• The long-term impacts of COVID-19 on young people's schooling can only be alleviated by digitalizing education.
  • Bangladesh moved fast to do so where possible, and to introduce TV-based learning for citizens without internet access.
  • This model has benefits for emerging economies that will last well beyond the pandemic itself.

One of the tragedies of the pandemic, beyond the death tolls and economic cost, is the human cost on our children and their education. At the virus’s peak, more than 90% of enrolled learners were affected by some form of school restriction, with over a billion impacted worldwide.

The short-term fight against the virus is about health. But its long-term effects can only be limited by digitalizing education, comprehensively and quickly. This is the only way to avoid a lost generation due to COVID-19, and in a ‘pandemic-aware’ world could be a permanent positive step towards educational inclusion.

We know from past experience how serious the effects of education disruption can be. Survivors of Australia’s 2009 bushfires performed worse than their peers academically for years after the event. Argentinian students who missed up to 90 days of school due to strikes were less likely to obtain a degree, more likely to be unemployed, and earned significantly less than their counterparts.

In Bangladesh we understood this, and knew that we couldn’t afford to let children, many of whom were already on the periphery of the education system, slip through the cracks.

Many of our pupils are the first generation to receive formal schooling. Between 2009 and 2017, the proportion of pre-elementary kids in school quadrupled, from 11% to 40%. We could not allow this progress to be undone and, as many feared, for boys to be sent to work and girls to be married off.

As well as the humanitarian reasons for ensuring continuity of education through technology, there is the economic argument.

Perhaps a pause in education for months, or even the best part of an academic year, is an acceptable loss for late-stage economies who are in a slow growth phase. But for Bangladesh, we have no time to lose. Bangladesh, a high-growth tiger economy, grew by 8% last year, the sixth-highest growth rate in the world, and one of the very highest for an economy of its size.

Our economy is dominated by the service sector, meaning that education is a necessary condition for continued growth.

Digitalizing education quickly, from elementary school through to universities, in a country of 170 million, is only possible if leadership comes from the very top. Leaving each district, or even each school or university, to formulate and implement their own strategy would have had catastrophic consequences, as many countries have found to their detriment.

We implemented a virtual classroom for universities, allowing lectures to continue, as well as over 35,000 multimedia classrooms for primary and secondary school pupils. These were supported by a teachers’ portal to allow teachers to assist each other as they adapted.

A pause in education could have been bad news for Bangladesh's economic growth
A pause in education could have been bad news for Bangladesh's economic growth
Image: IMF

But all of these programmes have a limiting factor: internet access to every corner of Bangladesh. Although there were 66.44 million internet users in Bangladesh in January 2020 and the number of internet users in Bangladesh increased by 5.8 million (+9.5%) between 2019 and 2020, we still haven’t reached every corner of the country.

This was where a hybrid analogue-digital strategy came into play, with the state broadcaster Sangsad Bangladesh Television broadcasting pre-recorded lessons. TVs are much more common than reliable internet connections, meaning this broadened access to education even more.

Making sure that all our children – and young adults – have access to the learning they need to fulfil their potential as individuals, and Bangladesh’s potential as one of the world’s highest growth economies, is an ongoing challenge.

Winston Churchill advised to never waste a good crisis. This pandemic has shown us that digital education is the fastest way to educate and empower a generation. It is one part of the ‘new normal’ that I believe will continue to be hugely beneficial to the world’s emerging middle class in the Global South.

Earlier this month at the Dhaka Forum I spoke alongside statesmen, ministers and policy-makers from around the world to share our experience. Just like our education syllabus, it was delivered online, and open to all.

Dr Dipu Moni is the Minister of Education of Bangladesh. Her panel at the Dhaka Forum is here.