The COVID-19 outbreak in 2019 made the international community face a new threat and shut down governments in various forms, including closing schools, universities, and educational centers. The pandemic effectively caused the largest interruption of the education system in history, affecting approximately 1.6 billion learners in over 190 countries worldwide.
Based on the significance of the right to education as one of the fundamental instances of human rights in several international instruments, this article looks at the learners’ access to cyberspace in rich and poor countries under COVID-influenced conditions. This means the shutdown of conventional education and the establishment of online education. Furthermore, it also examines online education in Iran, as a special case study, which is this author’s personal concern as an academic in this country.
Unequal access to online education
The COVID-19 pandemic and the compulsory adherence to online education have underlined the problem of unequal access to technology and the Internet in the context of education. The ability of countries to respond to the shutdown of the conventional education system and foster online education is a direct function of the involved governments’ development. For instance, in the second quarter of 2020, 86% of children in countries with low human development were deprived of primary education compared to 20% in countries with very high human development. More than a third of the world’s schoolchildren have been deprived of access to remote learning due to infrastructural shortages, UNICEF report says.
Accordingly, learners in third-world countries suffered the most damage in the COVID-19 crisis due to the absence of nationwide Internet access, lack of facilities to connect to remote learning systems, such as phones and tablets due to penury, lack or zero familiarity of educators with online teaching environments. Meanwhile, Iran, as a country facing the most severe economic U.S. sanctions at the same time as the unbridled COVID-19 outbreak, has to deal with unimaginable online education problems.
About 3.5 million students have no smartphones or access to the Internet, says an advisor to the Minister of Education and head of the Shad Network (a domestic, online, public learning platform). Also, about 3.2 million students have been deprived of access to this platform, an equivalent of 21% of the students and the difference of 300,000 is related to students who have borrowed smart devices from others to learn. The platform faces several drawbacks: slow login function, software bugs, lack of access to appropriate tools, and going out of service in response to high user traffic. Amid the crisis, some other unbelievable events, such as the suicide of several students because of not having smart mobile phones and tablets, were occasionally covered by the media.
A fundamental right
The right to education is one of the fundamental instances of human rights, a right that directly affects the understanding of individuals of the other rights they have and empowers them. For instance, as indicated by public good and one of the goals of the 17 SDGs, when the education system falls apart, the peace and prosperity of the communities will be severely interrupted.
However, the right to access the Internet and cyberspace is recognized under the right to freedom of expression as one of the fundamental rights of all human beings, says Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Without Internet access to facilitate economic development and the well-being of large groups of human rights, developing countries further fall behind. In the pandemic time, with the formation of online education, these two rights are particularly conjoined. Thus, to expand the definition of the right to education, this right will include the right to access to cyberspace and Internet connection, the removal of barriers to using the Internet, and access to the necessary equipment for connection.
To support countries in this effort for ensuring the right to education, different international organisations, as the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills and the World Bank Group Education Global Practice, are combining their expertise to provide the countries with information and resources from around the world on the education response to the crisis.
However, these measures have been insufficient. Therefore, following the goals set in UNESCO’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, more developed countries should prevent the education deprivation of students worldwide as widely as possible by providing technical assistance for the development of Internet bandwidth, removal of access barriers to the Internet, tackling online education challenges and sending humanitarian assistance in the form of smart devices (phones, tablet) for students in underprivileged areas.
Nazanin Baradaran is an Assistant Professor of International Law at the Islamic Azad University, Shiraz, Iran.