ASEAN, comprising a diverse array of nations, stands at a pivotal crossroads in the 21st century. As the region further integrates into the global economy, it has to prepare its workforce to be able to compete in a world where knowledge and innovation drive progress.
The gap between the skills demanded by the technology-driven job market and those imparted by the region’s traditional education systems widens with each passing day. Without swift and comprehensive reforms, it risks producing graduates who are ill-equipped for the digital economy, leaving them locked out of the opportunities of tomorrow.
Some countries in ASEAN are already taking decisive steps to adapt their education systems to cater to the demands of the new economy. The Philippines, for instance, has bolstered its technical vocational education and training programs, introducing digital literacy and coding components to its curriculum, and fostered partnerships with tech companies to offer workshops and certifications in vital digital skills. Similarly, Indonesia has invested in relevant training in areas such as technology, data analytics, software development, and digital marketing, while companies like Gojek and Tokopedia have established specialized academies to impart hands-on training.
Addressing the Digital Divide in ASEAN
Despite advancements in education system adaptation, persistent challenges, notably the enduring digital divide, remain. The “digital divide” denotes the uneven distribution of internet access. Recent 2022 data highlights varying internet penetration rates, with Brunei leading at 119%, followed by Malaysia (94%), Singapore (92%), the Philippines (91%), and Indonesia trailing at 77%. Conversely, regions like North America, Western Europe, and parts of East Asia, such as South Korea and Japan, typically boast higher internet penetration rates, often surpassing 90% and occasionally nearing 100%.
However, a significant number of ASEAN students lack both web access and necessary devices. Connectivity in rural areas stands at 53%, contrasting with 72% in urban settings (ASEAN Rapid Assessment, 2020).
A 2021 UNICEF survey spanning 10 ASEAN countries shed light on the digital literacy divide. The survey unveiled that 61% of ASEAN students require digital literacy education. Globally, at least 31% of students across pre-primary to upper secondary levels encounter obstacles accessing digital or broadcast remote learning, often stemming from a lack of supportive policies or essential household assets for digital or broadcast instruction.
The COVID-19 pandemic worsened the situation, impacting over 1.5 billion students globally due to school closures, disproportionately affecting those with limited device and internet access.
Adapting to the new learning wave
While efforts have been made to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on ASEAN education, including infrastructure expansion, improved internet access through partnerships, and digital literacy initiatives, sustained investment and cooperation are imperative for achieving equitable, high-quality education in the digital age. Bridging the digital divide remains pivotal for fostering inclusive education.
Beyond government and non-government initiatives and educational institutions, businesses, especially those in the technology sector, have the potential to play a significant role in driving education reform.
Governments can continue improving digital infrastructure, particularly in remote and rural areas through expanded broadband access, investments in network infrastructure, and public-private partnerships. Initiatives such as Microsoft’s Airband project have successfully brought internet connectivity to rural communities, offering an inspiring model for similar endeavors within the ASEAN region.
There are some recent developments worth noting though which show how technology is undoubtedly playing a vital role in adapting education to the digital landscape. In Malaysia, teachers are being equipped with new skills for online teaching, while Starlink has been licensed to provide internet services in remote areas. In Laos, the Khang Panya Lao initiative is ensuring continuous learning for children, with over 92,000 registered users and 10,000 teachers. Meanwhile, the GIGA program, a partnership between UNICEF and ITU, aims to connect every school and its local community to the internet, helping narrow the digital divide in 100 countries.
The Way Forward
According to the World Economic Forum, a significant proportion of education spending – approximately 40% – relies on contributions from individual households. In contrast, high-income countries have less than 20% of education spending coming from individuals. Unfortunately, the pandemic-induced decline in household incomes has disproportionately affected education spending in lower-income countries.
Governments therefore need to step in. Collaborations between administrations, tech companies, and communities remain pivotal in ensuring equitable access to quality education.
To secure a competitive future, urgent action is needed to transform ASEAN’s education system. But the main priority needs to be bridging the digital divide, expanding the infrastructure, and ensuring equitable access. Investing here is essential for future progress and prosperity.