Five things to think about for out-of-school learning during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak

This is part of our coronavirus (COVID-19) and EdTech series.

Today, over a billion learners are affected by closures due to coronavirus (COVID-19). In these unprecedented times we’re committed to playing our role in supporting countries to provide continued education for all learners. 

Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be sharing insights and resources about how educational technology (EdTech) can support out-of-school learning during these challenging times, with a particular focus on low- and middle-income countries. To stay up to date with our future posts, follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Much of the emerging guidance about how education systems can respond to COVID-19 is relevant to higher-resource countries. Lower-resource settings have different constraints to wrestle with, so in this post, we’ll take a two-part approach. We’ll look at lessons from pre-COVID-19 EdTech efforts in low-resource settings and how they can inform the current crisis, and we’ll also try to pull lessons from higher-resource settings and discuss their applicability to lower-resource settings. Here, we share five conversation starters informed by this approach.

1. “Out-of-school learning” looks radically different across contexts

As schools, colleges and universities across the globe close their doors, education systems face the challenge of how to provide continued support and education for learners. At the time of writing, UNESCO estimates that there are over a billion learners currently affected by closures. This is in addition to the 258 million children and adolescents who were already out-of-school. 

With face-to-face instruction restricted, ‘online learning’ is often the first thing people think of as a response, especially in higher-resource contexts. Google Trends is showing an increased interest in ‘online learning’ over the past few days, with triple the number of searches as in previous months. 

But ‘online learning’ for the most marginalised is hard to achieve because of limited access and financial resources. By contrast ‘out-of-school learning’ — meaning ‘learning away from your school building’ — might or might not include technology at all. For example, many schools in the US are mailing photocopied learning packets to students’ homes. This is partly an effort to ensure that students without technology at home (typically the more marginalised students) can still participate in education in some way. But low-resource countries do not have the kind of photocopying infrastructure in place that is common in higher-income countries; it is an expensive way to duplicate, and therefore difficult to scale in low-income countries. This could, in theory, lead us back to technology. After all, we are used to hearing that mobile phone penetration in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, is high, even among low-income populations.

It’s true: three-quarters of the population in sub-Saharan Africa have SIM connection. But those who actually have a subscription to a mobile carrier is 44%. This is a sizable portion of the population, but by no means a way to reach the majority of children, especially those who are most marginalised. And, only a third of mobile users have a smartphone; the rest have more basic phones with limited ability to access many of the available educational resources.

Another pre-COVID-19 approach in low-income countries includes radio education, which has long been used to educate out-of-school children who have been marginalised by conflict or denied access to education due to disability or living in extremely remote areas. Research shows the benefits of radio include that it is cost-effective, simple and immediate. This allows it to sustain its relevance to the education system. The Speak Up project from South Sudan delivered lessons on social issues with the aim to improve basic literacy and numeracy skills. The results were promising. How might this now be implemented at a larger scale?

TV is another pre-existing technology worth considering. Although not as widely available as radio, it still can reach a mass audience. In Kenya, the FCDO funded primary education programme ‘Knowzone’ aimed to improve literacy and numeracy skills closely tied to the Kenyan curriculum. Results by ‘Knowzone’ show that viewers’ literacy and numeracy skills improved by 13%.

2. Communication, communication, communication

At times such as these, human connection is vital. Whether it is for information sharing, preventing the negative impacts of isolation from one’s community, or communicating educational content. How can technology help?

In a higher-education context, Autumn Caines notes (Online Learning in a Hurry), it can be tempting to start with content and end with communication. However, communication should be the first thing we think about. In higher education, universities and colleges are focusing on how to communicate with full classes as well as individual learners. In primary and secondary contexts, educators also – and perhaps most urgently – need to connect with caregivers. In low-resource contexts, SMS can be a way to share logistical information and tips for keeping children engaged with activities that support learning. This won’t reach all caregivers, especially the most marginalized, but most communities have at least some members with cellular subscriptions who could be conduits of information to the rest of the community. This might be a teacher or other community leader.

Speaking of which, teachers can be an important resource to their communities, even when they’re not in the classroom. How can technology help make the most of their potential contributions? Before COVID-19 emerged, Lecture Pour Tous, the national early grade reading program in Senegal, invested in an SMS platform. It gave teachers SIM cards and the ability to receive text messages from a central source, as well as send messages among teachers–enabling collaboration and peer-to-peer advice. How might this type of platform – which was designed to support teachers working in schools – be used when all teachers and children are suddenly out-of-school?

3.  Should we be asking “How can we use tech?” or “Can technology help address the problem?”

We believe the second question is the one to be asking, and it always has been. Depending on the particular problem you are trying to solve, and the context you are in, the answer may very well be that a non-technology solution is the best one. That’s why we’ve defined the mission of the EdTech Hub to be focused on evidence about the appropriate and effective use of technology. Appropriateness, in some cases, means asking if the non-tech alternative is more (cost-)effective.

4. Don’t forget what we already know about what works in education

We know that parent engagement improves learning outcomes. We know that interactive instructional approaches (as opposed to lecture-style instruction or rote memorization) improve learning outcomes. We know that instruction targeted at the individual student’s current ability level improves learning outcomes. We know that professional learning communities among teachers improve teacher motivation and practice.

Many EdTech interventions build on this body of knowledge; let’s not forget it when we move to out-of-school learning as the new normal for the time being. As content delivered through various technology tools becomes common, how can we encourage caregivers, community leaders, and students to engage in dialogue about the content?

It might be a text-chat mediated book club when resources support it, or a chat around the dinner table about each person’s favourite part of the story they heard on the radio. Can we learn from behavioural science to encourage the behaviours we know support learning, using technology that families already have access to?

5. How do we balance safeguarding and due-diligence with urgency to act?

While the current situation is fast-moving and requires action to support learners, it is important that safeguarding and due-diligence not be compromised. 

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, ‘Coronavirus and the great online learning experiment’ (paywall) suggests that researchers should view the pandemic as a natural experiment, to test at large-scale the differences in online and face-to-face teaching. This has faced criticism with George Veletsianos arguing it is questionable ethically and in terms of what it could teach us. Indeed, he argues that — even though the present situation is a natural experiment — it is not the right kind. This is due to the lack of time to prepare lessons and stressful conditions under which they will be held and will tell us little about online learning in other times.

Veletsianos also cautions educational institutions when vendors offer them free goods and services. Free services provided now may have implications for the future. George cites an example of research on EdTech implemented in higher education after the 2011 earthquake in New Zealand. This is particularly relevant for low-income countries, where free offers for an unscalable solution is a distraction from efforts for equitable learning. We agree with Rachel Glennerster, FCDO Chief Economist, that the focus needs to be on what works at scale: “It is far better to achieve a 10% improvement for 1 million people than a 50% improvement for 1,000.” This holds true during a global pandemic, as well as in normal times.


EdTech can play a role in supporting education during this difficult time, but it is not just a case of finding technical solutions. Looking at available tools is half of the story. We should not lose sight of the pedagogy and learning goals, and how to ensure that the strategies used to ensure continued education work well for as many  students as possible. The examples drawn upon here are part of a much bigger conversation which is currently happening around how educators respond to the social effects of this outbreak. Here at the EdTech Hub, we will continue to share advice and resources to support policymakers thinking about remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic. To stay up to date with our future posts, follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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