Students And Covid-19: Accelerate New Tech Adoption In Education

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) reported that as of March 4, 11 countries and the Chinese administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau had shut down all schools, affecting 290.5 million students from pre-kindergarten through Grade 12. These countries are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, China, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Kuwait and Lebanon.

The number of students affected by the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) will go up, as the eight countries that earlier implemented localized school closures are contemplating nationwide closures, and as Covid-19 hits more countries. These countries are France, Germany, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, the United Kingdom, the United States and Vietnam. Unesco estimated that another 180 million more children might be out of school on three continents soon.

While temporary school closures as a result of health and other crises are not new, the scale and speed of current educational disruption are unparalleled. “We are working with countries to assure the continuity of learning for all, especially disadvantaged children and youth who tend to be the hardest hit by school closures,” Unesco Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a statement.

The unprecedented city lockdowns, extended public holidays, closure of schools and quarantines implemented in many countries to slowdown the transmission of Covid-19 have accelerated the adoption of new technology to keep life running on the epidemic. This article is the first in a series on accelerating technology adoption in various aspects of our lives under Covid-19.

Distance learning through electronic media has been around for many years. The earlier approach method was to record class materials in a medium such as audiotapes in the 1970s to 1980s and VHS tapes or VCD in the 1990s. The setup required teaching material reaching the student in advance and little interaction between the teacher and students.

This teaching method was used mostly in short-term professional courses or used to supplement regular classroom learning for higher year students in specified subjects that did not require much teacher-student interaction.

The rise of the internet in the 21st century allows distance learning to go online and permit some interactions between the teacher and students. But the limited bandwidth and transmission speed available in the earlier generation of wireline and wireless connection limited its usage; the video picture looked jerky and audio sound output was broken with echo. The facilities available at that time were such that they seem more suited for a conference than for educational purposes.

The steady improvement of wireline bandwidth and the advent of 4G in the 2010s significantly improved the online experience; and schools in developed counties expanded the usage of online material in recent years. But the problems of disrupted connection, jerky pictures and broken sound were not eliminated. Online teaching still could not compare to classroom learning, particularly for lower year students; most of the schools just used online education as a supplement to regular classes and syllabus suitable for online teaching were not available for most of the subjects.

The attitude toward online teaching changed under Covid-19, particularly in China. The steady improvement in wireline transmission speed in recent years mandated by the government and the upgrade of the wireless system to 4G+ and 5G have improved the user experience in using online education — with the video and audio issue of jerky picture, broken sound minimized.

More importantly, the teachers under quarantine in lockdown cities have time to transfer their erstwhile classroom teaching material from classroom-offline-setting to online-delivery. Many technology companies that sensed the new trend of teaching platform migrating to online have started working on developing a modern education-centric platform using the available and forthcoming technology in 5G. The low latent time advantage of 5G, which allows real-time interaction between teacher and student, suddenly makes the new online education application become a significant new use case in 5G.
Covid-19 has infected more than 100,000 people across almost 100 countries globally, and close to 3,500 had died as of March 6. China first detected the disease on the last day of 2019, and the virus was primarily confined to China until the first half of February. Reports of global viral spread accelerated in the second half of February. China’s new confirmed case number dropped below 100 as of March 7, a significant decrease from an average of 2,000 when the disease peaked in February, and it expects that the epidemic in China will likely be manageable by the end of April. Other countries such as the US, South Korea, Italy, Iran and Japan have yet to see the peak of infection. The speedy geographic spread of the Covid-19 affected many students globally.

The Chinese government realized that some poor students do not possess the computer or digital tools to handle the shift to online education. There are talks of helping poor students to acquire computers when the schools resume classes. The Chinese government also announced that it would push for accelerated 5G-investment as a part of the economic recovery stimulus after Covid-19.

The increasing role of online education to supplement regular schooling will improve the educational outcome of Chinese students, and their experience will likely be emulated around the world. The steady improvement of Chinese students’ performance in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) throughout the years and its topping the test in PISA 2018 had caught the attention of the world. Its new online education experience accelerating the adoption of new communication technology to supplement regular classroom learning online is an unintended, game-changing benign result of the Covid-19.

A similar version was published in Manila Times on March 8, 2020. We welcome logical feedback and possibly working together with compatible frameworks. (

Dr. Henry Chan is a development economist based in Singapore. He is also a senior visiting research fellow at the Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace and adjunct research fellow at IDSI. His primary research interest includes global economic development, Asean-China relations and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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