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Voices of the Global Community


Mehvash Ali, American University of Sharjah

MehvashAli,jpgEducation systems are traditionally designed for in-person teaching and learning. Everything from curriculum design to instructor training, lab delivery, support services, and technological usage was all geared towards predominantly an in-person education system. This meant that educational institutions had to scramble to accommodate virtual teaching and learning in early 2020. Since then, we have seen significant improvements across higher education institutions in technology used to deliver course content, assess learning, and provide support services for students.

The year 2020 was challenging world over in many ways. Institutes of higher education had to very quickly respond to an escalating situation in a fast-evolving landscape as they moved to virtual/hybrid/blended teaching models. While there was increased social isolation and mental distress, institutions also made improvements in content and service delivery. Advancements in technologies were made for virtual teaching, assessment, and service delivery in addition to increased proficiency of staff and faculty in utilizing the available technologies in an intentional manner.

The scenario in developing countries, however, was not the same. According to Clement (2020a), there were 4.13 billion internet users worldwide. With the world population standing at about 7 billion, this means that more than half of the global population has internet access. The current global internet usage rate stands at 51.4% and global penetration at 59% (Clement, 2020a). But this differs significantly depending on the region. Just before the start of the pandemic in January 2020 (Clement, 2020b), the global internet penetration was more than 90% for Northern and western European countries. North America was at 88%. However, countries in southern and central Asia and northern Africa are much lower at 48%, 54%, and 53% respectively. Countries in eastern and middle Africa are lower still at 23% and 22% respectively. According to the International Telecommunications Union Data reported by the World Bank (2020), close to 100% of individuals in high income middle eastern countries such as UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait have access to the internet while less than 20% of individuals in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Angola, Zambia, Bangladesh, Chad, Niger, and others have internet access. These data provide a clear picture of differential access to virtual learning opportunities worldwide. Even within each country, access to virtual learning is significantly impacted by race and socio-economic status. 

Even before COVID-19, racial and ethnic disparities in education are well documented in the United States from academic achievement in elementary school to graduation rates in college. According to Quintana and Mahgoub (2016), ethnic and racial disparities are associated with “limited access to educational and social capital resources, differential treatment of ethnic and racial minority students by educators, and to differential responses to educational practices” (p. 100). Underrepresented communities such as Hispanic, Latinx, African American, and Native American communities had fewer economic resources compared to their white peers before the pandemic. With pandemic related job losses, ethnic and racial disparities in education are on the rise as students from these communities are more likely to drop out of college than their white counterparts.

Families who are were disadvantaged to begin with experienced more significant economic hardship globally as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to research by Brookings institute (Despard, et al, 2020), 29% of respondents from low income bracket reported job/income loss as compared to 19% of respondents from middle income bracket and 20% from high income bracket. Countries with larger gaps in socioeconomic status, such as those seen in India, Pakistan, and several African countries will experience increasing disparities in educational achievement. Students from low socio-economic statuses are experiencing unprecedented barriers to educational access due to virtual teaching. When students don’t have enough food or proper healthcare and are living in very small multigenerational homes, it is not easy to make space for a proper learning environment and have the internet connection and electronics needed to access course content. Advisors and higher education personnel from these regions are reporting that high achieving students from lower income households who are attending college on scholarships are suddenly having to scramble to find funding for computer and internet and other educational equipment. Even in working class or middle-class families, there is often only one computer at home for everyone to share, multiple siblings may be sharing a room or desk. Students may be responsible for teaching younger siblings studying from home. These pressures are differentially experienced by students from different economic backgrounds.

Homelessness, food insecurity, job loss, reduced childcare options, and lack of healthcare have all contributed to barriers to remote learning thereby further increasing educational disparities within communities. This will increasingly diverge educational attainment of students from different economic backgrounds for years to come. This in turn will reduce the opportunities for upward economic mobility in the future leading to increasing economic gaps.

Even within the same economic band, family differences impacted educational attainment more in 2020 than in previous years. Family factors such as number of children, education level of parents, technical resources available for all children at home, ability of parent to work from home, size of the house have all impacted educational attainment more than ever before. Students from large families need more computers and study space at home than families with fewer students. If parents are educated, they are better able to supervise their kids’ education. If not, this role often falls to the college students in the house who find themselves responsible not just for their own education, but also that of their younger siblings. Similarly, if a parent is not able to work from home, the college student in the house would be responsible for caretaking of the younger siblings studying from home. All are added pressures that are impacting the educational attainment of certain groups more than others.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also severely limited the opportunities for students to seek higher education in different countries. Due to limited travel, visa issues, and virtual education, many international students have had to return to their home countries. Such students are particularly at risk of falling behind other students in their universities. These students who are studying from a different country are dealing with time zone differences and accessing synchronous material at very odd hours. If their home country is currently at war or experiencing civil unrest, they are likely dealing with regular power outages, safety issues, lack of internet access, etc.

Inequities in education were exacerbated through the year 2020 and this trend continues in 2021. Global disparities in internet access and availability of electronic equipment needed for virtual education are escalating the existing racial disparities in education that are compounded by economic and regional pressures and family obligations. It is imperative that institutions and communities look for solutions to reduce these emergent disparities created over the last year and a half to find solutions and provide targeted support for diverse students.

Mehvash Ali, Ph.D.
Academic Support Center and First Year Experience
American University of Sharjah


Clement, J. (2020a). Internet usage worldwide – statistics & facts. https://www.statista.com/topics/1145/internet-usage-worldwide/#:~:text=In%202019%2C%20the%20number%20of,currently%20connected%20to%20the%20internet

Clement, J. (2020b). Internet penetration rate worldwide, 2020 by region. https://www.statista.com/statistics/269329/penetration-rate-of-the-internet-by-region/

Despard, M., Grinstein-Weiss, M., Chun, Y., & Roll, S. (2020). COVID-19 job and income loss leading to more hunger and financial hardship. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/07/13/covid-19-job-and-income-loss-leading-to-more-hunger-and-financial-hardship/

The World Bank. (2020). Individuals using the internet (% of population). https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/IT.NET.USER.ZS?most_recent_value_desc=false

Quintana, S., & Mahgoub, L. (2016). Ethnic and racial disparities in education: Psychology's role in understanding and reducing disparities. Theory Into Practice, 55(2), 94–103. https://doi.org/10.1080/00405841.2016.1148985

Cite this article using APA style as: Ali, M. (2021, June). Educational disparities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Academic Advising Today, 44(2). [insert url here]

Posted in: 2021 June 44:2


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