“We live 4 kilometers away from Bugant soum (Selenge province) and have to drive around 2 kilometers towards soum to receive mobile network signal. When we start receiving 4G signal, we stop the car and my daughter begins her online classes” said a herder mother in the news report that went viral recently in Mongolia.
This became a reality for many people when Mongolia fully shifted the public education to online/tele mode in early 2020 due to COVID-19 pandemic preventative measures. This shift is reinforcing the gap between those who have access to online education and those who do not, widening what is commonly referred to as “digital divide.”
Conventionally, digital divide means inequality in access to internet connection, digital devices, and their affordability. One must overcome the primary challenge of access to obtain the “digital literacy” which can be best described as the skills and capacity to fully utilize digital services including accessing information, communicating and collaborating with each other, creating digital contents, and protecting one’s own digital privacy.
For many low-income and rural students, absence of high-speed internet connection and lack of computer pose significant barriers to their education. Even if they have access to the device, most of them simply cannot afford the internet connection or live far from the network area.
UNDP Mongolia’s Accelerator Lab wanted to understand the challenges faced by the students and educators alike and interviewed five people living in rural areas. For a college senior Sergelen, internet access became a real issue since he returned to his soum following the lockdown in Ulaanbaatar. His soum is not connected to high speed internet and he must rely on his cellular data. Though the cellular carrier is trying to support the students with academic data plans, Sergelen often runs out of data as his current plan covers only one full lecture length. He feels uneasy to ask his parents to buy more data every few days.
Even for those who had somewhat stable internet connection at home, learning is still difficult. Another student, Zulaa, must share the family’s only laptop with her sibling, who is also a college freshman. Government of Mongolia provides televised lessons to secondary school students, but not for college students. She has no choice but to attend classes using her cellphone. Unfortunately, such learning experience simply not encouraging. Moreover, she spends more time on household chores such as helping parents with cattle, fetching water, and other activities rather than studying since she is at home.
Medical college senior Badamaa feels that some complex education such as medicine cannot be obtained completely online. Her profession needs a tailored approach and in-person practice which online session cannot provide. In addition, she left most of her books and learning materials in Ulaanbaatar as she hoped that the lockdown won’t last long. She misses the library where she could concentrate on her study, work on the assignments, and borrow books and other resources she needs. She said, “Here, I can hardly find books and other materials for my studies. The library database doesn’t provide opportunities to access and view relevant materials. I find that merely listening to lectures is not enough to understand and fully grasp the subject.”
“Absolutely,” says college assistant professor Khurlee agreeing with Badamaa. “And it becomes additional task for us to help the students to troubleshoot some of their problems, prepare additional contents, and customize the classes. State-owned universities and colleges have some financial support from the government to ease some burden. But for private colleges like ours, there is no such support, and we spend many extra hours and our own resources.”
Today, digital skills became one of the fundamental skills such as reading and writing. So, UNDP Mongolia’s Accelerator Lab is asking ourselves what we could do to ensure digital transformation benefits and empowers the most without leaving no one behind.
To support the Government of Mongolia’s commitment to become a Digital Nation, the Accelerator Lab is working with the Communication and Information technology Authority to develop a National Program on “Supporting the digital skills and education.” The program will focus on specific activities to improve the digital access, fill in the digital literacy gaps of the vulnerable groups including people with disabilities, elderly, rural and low-income households. The support also included analysis and testing of an internationally comparable digital literacy assessment framework to come up with a reliable data on digital literacy levels.
While the promise and potential of the digital transformation is appealing, it is also important to ensure that such benefits are enjoyed by all Mongolian people without further increasing the existing inequality. The road ahead for inclusive and equal digital society remains long and collective effort and commitment towards this common goal is now more important than ever.