Leveraging EdTech in a gendered world
12 Sept 2022
As the world bounces back to normalcy and ushers in a new era of green and equitable economies, post-secondary level education has increasingly emerged as a vital driver of development and resilience. It fosters innovation and develops leadership and talent pool and is altogether essential for countries to participate and contribute to the global knowledge economy. Quality education is perhaps amongst the biggest drivers of development. The World Bank states investment in post-secondary education delivers “unequivocal” returns, as it facilitates an increase in employment rates, health outcomes, and productivity and innovation.
During the pandemic as education became remote, digital delivery of education through the booming Indian EdTech industry which is estimated to be valued at US$ 750 million in 2020 has emerged as a potential saviour. This development has set India on the path to becoming the educational technology (EdTech) capital of the world with the industry expected to reach US$ 4 billion by 2025.
The trajectory of women learners has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic due to pre-existing conditions such as socio-economic and socio-cultural push and pull factors and limited access to finance.
There is a significant link between greater enrolment of female students in higher education and economic growth. Even when nearly 65 percent of the global investment in 2021 in EdTech is in post-secondary education, its accessibility for women in emerging markets is still debatable. The trajectory of women learners has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic due to pre-existing conditions such as socio-economic and socio-cultural push and pull factors and limited access to finance. In India, for instance, where more women are pursuing higher education than ever before, gendered gaps in traditional ways of education attainment persist. Leveraging the renewed focus on the EdTech industry to overcome gendered gaps in women’s access to tertiary education would pave the way for building a level playing field.
An inquiry into the barriers to access to tertiary education
According to a survey by Coursera, India currently boasts of 4.8 million online women learners who are registered on the app which ranks second greatest among the 190 countries globally. Since 2016, there has been a 14-percent increase in the number of women online learners on Coursera alone. The future of work has drastically changed and so have the expectant skill sets, work locations, career credentials, and the job market. With the sudden shift to virtual modes of education attainment due to the pandemic, there is a need for affordable, accessible tertiary education that links with the demands of the market and consequently delivers economic development and creates resilience for women by raising the standards of equality, and in the face of rapidly changing economic circumstances. An inquiry into the kinds of hurdles faced by women while accessing tertiary education would thereby be helpful in adequately redressing the supply side barriers of the education ecosystem, aid the online transition and prevent replication of the gaps in remote learning.
Safety, Mobility, and Norms
Women’s participation in post-secondary education is rapidly increasing in India. It has been further accelerated by the onset of the pandemic which restricted physical mobility. According to IFC’s Women and Online Learning in Emerging Markets Report, women’s decisions for higher education are much more likely to be affected by concerns of mobility, safety and family obligations. In a survey presented in the IFC report, 22 percent of the women reported mobility as a factor in deciding where to study. Concerns for safety and fear of assaults coupled with unhelpful socio-cultural practices such as early marriage have limited women’s access to tertiary education. A 2018 case study from Delhi notes, that women preferred safer routes of commute to college over the quality of education. 26 percent of the women cited safety as a concern while making a decision. These factors have a bearing on the motivation of women to enrol online. Making online access to education affordable would also help more women to take up higher education. Even though online education is a medium through which women’s access to tertiary education is not hindered on account of safety concerns, it does not discount the need for safer environments for pursuing education for women.
Concerns for safety and fear of assaults coupled with unhelpful socio-cultural practices such as early marriage have limited women’s access to tertiary education.
Twenty-two percent of women as opposed to only 12 percent of men cited family obligation as a concern. The norm of prioritising investment in men’s schooling as the returns on women’s education are low has kept women at the margins of job markets in emerging economies. Scales are tipped against women, especially in regions of South Asia with rampant gender gaps, in terms of advancements in earning potential and steadily declining female labour force participation. Ensuring safe transport and policies of affirmative action would encourage women to pursue their educational endeavours with increased gender parity. These factors combined make a compelling case for online education as a definitive step towards democratic accessibility which could steer women towards better livelihood opportunities, though this gendered accessibility extends into the digital world as well.
The Digital divide
Digital divides take a gendered shape in emerging economies and is one of the major hurdles to the flourishing EdTech landscape. For instance, women are 15 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone in India and 33 percent less likely to use mobile internet services. Similarly, 41 percent of men owned mobile phones while only 25 percent of women did. Higher costs, low-quality connections, and altogether less accessibility create barriers for women to join post-secondary education thereby having lasting impacts on their entry and retention in labour markets. In India, 62 percent of women use mobiles to learn online courses as compared to the global average of 48 percent. There is a strong link between digital literacy rates and online learning. Digital Literacy among women is alarmingly low; social conditioning, affordability, and the lack of digital skills are primary reasons for the same. Concerns regarding online safety, monitoring, and restrictions by family and instances of gatekeeping technology due to negative perceptions are issues that replicate in a digital world where the bargaining power of women is unequal. Increasing the affordability and accessibility of digital tools and holding mentoring sessions for increasing digital literacy among women and by women would facilitate peer learning.
Higher costs, low-quality connections, and altogether less accessibility create barriers for women to join post-secondary education thereby having lasting impacts on their entry and retention in labour markets.
A gendered sectoral picture
Women find acquiring tertiary education online due to the flexibility in pace, time frame, and location but could often be overrepresented in select sectors that are limited in their scope and earning potential. This trend could very easily be replicated in the online education ecosystem despite the increase in women’s participation in STEM fields. Although, in India, the gender gap in the STEM courses has seen a diminishing trend with enrolments rising from 23 percent to 32 percent between 2019 and 2021. Indian women tend to invest in acquiring digital and human skills. Participation of women can be seen in huge numbers in computer programming, machine learning, leadership and management, and communication. Leveraging the impact of female role models in online tertiary education in sectors where women are least represented would have positive impacts on potential women learners.
The rapidly transforming EdTech landscape in India supported by advances in gamification, digital delivery, and remote learning has to promise for paving a way for a more equitable future for the underserved populations of the country. An approach focusing on bridging these gaps for women to equally engage in education online would serve in delivering sustainable developmental outcomes. Policies that are cognisant of the systemic and socio-cultural gendered barriers that plague women’s educational decisions would go a long way in deterring similar barriers from cropping up in the online world. The pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to rebuild the education systems that drive the development of human capital hence it is imperative to understand the gaps in access and build back better.