Covid-19 emphasizes the need to bridge the digital divide and reduce online educational inequality

Dr. Saowaruj Rattanakhamfu

Amid the Covid-19 global outbreak, governments around the world, including Thailand, have put in place “semi-lockdown” and social distancing measures to stop the spread of the virus. This leads to the closing of public places, including universities, to prevent social gathering. Universities have, consequently, turned to online teaching so that students can study even at home.

However, transitioning to online classes is not easy for every student in Thailand because a number of them do not have access to computers, whether desktop or portable versions, tablets, and the Internet in order to study from home. These students usually come from low-income families, which are severely affected by this transition despite the fact that they should have benefited the most from human capital development.

Digital divide in Thailand

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a greater problem faced by households in Thailand than a poor Internet accessibility is having no computers to use at home. Compared to countries around the world, only 21% of Thai households have computers, which is lower than the global average of 49% and the developing countries’ average of 38%. Meanwhile, the proportion of Thai households with home Internet access is 68%, which is higher than the global average of 55 percent and the developing countries’ average of 44% in 2018.

The ability to afford a computer is even lower for poor households. According to the National Statistical Office of Thailand in 2017, of all households in the country, only 3% of households with average annual income of less than 200,000 baht have Internet-connected computers, and 19% of households with an average annual income of 200,000 baht or more have Internet-connected computers. If classified by region, Bangkok has the highest proportion of households with computers, 42% of all households, which is more than double of that in other regions: 21% in the central region, 19% in the north, 17% in the south, and 14% in the northeast.

The digital divide widens the educational inequality through online learning.

As universities transition to online learning due to the Covid-19 outbreak, the digital divide will have a huge impact on the access to education, especially for students without computers and home Internet. The transition from classroom learning to online classes will leave many students, particularly those from poor families, behind.

According to the Office of Higher Education Commission in 2017, of nearly 1.9 million diploma-level and degree-level students in higher educational institutions in Thailand, at least 25% of them are from households with an average annual income of less than 200,000 baht.

Before the outbreak of Covid-19, the students from poor families without computers or the Internet at home could still access computers and the Internet at their universities or internet cafes. Closing the campuses and changing to online learning, therefore, deprive some students of their means to participate in online classes. From interviews with some university professors, students who do not have computers at home had to gather in the apartments of their friends who have computers and the Internet. This can increase the risk of infection if the outbreak recurs.

Current support measures do not really benefit students who have to study online.

The Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation issued a notice requesting cooperation from agencies and institutions of higher education to enforce measures to help those affected, such as reducing tuition fees for the upcoming semester, providing online learning platforms for universities and students, or discussing with the Internet service providers to organize special priced packages for teachers and students. Many universities put in place measures to help students; for example Chulalongkorn University and Thammasat University give out Internet SIM cards for students. King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang offers to refund dormitory’s rents to students. Chiang Mai University offers students to pay tuition fees and rents in installments. Sripatum University returns 15-25% of the tuition fees of the second semester of 2019 to students.

The above measures should be able to offer partial assistance to students. By giving out Internet SIM cards to all students, universities will be able to allow more students to access the Internet, but if students do not yet have computers, they will not be able to study online at home anyway. Although they may have smartphones, they are not practical for online learning and writing.

Therefore, the government should consider providing assistance to students who do not have computers for online study, especially those from low-income households which are the most affected and need immediate help, by giving them 10,000 baht/person to buy computers, starting with students who took out the state’s student loan. It is estimated that there are around 280,000 students in this group, and the government would need a budget of roughly 2.8 billion baht.

At the same time, each university should form a committee to consider providing assistance to students who do not have computers and the Internet to study online to ensure that all students are able to participate in online learning. In addition, universities should consider refunding some part of tuition fees to ease the burden of students who come from poor families and families that are affected by Covid-19.

The digital divide in Thailand has been a problem that detrimentally affected poor households for a long time. The outbreak of the Covid-19 highlights the importance of reducing this inequality. The government, therefore, needs to allocate funds to supporting these students to be able to study online under this circumstance to ensure that no student is left behind and educational disparity is not worsened as we might have to live with Covid-19 for at least 12-18 months.

Finally, in addition to the issue of technological accessibility that arises from online learning under the Covid-19 situation, universities are going to face a huge challenge in adapting themselves to online teaching and testing in order to maintain the standard of Thai education in building skills, especially practical ones, for students. Such a mission needs urgent action and cooperation from many sectors, including educational institutes, the government, and the private sector, in order to help Thailand and Thais overcome this crisis together.

This proposal is part of “TDRI Policy Series on Fighting COVID-19”

1Government must mobilize resources to solve the COVID-19 crisis and ease people’s suffering in a comprehensive and straight-to-the point manner
2Fit-to-fly doesn’t prevent COVID-19 but is an increased burden to Thais abroad
3Beware of violence during pandemic as home may not be a safe place for everyone
4How to protect over 2 million migrant workers in Thailand from Covid-19