Pandemic worsens Georgia’s digital divide

Journalist: Ana Cheishvili

Illustrator: Tina Chertova

22.09.21

Children across Georgia started school from home on September 15, the fourth semester of online education in the country since the pandemic started in March 2020.

The country’s education ministry decided to postpone the return to the classroom until October 4 due to the high number of Covid infections in the country. The decision was controversial: studies have shown a significant percent of children in Georgia lack the resources to attend online classes.

All children have been affected in the process, but the biggest victims are the ones who live in families with lower social-economic status, plus living in areas with no regular internet access,” says Tamar Mosiashvili, an education specialist and former teacher. “That is often referred to as the ‘digital divide,’ meaning that digital technologies are available to some people, but not to everyone.”

A recent study by the Institute for the Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI), Overview of the Education Sector in the Covid-19 Pandemic, found that when schools moved online in March 2020, approximately 35,000 children did not have the technologies needed for remote learning. For instance, only 62 percent of households reported having a home computer.

"Internet access is a problem, especially in the regions,” says Givi Adeishvili, one of the authors of the study.

“It has affected the socially vulnerable population. It’s not just about having the internet but having the one with high-quality. When there are households with more than one student, and there are not enough computers and tech devices to help those students or employees get an education, it is not enough. A family with three children may not have three computers, so they have to use a tablet, cellphone or another device, which is not enough for quality education.”

The study highlights that across the country, the situation is even more difficult for communities in mountainous regions, in particular Racha-Lechkhumi and Lower Svaneti regions.

Tatia Murusidze teaches English at the 2nd public school of Ambrolauri district in Racha. 

“Although there are several internet providers in Ambrolauri, not all families have the internet, and many of them who do, depend on mobile internet. But that does not guarantee a proper learning process. Statistically speaking, 3-4 children out of 10 could manage to attend the class. The elementary school students had the hardest time because their parents had to work. And if a parent did not instruct an elementary school student, he could not figure it out himself,” she says.

“For example, I had a class of 3rd graders with 21 children in the class, where a maximum of 14-15 children were present. The main problems were the internet and the devices they could use.”

On September 15, Murusidze said connection problems and other technical difficulties prevented her from completing her lesson plan for the first day of school. “I had three classes today and the engagement was good enough. I was a bit surprised because almost half of the students attended the lessons,” she says.

One of her students, 12th-grader Salome Gelashvili, said the most challenging thing about attending the first day of school was having to share the family internet connection with her two school-aged siblings.

“We are three in my family. The trickiest thing is that all of us are having classes at the same time and the internet along with the program [Microsoft Teams] always causes obstacles. As for attendance, as usual, students from high mountainous villages could not join the online lessons. It was the same last year. It happens quite often when teachers themselves are unable to join the class,” Salome says.

In addition to internet connection challenges, the cost of internet and access to working technology has been another persistent challenge for students and teachers. 

11th-grader Karlo Tsutsqiridze, from Chiatura, a town in central Georgia, struggled to attend classes with a smartphone. Due to his excellent grades, the Ministry of Education and Science planned to give him one of the Georgian-produced laptops all first graders receive. But the laptop never materialized (Chai Khana asked the ministry for an explanation but has not received an answer).  Instead, chart.ge, a local charity, gave him a laptop and financed his monthly internet package.

“Charte.ge gave me a computer this year. It was very hard before because I had to use my cellphone and could not do much with it. At first, I didn’t even know how to enter [Microsoft] Teams and how to log in to online classes… Sometimes I couldn’t hear the voice with my cellphone. So, it was difficult,” he said.

Charte.ge has provided computers for 1403 students since it was established in 2017 and connected them to the internet. Despite repeated requests, the ministry did not respond to Chai Khana’s questions about its strategy for distance education and its plans to help students and teachers during the school year.

The ministry did announce that for the 2021-2022 academic year, it signed a memorandum of cooperation with three mobile operators operating in Georgia. The deal allows students and teachers to purchase 20GB of high-quality mobile internet packages for 10 lari, or about 2.5 times cheaper than the standard cost.

Education specialist Mosiashvili has questioned some of the ministry’s other expenditures however. The ministry told Chai Khana that it spent 569,136 lari—just over $183,000—on televised classes. The program was intended to reach children who did not have access to the internet, but Mosiashvili doubts its effectiveness. 

“I would say it was a failed project. All the resources that could be mobilized were just wasted despite such a difficult situation,” she said.

“The government should take care of the children who are left out of the educational process due to the ‘digital divide’ because the same thing is going to happen again. Unfortunately, the government is still silent, with no specific initiatives.”

Chai Khana submitted written questions to the press service at the Ministry of Education and Science of Georgia requesting information about any government studies on the impact of the tele-school project across the country, but the ministry did not respond in time for publication.

The IDFI study found that the pandemic, including the loss of school hours and education, will cost the Georgian economy around $17.7 million. “We have to reduce this loss. We should work on recommendations, such as, for example, improving the guidelines of remote learning, increasing the duration of online classes, etc.,” study author Adeishvili said. 

“Most importantly, the government must urgently provide access to technology and the internet for socially vulnerable people.”

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