Blog/Opinion

Education reimagined: Bridging the digital divide for vulnerable children in Serbia

Author:
Ana Susa
Source:
United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
Contributor:
Publication Year:
2020
  • SDG 4 - Quality Education
  • SDG 9 - Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

Belgrade, Serbia, 16 October 2020 – The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the weaknesses and limited digital literacy of the education system not only in Serbia but everywhere, while also accelerating previously unthinkable innovations and digitalization in the education sector.

Schools in Serbia closed in mid-March 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak and remained closed for the rest of the school year. Teachers, students and parents were thrown into unknown territory having to adapt to distance learning and adopting digital tools as the “new normal” practically overnight. While many children and families have managed to cope with the sudden shift, the reliance on online learning tools and platforms also exposed and exacerbated existing social inequalities and weaknesses in the education system, leaving many children as well as teachers behind.

According to the latest data from the Ministry of Education, as many as 1 in 4 children belonging to vulnerable groups (including Roma children and children with disabilities) were unable to participate in distance learning activities due to the lack of appropriate equipment and lack of learning support in their homes or institutions.

To make sure no child is left behind, increased efforts are needed to make sure all children have access to digital learning tools and platforms, and can acquire the necessary skills and competencies that will enable them to participate in the future of learning and bridge the digital divide the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed.

While schools have reopened for the new school year across Serbia, learning continues to take place through blended approaches, where 257,000 primary school-aged students are fully attending school-based classes, while the remaining 485,000 lower and upper secondary school students continue to learn partially from home and partially in schools to respect the safe school standards and physical distancing norms. Both the future of work and learning is becoming increasingly digitalized. Empowering all children and young people, particularly the most disadvantaged to have equal opportunities to learn regardless of the modality, will contribute towards the necessary society-wide “digital revolution”.

Education technology has been strongly supported by the Government of Serbia in recent years and constitutes a significant part of the government’s education reform strategy which aims to prepare all children for the necessary 21st century skills, including by using digital technology, and hence one of the prominent features of the newly adopted curriculum currently is the strong emphasis placed on the development of digital competencies and use of digital technologies in teaching and learning processes.

UNICEF, with the generous support of the European Union, will support the government’s efforts to bridge the digital divide for some of the most vulnerable children across the country through innovative strategies that will stretch from policy engagement, education system support, provision of open source educational resources and technical equipment, as well as school-based activities aimed at improving learning outcomes of children. Through the project, support will be provided towards the establishment of “Education Digital Libraries” and “learning clubs” in selected “at risk” schools, and additional support will be provided to learning for Roma children alongside with the provision of psycho-social support services. It is hoped to ultimately increase the number of Roma children and other deprived children benefiting from distance learning, decreasing learning loss and increase of learning outcomes for all.

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