy and transferrable skills in the national curriculum since early 2019,” explained Simone Vis, UNICEF Education Chief in Vietnam. “We started with the premise that digital skills are new foundational skills but went beyond that. "In Vietnam, we are ensuring that children and adolescents are prepared for a world where digital is not only a skill, but a way of thinking and exploring the world.“

This close collaboration accelerated during the pandemic as the government realized that the digital divide was leaving many of its 21 million students without access to distance education. 

UNICEF Vietnam spearheaded the work on digital literacy by engaging multiple stakeholders. The Country Office (CO) attracted private sector partners, such as SAP, Viettel and Microsoft, with whom they work on accessibility, availability and affordability of digital learning solutions. The CO has also focused on facilitating experimentation of cutting-edge, scalable TechEd innovations with and for children and adolescents at all school levels, starting as early as preschool. 

From UNICEF Vietnam’s close cooperation with the Ministry emerged the idea of a joint event that would seek to promote cohesion and responsiveness between ASEAN member states to meet the opportunities and challenges of the rapidly transforming economic landscape, as well as COVID-19 and future emergencies. The Conference concluded with the signing of the Joint Ministerial Statement that emphasized the commitment to work towards fostering digital literacy, developing transferable skills and creating access to safe digital learning opportunities for all children and adolescents.

The Conference is an example of the high-level regional partnership promoted by UNICEF Regional and Country teams.

“Flexible models of education delivery are the future of the education system; and digital technology is one of the most powerful enablers of improved learning and equity,” said Francisco Benavides, UNICEF EAP Regional Education Adviser. “UNICEF has committed to support the development of the ASEAN Declaration on Digital Transformation of Education Systems in 2021, which places us in a unique position to work hand in hand with ASEAN Secretariat and partners to support governments in meeting the challenges and the opportunities of the ‘new normal’."

 With this event, UNICEF’s work on education and digital technologies in EAP has gained a new impetus.

“We recognize that we have established a baseline for our digital transformation today, as we strive for the best of online- combined with the human-centered learning,” said Rana Flowers, UNICEF Representative in Vietnam.

She invited the Minsters to make accelerated efforts in the next years to connect every child to the world.

[1] Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.


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