The Covid-19 pandemic has increased our reliance on the internet and accelerated the use of digital technologies, not least in the field of education. Practically overnight, the right to education has become dependent on connectivity. Yet, half of all primary and secondary school-age children worldwide lack internet connections at home, and almost half of the world’s population residing in areas lacking internet network coverage live in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).
Mobile technology provides internet access
In SSA, the diffusion of mobile technology has taken place against the backdrop of a very limited pre-existing communication infrastructure. Due to the lack of fixed phone lines and high-speed internet cabling, mobile phones are the most common way to access the internet and social media, significantly improving the information and communication potential. For this reason, it has been argued that the expansion of mobile technology has had considerable economic and social effects on the lives of African citizens, particularly on the poor and very poor. On top of the global digital divide between countries, there are important gaps in internet coverage and usage within countries, associated with factors such as area of residence, socioeconomic status, gender and age.
While the pandemic has given the impact of ICT on education a new sense of urgency, the issue is much broader and clearly pre-dates Covid-19. Following the focus on universal primary education in the Millennium Development Goals, most developing countries have seen a rapid increase in enrollment rates. However, as has become evident in the ensuing discussion in academic and policy circles, schooling is not the same as learning, and a large share of children in low-income countries complete their primary education lacking basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills. This ‘learning crisis’ is reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals, which has shifted focus from the number of students enrolled to ensuring ‘inclusive and quality education for all’ (SDG 4).
The effect of ICT on educational outcomes
New technologies could help circumvent constraints to human capital accumulation in developing countries. However, there is no reason to expect that the spread of ICT has an identical impact on the educational outcomes for all those who are affected by it. Even if the effects were found to be positive on average, some individuals or groups may lag behind or even be worse off.
In this project, we plan to study the effect of the spread of ICT to areas where mobile phones or the internet were not previously available. The economic impact of this digital development can have important indirect effects on the inputs in the educational production function. When the spread of ICT has positive effects on the income level in an area, parents can afford more and better food and health care for their children, thus alleviating the constraint that malnutrition places on children’s learning capacity. At the same time, an upturn in local labor market conditions, specifically in the demand for educated people, could mean that the outside options for (potential) teachers improve, which could negatively impact on educational quality via lower teacher quality and effort.
An important aspect of digital development is the stepwise introduction of 2G, 3G/4G, and fiber cable infrastructure. These technologies have significantly different implications in terms of internet speed and possibilities for interaction and information access online. The spread of 2G, 3G/4G, and fiber cable will therefore be key factors in our study of digital development and educational outcomes and inequalities in SSA.
The project will contribute to two main strands of literature. First, it will add to the literature on the transformative impacts of the spread of ICT in developing countries, which focuses on a broad range of outcomes, but to the best of our knowledge has not yet explored educational outcomes and inequalities. Second, it will contribute to the part of the education literature that focuses on the impact of ICT investments, which consists mainly of (experimental) studies focusing on individual school interventions.