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We Need to Invest $1.4 Trillion For Universal Digital Learning

By Guest Writer on April 13, 2023

universal digital learning cost

Universal digital learning, as a tool for blended learning in classrooms as well as for remote learning when classes are closed, is an important investment toward establishing more resilient and sustainable education systems.

Digital learning is broadly defined as learning conducted via a digital device. Digital learning can be costed by focusing on children and young people, who comprise the target group for the Reimagine Education initiative co-led by UNICEF, Generation Unlimited and Giga to radically scale up digital learning solutions that will work for the most marginalized children and young people.

What to Fund for Universal Digital Learning

Extra efforts are needed to ensure that digital learning is universalized and to minimize risks of increasing existing learning disparities. Universalization does not mean that everyone must conduct digital learning, but rather that everyone should have access when needed, such as during a national lockdown.  Several important gaps must be filled before universal digital learning can be achieved.

  • Digital learning is impossible without electricity, and in some countries like Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi and Niger, the proportion of the population with access to electricity is below 20 per cent.
  • Digital learning also requires connectivity. When schools were closed globally during the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 75 per cent of children were not reached by available digital learning opportunities, three quarters of whom come from the poorest 40 per cent of households.
  • The coverage and effectiveness of digital learning solutions also vary significantly across countries, to the detriment of the low- and lower-middle-income countries and to the poorest households within all countries.

Estimating the cost to universalize digital learning is one hurdle, with financing an even more significant challenge that is exacerbated by the limited fiscal space brought about by the economic downturn and increases in spending on health and social protection. The latest estimate shows that the gap in annual funding needed to reach the Sustainable Development Goal in education (SDG4) in low- and lower-middle-income countries has increased to nearly US$200 billion, i.e., a total funding gap of nearly US$2 trillion for the next 10 years

Funding Needed for Universal Digital Learning

Within the coming decade (by 2030), it is estimated that it will take US$1.34 trillion to enable and US$46.4 billion to deliver universal digital learning.

  • For electricity, the annual investment of US$41 billion for universal access is equivalent to 3 per cent of the US$1.36 trillion global energy investment per year needed to achieve SDG7, i.e., ‘Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all’, which also includes additional funding for clean cooking, renewable energy and energy efficiency.
  • For connectivity, US$428 billion by 2030 is itself the total cost of connecting all of humanity to the internet (ITU, 2020b). Spending this entire amount would connect not only schools but also other locations where digital learning can take place. It is estimated that two thirds of this cost could be a profitable investment.
  • For data affordability, a subsidy of and/or zero-rating estimated at US$49.8 billion per year is equivalent to only 2.9 per cent of the US$1.74 trillion global telecom service market in 2019 (GVR, 2020), and thus is potentially achievable.
  • For the delivery of digital learning (devices, digital solutions and engagement), the annual cost is US$3.2 billion for low- and lower-middle- income countries. For these countries, the annual US$3.2 billion accounts for 0.8 per cent of the public education spending, which still seems feasible if there is a political will and increased support from the international community.

A lightly edited synopsis of How Much Does Universal Digital Learning Cost? A policy brief by the UNICEF Office of Research.

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