Nine takeaways from our reviews of COVID-19 education responses

by Rachel Chuang, Tom Kaye, Saalim Koomar, Chris McBurnie, and Caitlin Moss Coflan

Regular readers will know about our Helpdesk, the on-demand support service we provide for FCDO advisers and World Bank staff to help them make evidence-informed decisions.

Since the onset of coronavirus, the Helpdesk team has responded to requests from 15 countries across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East to review and provide input on various COVID-19 response documents. Below we share a list of nine takeaways.

Most of these takeaways came out of the coronavirus-specific context, but they have wider relevance than just pandemic response. They’re good ideas for any education decision-makers to consider, at any time.

Take stock of (and use) what already exists

Back in 2013, the World Bank published a post saying: 

“The best technology is the one you already have, know how to use, and can afford.” Wise words. Our research suggests that EdTech programmes are more successful if they spend more time considering what digital infrastructure already exists, and how it could be put to better use. Data on things like internet coverage, mobile phone or radio ownership and existing digital content are useful, particularly if they focus on accessibility to specific marginalised groups (eg girls.) See our recent post about building ICT infrastructure in a pandemic for more.

Just owning a device isn’t enough for learning

Owning a digital device doesn’t mean it’s being used in specific ways, and doesn’t mean that a child is learning. Uwezo data from Kenya shows that while 62% of Kenyan households own a radio, only about 19% of Kenyan learners tune into radio lessons. Meanwhile, a smaller percentage (45%) of Kenyan households own a television, but 42% of Kenyan learners are tuning into educational TV. It’s useful for decision-makers to collect data on how learners and their families use (or don’t use) devices. Data on how learners and their families use (or don’t use) devices and engage with programming should be continuously collected and used to inform and improve projects.

Sometimes paper works just fine

In countries where ICT infrastructure is very limited, printed materials are still a great way of reaching the most marginalised learners. We’ve seen several EdTech programmes designed with this in mind. For example, one project proposed that learners drop their completed paper assignments at a central location for community teachers to review. We loved this idea as a solution to keep both learners and teachers engaged. What would take it to the next level? Maybe closing the loop by actually returning assignments to learners with constructive feedback from their teachers; this enables teacher-learner interaction.

Distance learning needs distance learning pedagogy

As we wrote in a recent paper, good pedagogical practices are crucial to encourage students to engage in learning while schools are closed. That includes things like well-structured interactive lessons with frequent checks for understanding, and meeting needs of individual learners. It is all too common for teachers to create audio or video content by reading straight from a textbook. Unfortunately, we know this doesn’t engage learners. Instead, curating high-quality digital learning content may increase learners’ access to excellent pedagogy in two ways. It is more likely to expose students to pedagogy that they wouldn’t experience in the classroom; and means teachers can focus more on “teacher presence” and engaging their students, rather than on generating original content. And on that subject:

Curate content rather than create it

Generating new unique digital content takes time and costs money. We recommend investing that time in researching the content that already exists, and curating it around learning objectives. Clustering content around learning levels and objectives may be more efficient and more responsive to learner needs than providing content to cover the entire curriculum for each grade. The Guide to Accelerated Education Principles is a useful starting point.

If you provide hardware, make it targeted – and always provide wraparound support

Hardware dumping does not work, but targeted provision of hardware to specific groups can be helpful. For example, we have seen some very reasonable proposals to provide solar powered radios or other devices with preloaded content to marginalised learners. But programme designers should think more about what’s needed beyond hardware: things like digital literacy support for children and for those supporting their learning, and how to maintain devices. Communication campaigns help keep families aware of ways to access distance learning, and keep learners, parents, and caregivers attuned to safeguarding concerns.

Involve parents and ‘home teachers’ as much as possible

A recent study from the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development points to the important role that parents and siblings play in remote learning. For children living in rural Bangladesh, 35% received support from a sibling or relative and 24% received support from their mother while studying at home. The upshot is clear: just as we need many different ways to reach learners, we need many different ways to reach parents too, including low-tech and no-tech options.

Be careful with incentives and accountability

No matter how well-intentioned they are, incentives that encourage student and teacher attendance and engagement can sometimes backfire. Sometimes, they can make equity issues worse. This is especially true during a global pandemic when children and families are encountering stressful circumstances. Students aren’t helped by assignment grades without constructive feedback from teachers. Teachers in some rural locations might have limited access to technology and electricity so won’t be able to participate in virtual professional development activities through no fault of their own. Carefully consider the possible negative consequences before rolling out any incentive scheme.

Stay nimble

It’s good to make detailed, specific plans, but those plans should include a series of reflect-and-adapt moments where it is not only accepted but expected that things will change based on what’s happened so far. Rather than plan a year’s worth of educational content in advance, maybe curate a few weeks’ worth, see how that works, and use what you learn to plan a few more.

FCDO and World Bank readers, learn more about submitting a Helpdesk request and what to expect from us after you submit a Helpdesk request.

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