Our helpdesk and COVID-19: Demand-driven advice for decision-makers

From the Helpdesk: Observations and guidance on educational response planning during the COVID-19 crisis

Written by Rachel Chuang, Tom Kaye, Caitlin Moss Coflan & Arjun Upadhyay (EdTech Hub Helpdesk Management Team)

Amid one of the biggest global disruptions to schooling in living memory, countries are quickly developing distance education responses for students. The EdTech Hub’s Helpdesk is providing evidence-informed responses to requests for support from governments and their partners as they face this challenge. 

While the Helpdesk’s response time is rapid (our start-to-finish timeline generally spans 2 to 12 business days), our guidance takes a longer-term view. The level of funding mobilised by the global community to respond to COVID-19 is unlikely to last. With this in mind, investments that countries are making now must cover immediate needs and medium- to long-term improvement of learning outcomes. The Helpdesk is partnering with countries to integrate this principle into the design of recovery programs. This blog takes a look at the guidance we’ve been sharing. 

Key guidance from the Helpdesk for educational response planning

#1: Take stock of existing assets to meet the needs of all learners through a multimodal approach. 

Many countries are moving quickly to develop distance learning solutions rooted in interactive radio programming, educational television, and SMS. But in the rush to act, some are missing what we think is a quick but crucial step: a brief scan and analysis of available data to inform the design of a distance learning strategy. Many decision-makers already look at key data on student demographics and education infrastructure to inform programming. However, a stocktaking should go beyond education to include data on existing ICT tools and infrastructure. This assessment should include the availability of print media, radio, TV, mobile devices and cellular subscriptions, laptops, and internet and electricity across the country. 

Data should also be collected, where possible, on learner characteristics. Planners and decision-makers should define learner segments, for example, location, socio-economic status, age groups, gender, special educational needs or disabilities, and determine how access to ICT tools and infrastructure may differ across them. They should then develop a plan for the appropriate combination of distance learning modes. This multimodal strategy can differentiate distance learning options to meet learners where they are. 

#2: Start local and simple, using existing infrastructure and materials. 

Armed with data on ICT and education infrastructure and learner segments, policymakers are well-positioned to design programmes with a wide reach. They can also make the most of the country’s existing resources. Many countries may well be able to make important ICT investments that will support distance learning in the longer term; this might include building e-learning platforms and learning management systems. However, in the immediate term, it is imperative to first use existing infrastructure and ways to swiftly and cost-effectively address learner needs. Actions include publishing educational content in newspapers to supplement radio content or mobilising teachers and community-based facilitators to check-in via phone on children’s wellbeing. In the current pandemic, teachers, caregivers, parents, older siblings, and communities can play an important role in enabling students to continue learning. Most children are unlikely to have the opportunity, skills, or confidence to meaningfully use self-study materials without the support of adults or peers.

Existing local content is preferable, as it accounts for local sensitivities and is more likely to be in the languages spoken by children and parents. Countries must also ensure that content is appropriate for the learning levels of students. Lessons can be clustered across student learning levels, grades, or ages to reduce the amount of content that must be produced. For example, mathematics content for Grade 8 may also serve as a good reinforcer for Grade 9 or Grade 10 students. Many countries have clustered content around certificated exams, which can also be used for grade levels above and below.

#3: Balance a rapid response with a longer-term outlook.

The level of international aid available at the moment to fund responses to COVID-19 will not be available in the longer term. As noted previously, we encourage using existing infrastructure and materials targeted to learner segments as much as possible within the next 3 to 6 months. In this short span of time, any attempts to pivot to online learning are anticipated to exclude rural, impoverished, and marginalised learners (see, for example, The privilege of #pivotonline: A South African perspective). Using readily available resources, especially low-tech and no-tech options that are most likely to reach these learners, is more important than ever.

One Helpdesk requester neatly summarised the question on many of our minds. They asked, “What can we do to make sure we do not find ourselves in this position again in 2021?” The next 6 to 9 months of school closures offer an opportunity to prepare for an education system reboot. UNESCO highlights several areas that require focus and planning, including the learning recovery process and development of back to school strategies. In particular, support systems and community campaigns are needed for marginalised learners. These students are most at risk of being left out of distance learning strategies and not returning when schools reopen

However, investments in distance learning infrastructure made during this time must extend beyond the pandemic. In fact, this unprecedented crisis reinforces the importance of education system reforms that were initiated pre-COVID. For example, partners at Sierra Leone’s Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation and the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education are continuing previously initiated work to refine an existing education data hub. This includes conducting user research on parent, teacher, citizen and education partner needs, and planning how the platform can be used to support recovery from the pandemic. The consideration of long-term needs will enable countries to build education system resilience and to make more inclusive education systems for the future. 

Looking ahead

The EdTech Hub’s Helpdesk went live on 22 April 2020. In the four weeks since launching, we have received 21 requests from countries across Asia and Africa. We reviewed programs requesting funding through the Global Partnership for Education accelerated COVID-19 response window, responded to questions from government officials and development partners (for example, these questions from Nepal); we generated briefs on zero-rating educational content and learning management systems, as well as a curated evidence list on interactive radio instruction. These resources constitute ‘just in time,’ evidence-based analysis developed in a matter of days by EdTech Hub staff and our pool of expert consultants. While they represent our best current thinking, there will always be more to learn, and we expect to update them as we do so.

By the end of June, the Helpdesk will respond to at least 9 additional requests. Moving forward, we anticipate that requests may shift from focusing on urgent educational response planning and re-programming to the ‘how’ questions of implementing these plans. Eventually, when safe, we hope to see a focus on back-to-school initiatives. Regardless of how the pandemic evolves, our team will continue to support countries to think through the decisions they make about the equitable use of technology in education. 


As a reminder, DFID and World Bank staff are welcome to submit a Helpdesk request at this link. We also invite you to sign up for user research to help make the EdTech Hub website more useful and relevant.

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