By Sharon Atieno

As a response to the closure of schools due to COVID-19, major mobile telephone operators that are part of UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition are offering free access to online educational content for students.

UNESCO estimates that despite the efforts of governments worldwide to provide alternative remote learning, at least 500 million children and youth are currently excluded from public educational provision, partly because of lack of connectivity. 

 “While the Global Education Coalition supports both online and offline solutions, aiming towards connectivity for all is an important imperative, especially when our data shows that 43% of the world’s households do not have access to the internet,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

“Cost is also a major obstacle for students from disadvantaged backgrounds all over the world. The Coalition’s initiative is an example of the concrete results that can be achieved by bringing together the United Nations and the private sector. By ensuring free of charge connection to educational content in a number of countries, these corporations give a strong signal as to the need to provide free access to online educational options, especially where schools remain closed.”

The services being provided by Orange and Vodafone, are crucial for the 1.26 billion learners worldwide who are being affected.

While the share of students with no access to internet at home is under 15% in Western Europe and North America, it is as high as 80% in sub-Saharan Africa. Although mobile phones can enable learners to access information, connect with teachers and with one another, about 56 million learners, almost half of them in sub-Saharan Africa, live in areas that are not covered by mobile networks.

As such, Orange through its subsidiaries provides free access to accredited learning platforms in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa. This includes: Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Democratic Republic of the Congo. Similar packages are planned in Botswana, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and Madagascar.

The practice is also being extended to countries in other regions: Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia, free connection is provided to digital education contents.

“For several years now, Orange has had the ambition of improving access to education for all. It is in this context that we have opened our Digital Schools and launched our socially-priced mobile data packages dedicated to online training,” said Alioune Ndiaye, Executive Director of Orange for the Middle East and Africa.

“Since April, the majority of our subsidiaries have been offering free access to school and university content from our partners to enable students to continue learning from home. We hope that e-learning, which has now demonstrated its added value, will continue to develop in Africa as a complement to traditional means.” 

In Samoa, Vodafone is providing around 80,000 learners with a free Student Sim Card that gives unlimited 4G data access to a range of approved educational websites. The company is working with the Ministry of Education, Sports & Culture and UNESCO to develop and host a free student e-Learning Portal utilizing the national learning curriculum.

“Our investment into the future of our children says a lot about our values and mission. Vodafone is all about empowering future generations to be the best they aspire to be. This initiative and free Student Sim have all you need to stay on top of your studies and succeed academically,” says Vodafone CEO, Satish Sharma.

To take stock of lessons learned in recent months and explore solutions to bridge digital divides, UNESCO organized a webinar on connectivity on 22 May, which brought together partners from the Coalition and beyond, including ITU, Microsoft, Ericsson, Mastercard Foundation and several UNESCO Chairs specializing in technology and education. All stressed the need for collaboration to provide public connectivity so as to maintain the right to education and enable digital learning inside and outside the classroom, leveraging new financing models, especially to benefit the most under-served areas.

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