Francophone countries and COVID-19 EdTech response

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

One thing about coronavirus is clear — it does not respect borders. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in school closures across the world. With about 300 million French speakers worldwide, here we consider some initial lessons from francophone education systems, their EdTech response, and the importance of cooperation of countries who share the same language. In light of school closures across many Francophone countries – all with differing income levels – we consider their differentiated responses and if there is more scope for these countries to collaborate. 

France and Belgium: High-income and high-resource

France and Belgium are two countries that have significant resources to pivot to distance learning. In France, teachers are in charge of the support to their students through the Environnement Numerique de Travail (an intranet system for each school), emails and adapted tools for students who don’t have access to the internet. This system also relies on the platform Ma classe a la maison which allows students and teachers to keep in contact, take part in virtual activities and send exercises and homework. Access is limited to year groups that have certificated exams at the end of the year. A similar model has been adopted in Belgium through the platform e-learning of the Wallonie-Bruxelles Federation. This also provides online courses to prepare, in priority, those who will take the certificated exams at primary and secondary level. These platforms existed before coronavirus but their mass use brings new challenges such as how many students will actually use them; the ability of the teachers, students and parents to use these platforms; and the adaptability of these platforms for more individualized support for both students and teachers professional development. 

Morocco: My teacher is on TV!

On the 13th of March, Morocco closed schools for its 8 million pupils. The Minister of Education, Mr Saaid Amzazi, announced measures to ensure the continuity of learning through the online portal TelmideTICE. As in France, this allows the students of troisieme, premiere, terminale (the last years of secondary school) and last year of primary school to prepare for end of year exams. According to the ministry, about 1.2 million students attend courses on this platform daily. Even though Morocco is one of the most connected countries on the African continent, 30% of its population still does not have access to the internet. With this in mind, the Ministry of Education has not limited itself to just online measures.  For families who don’t have access to a computer or internet access, they can continue to take part in education through the TV channel Attaqafiya. This approach is comparable to the French TV channel France 4. If you haven’t already, read our previous blog post to find out how television can be effective in helping to improve learning outcomes outside of the classroom. Although it is still early days to assess the results of Morocco’s measures, we can see a positive emphasis on mitigating the unequal access to digital learning tools and infrastructure in the country. 

Senegal: a FAST transition to distance learning

In West Africa, COVID19 brings back memories of Ebola outbreaks. Many actors in the development sector have highlighted the necessity to use the lessons learned from Ebola to respond to the current crisis. In Senegal, following the decision to close schools on the 16th of March, the Ministry of Education announced that it would make use of its online platform Apprendre a la maison. This platform is similar in principle to that in Morocco and France but much less advanced technically. Senegal is not the only West African country that uses an online platform; Cote d’Ivoire is also relying on its platform Mon Ecole a la maison

Compared with high rates of accessibility to the internet in France and Morocco, Senegal only has internet access at 63% with 89% of internet access via mobile. This raises not only the challenge of the access to the platform but also its optimization for mobile use to allow students to attend courses at a distance. Similar to others, the platform prioritises the classes with national exams at the end of the year. Senegal shows the case of a country attempting to implement distant learning measures but seeing the limits of what can be achieved with a system that does not have a reliable digital infrastructure. It’s clear that the similarity of distant learning measures between France, Senegal and Morocco could be an opportunity for sharing common learning resources and technical expertise. Three very similar (in principle) French language platforms have been produced without benefiting from shared knowledge or pooled resources, a particular disadvantage for low-income nations. 

Haiti: stationary status?

In Haiti we see a different level of response again. The President, Jovenel Moise, announced a closure of schools and universities across the country on March 20th. Although the Ministry of Communication regularly shares information on social media, as we publish this blog post, only a few measures have been taken. The ministry announced the development of its online platform for distance learning but this raises questions in a country where only 12% of the population had access to the internet in 2019. Moreover the development of this platform comes almost one month after the school closures. 

The cost, human resources, technical capabilities, and fragility of the context all put extreme pressure on the ability of the education system to pivot to distance learning.  A quite similar situation has been observed in the Democratic Republic of Congo where the doubts on the ability of the state to respond to the crisis led to rumors of cancellation of the current school year that have since been denied by the government. In these contexts,  fragile health systems mean that social distancing needs to be prioritised over traditional learning measures which clearly challenges the ability to ensure continuity of learning. It is critical then for Haiti and other low-income and fragile countries to draw on low- and no-tech approaches to support continuity of learning. 

Can francophone countries share and learn better?

A look at responses of francophone education systems to coronavirus clearly illustrates an unequal capacity to ensure continuity of learning. In all these cases, EdTech has the potential to help learning. Capacity building and resources will be essential to mitigating the education emergency that has followed the health crisis. High-income countries assisting with both the financial and technical resources could support the development of long-term education system strengthening measures in low-income countries. This could include knowledge sharing, platform sharing or technical assistance. To be effective, it is clear that interventions will need to be tailored for each local context. Some countries, such as Morocco, will only need targeted support and some others need more structural development (such as Haiti). In any case, and in the urgency of the response needed, some low-cost solutions such as radio, television or minor adjustments to existing online platforms could have a major impact on education systems facing COVID-19. Addressing this multilingual pandemic should not be limited to a specific language and should come through a global collaboration. But in this common effort, shared language can catalyse action.

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