Learning through television in low-income contexts: mitigating the impact of coronavirus (COVID-19)

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

Written by Joe Watson, research assistant at the University of Cambridge

One of the many consequences of COVID-19 is that more than a billion caregivers will soon face the stark (and often scary) realisation that they must become their children’s teachers. This will be particularly difficult in low-income contexts where many adults have not had the opportunity to have a formal education themselves. Fortunately, educational television has the potential to facilitate out-of-school learning. This technology has been shown to have real impacts on outcomes, utilises readily available technology and can be implemented at scale.

Millions of viewers in low-income countries watch educational television programmes such as Akili and MeSesame Street and Know Zone. The immediate accessibility of television means that it has the potential to benefit many out-of-school children. School closures due to COVID-19 have already occurred in multiple low-income countries, and this is likely to happen increasingly often over the coming weeks.

Educational television and learning

Existing evidence from controlled settings indicates that educational television can improve learning outcomes. Studies have frequently reported positive effects amongst learners in pre-primary and school-age brackets. New research undertaken by the University of Cambridge shows that home viewing is also related to mathematics capability. The study examined the influence of a popular cartoon targeted at primary-age children, Ubongo Kids. A cross-sectional investigation of a sample of 38,682 Tanzanian children showed Ubongo Kids exposure to be significantly associated with mathematics capability when controlling for age, sex, Kiswahili attainment, school enrolment and household fixed effects. Further, the learning gains per $100 USD spent delivered by Ubongo Kids were found to surpass those found for differing interventions in any other published cost-effective study (carried out using the J-PAL approach).

Educational television and stigma reduction

The impact of COVID-19 restrictions might go beyond affecting learning. For example, school closures limit children’s interaction with others of different abilities, backgrounds and cultures. Such a situation could potentially lead to stigma or prejudice. But, there is reason to believe that suitable televised content can provide some help here too. Educational television has frequently sought to challenge discrimination amongst viewers. Recently, this has been demonstrated by the addition of characters to both Sesame Street and Ubongo Kids. In Sesame Street, Julia was introduced to reduce stigmas attached to autism (say the Sesame Street bosses). In Ubongo Kids, Amani arrived to help promote positive attitudes towards albinism.

The characters Julie from Sesame Street and Amani from Ubongo Kids

And evidence from previous studies suggests that such approaches to tackle prejudice work. In Sesame Park, a wheelchair user called Katie helped Canadian viewers see disabled children as “accomplished and valuable members of society”. Similarly, the introduction of an HIV positive character in Kilimani Sesame led to Tanzanian children being more likely to play and eat with HIV positive children in day-to-day life.

School closure due to COVID-19 might reduce learning and even lead to prejudice towards particular groups. Evidence shows that educational television could help address both these concerns. It is acknowledged that numerous children in low-income contexts do not have television access at home and might be prevented from watching programmes at other locations due to social distancing measures. However, it remains the case that educational television shows could mitigate the adverse effects of school closure for many who can access television technology. Policymakers should, therefore, seek to increase the delivery of educational television shows in low-income nations.

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