Education during the pandemic: Dimensions of the digital divide in Mongolia

As the schools were shut down, the government opted to replace in-class learning with various means of distance education. This has revealed the dimensions of the digital divide at a larger scale, to the concern of policymakers.

Mongolia’s Minister of Education and Science recently disclosed that 174,000 out of total 650,000 students in Mongolia are lagging behind in formal education because of the nationwide closure of secondary schools. Two of the factors contributing the most to such distressing results are the lack of readiness of the education system for the digital challenges triggered by the pandemic, and the inherent digital divide among Mongolians.


Connectivity as a primary condition

Access to electricity and the internet are primary conditions for the students to be able to continue their education from home. As of 2020, 18.4 percent of households were still not connected to the grid and had limited access to electricity.

“Power outages are common as my province is not connected to the central grid. Also, it occurs due to heavy sandstorms in the spring. There have been 4 to 5 unannounced full-day power outages in the last month that I had to skip my online classes. If notified in advance, it would be possible to fully charge my cell phone and to prepare accordingly.” - A student, Mandalgobi soum, Dundgobi province

In Ulaanbaatar, half the households with electricity access were connected to fixed broadband, but only one-tenth in provincial centres. Also, there are certain zones even within urban centres that have limited connections and poorer signals, such as the ger districts /neighbourhoods with traditional Mongolian housing with few utility connections. In rural areas, students travel 20 to 30 kilometres to the centre of the soum, or provinces, to have internet access and participate in their e-lessons. Such obstacles indicate that a significant number of students are being excluded from the development of e-learning, and being pushed further down the digital divide.

“I drive to the soum center every morning to help my daughter to join her e-lessons. She takes her e-lessons and submits her homework in the car, since the 4G network can only be found within 2 kilometres vicinity from the soum center” - A herder mother, Bugat soum, Selenge province


Access to devices

Harnessing online education opportunities hugely depends on individual access to quality devices. Most educational contents, including video lectures, live discussions, and forums, require a minimum level of equipment consisting of smart devices with headphones, cameras, and quality signals. According to the latest ICT Development Index, only one out of every five households in Mongolia has a computer and other equipment necessary for e-learning at home. Due to a lack of access to devices, almost 80 percent of the students are unable to benefit from the full potential of online education, despite the extensive range of online contents and resources potentially available.

More than one million people in Mongolia, mainly across low-income households, the unemployed, and rural herders, access the internet solely through a mobile connection with a data allowance. Unfortunately, many of the educational contents offered for online education is not mobile-friendly or data-efficient and is often incompatible with older smartphones.

Moreover, the parallel participation of students in the same household on the online platform gets more burdensome for parents due to the lack of fully-equipped devices. For instance, there are more than 23,000 households with four or more children under 16, who would all need their own connected device at the same time to prevent lagging behind in their education during the pandemic. 

Affordability of internet usage

Affordability is an important dimension of the digital divide not only in Mongolia, but the majority of the developing countries and emerging economies. 1GB of mobile broadband available for 2 percent or less of average monthly income is considered as an affordable cost according to the UN Broadband Commission. In 2020, the median wage was approximately USD 322 and the cost for 1 GB of mobile broadband was around 9USD. It means half of the working population spends more than 2 percent of their monthly wage to access the internet. The sudden increase in data consumption by up to 20 percent due to the closure of education settings and continuation of e-learning becomes a heavy burden to the household economy, thus widening the existing digital divide.

“To attend online classes, I purchase additional data for an average of 60,000 MNT per month (approximately 21 USD). Internet access through mobile is not sufficient in terms of speed when watching video lectures and attending live seminars. Sometimes it takes almost an hour to load a 30-minute video because of the heavy internet traffic.” - A university student, Umnugobi province

Furthermore, half of the population can barely afford internet access at all, as the pandemic challenges the economic security of the vulnerable groups under and around the poverty line. The Mongolian government failed to address such income inequalities when deciding to continue distance education. Children from lower-income households have suffered the brunt of the closure of education facilities. 


Digital literacy

Students’ inability to develop effective digital practices and access quality information can result in digital exclusion. A study by an independent researcher found that inequality in digital literacy amongst students was directly related to their English skills. More widespread use of digital technologies correlated with a higher level of students’ English skills. Urban schools were found to have higher levels of both than rural schools, and private schools scored higher than public institutions. It may be the case that students felt excluded from online learning, depending on their English proficiency and familiarity with digital practices. In any event, the study indicates that the discrepancies in digital practices and English skills are another dimension of the digital divide revealed by the challenges of the education sector during the pandemic.


Gantuya Ariunsan is an independent researcher in political science and a senior lecturer at the International Relations Department at the University of the Humanities in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES.

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