Educating in a digital divide: Implementing distance learning solutions

As the COVID-19 pandemic prompts widespread school closures, governments and education providers have turned to remote learning to facilitate the continuity of education for the 1.5 billion students currently out of school.


The crisis has emphasized the importance of EdTech and accelerated the timeline for digitalization as schools abruptly shift to distance learning models. However, the short lead times for implementation, a lack of infrastructure, and a wide array of digital capabilities among students and teachers, are creating a complex set of challenges for schools.


Many education systems are rising to the challenge, using the crisis as an opportunity to build resilient learning models. A range of distance learning solutions, distinguished by infrastructure availability, can help students to stay on track (see exhibit below).



PAVING THE WAY: DISTANCE LEARNING CASE STUDIES


Remote learning solutions can be applied in both low- and high-infrastructure environments, using an array of technological solutions. We have noted some international examples below.


No infrastructure needs


Onebillion offers software and affordable tablets, ‘ONETABS’, that can be charged using solar power to access numeracy and literacy courses offline. Evidence from schools in Brazil, UK, and Malawi have shown significant learning gains in mathematics when compared to control groups.


Radio & TV


Radio

Speak Up was South Sudan’s response to its alarming rate of illiteracy of 77% among adults. The program combines radio-based instruction, face-to-face instruction, and independent learning materials. Over 3,000 students are currently enrolled in the program and exam pass rates stand at 85% as of 2016.

More than 40,000 students in Liberia and Sierra Leone are using the free ’Rising On Air’ radio program by Rising Academies. Initially launched during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, the program offers radio scripts and content to improve numeracy and literacy, which can be accessed via SMS or online. Currently, Rising Academies manages a network of 140 schools in Liberia and Sierra Leone.


TV

Ubongo in Tanzania and Know Zone in Kenya are examples of TV broadcasters and Ministries of Education collaborating to produce programs aligned with national school curricula. Educational television programming has been introduced by a majority of countries, across socio-economic contexts. Across the 450 million children (<14 years) in all the African countries, 17 million are watching Ubongo, making it the most popular EdTech product on the continent.

Mobile (2G)


EdTech companies such as MTabe in Tanzania and M-Shule across Sub-Saharan Africa combine AI and SMS technology to design programs that work on- and off-line. MTabe provides instant curriculum-aligned answers via a chat-based search engine, while M-Shule can analyze students’ abilities and learning gaps to generate personalized exercises. Back in 2017, M-Shule ran its first pilot in Nairobi, where students improved their exam scores by 23% after having used the program to improve their Math and English skills for one hour per week.


Created by Learning Equality, Kolibri is a free Edtech platform offering offline access to a large educational library in dozens of languages for over 6 million users. The platform is used in rural schools, refugee camps, and prison systems.


Tablet (low data)


Mindspark and Siyavula Education offer software that provides adaptive and targeted resources to improve students’ performances in Mathematics. Content is always curriculum-aligned and easily accessible via tablets and basic-feature phones. From 2017 until 2019, the Mindspark program has been trialed in 40 schools in Rajasthan where students were a couple of grade levels behind in Maths and Hindi. After the two-year period, learning gains were twice as high for students in the Mindspark program compared to their control groups.


Can’t Wait to Learn is an evidence-based program developed by War Child, using custom gaming technology on low-cost tablets to deliver education to children in conflict-affected countries. It aims to reach 1.5 million children by 2030.

Data-intensive mobile (3G+)/ tablets/ computers


Gradely in Nigeria provides an adaptive learning platform that also allows for early identification of learning gaps. 70 schools are already using the platform to digitize homework for their students.


Kenya’s Eneza Education offers access to national curriculum resources and a platform where students, parents, and teachers can interact via SMS, mobile web, Facebook Messenger, or Telegram. Similar to MindSpark and Gradely, Eneza can identify learning gaps and will recommend specific actions to help to close them. Eneza Education is the second biggest EdTech product in Africa with over one million monthly users.


The ‘Making girls great’ project in Ghana uses solar-powered and satellite-enabled distance learning infrastructure, which includes computers, projectors, satellite modems, and solar panels to improve learning outcomes for girls. Over the past three years, 35,000 pupils have taken part in the project and demonstrated higher English fluency and Maths test scores than students from schools with similar interventions.

Reflections on distance learning interventions


As seen in our case studies, infrastructure can represent a major barrier to the successful utilization of EdTech. While the number of EdTech users has doubled in Africa since the COVID-19 outbreak, numbers are still low. According to a report from the Center for Global Development, just 19 million out of 450 million children in Africa are using EdTech and the majority of them are watching TV.


Market size is often an important factor for the development of EdTech solutions and where they are rolled out. Often organizations concentrate their products to large countries; in Africa, over half of all EdTech firms are located in South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria. This could compound educational inequalities between countries.


While technology can play a role in supporting effective teaching and learning during school closures, teachers and schools remain critical for children’s educational development. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that many school systems still have much to do to prepare for disruptions of this scale. Education systems can harness the potential of technology to design blended learning experiences that focus on student engagement, collaboration and resilience. Teachers, with training and support, can work to include more digital learning in their classrooms.


WHAT COMES AFTER COVID-19?


The outbreak of COVID-19 has led to an acceleration of distance learning solutions and EdTech in schools. At the same time, nine out of ten of the world’s youth live in developing countries and their access to distance learning opportunities is limited. Despite the variety of EdTech offerings, Radio, TV and mobile learning remain the most used interventions in the Global South.


Distance learning solutions have proven to be an important part of the educational response to COVID-19. Nonetheless, the pandemic has highlighted that schools are much more than just learning environments – they offer social protection and safety nets for many students. We have seen first-hand with the Ebola crisis that disruption to learning and school closures put children, particularly girls at real risk and cause life-long harm. Spikes in teenage pregnancy, child abuse, child labor, and school drop-out rates were the direct result of months-long school closures. Approximately five million children were missing out on school and over 30,000 children were orphaned in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.


The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that school systems still have much to do in order to prepare for disruptions of this scale. Alongside implementing remote learning opportunities, governments should also consider interventions to bolster school feeding programs, awareness-raising on hygiene and psychosocial support for students. Investing in a safe return to school will be crucial to avoid increases in dropout rates and to protect some of the most vulnerable students.


The global COVID-19 response should be seen as an opportunity to tackle long-standing challenges to the global education system and develop innovative ways to build back better for students.

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For more information on our work on distancing learning and EdTech, please contact comms@edufundmea.org.