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Placing ‘World-Class’ Digital Learning Solutions in Every Child and Young Person’s Hands by 2030

© UNICEF/Kudzai Tinago

UNICEF and EdTech Hub are partnering together to improve learning outcomes through effective uses of EdTech and digital learning. This guest post from UNICEF team members focuses on the first pillar of UNICEF’s Reimagine Education initiative, world-class digital learning solutions.

More than 1.8 trillion hours of in-person learning have been lost due to Covid-19 school closures, affecting 1.6 billion students at the peak of the pandemic. Education systems were tested, and inequalities were exacerbated. The most affected groups include girls, learners with disabilities, and those living in rural, remote, and conflict-affected areas, putting around 24 million students at risk of not returning to school. 

The education response to Covid-19 largely leveraged online platforms (91% of countries) and TV (85%) to provide remote learning.  While there has been an increase in enrolments on high-quality digital learning platforms, equitable access to these solutions remains a challenge. Globally, 31% of schoolchildren cannot be reached by remote learning, with 1.3 billion school-age children having no internet access at home. This digital divide has direct implications on the continuity of learning and availability of relevant learning resources and content, especially for the most marginalised children. 

UNICEF and partners are working to narrow the learning and digital divides to ensure that current and future generations can develop the full range of skills – foundational, transferable, digital, entrepreneurial, and job-specific — that they need for school, work, and life. As the digital learning market is expected to reach $458 billion by 2026 with a plethora of digital learning tools available, ensuring that all children and young people have ‘world class’ solutions with relevant content at their fingertips is a priority. This is why UNICEF places equity at the heart of its interventions, setting an ambitious goal to reach 3.5 billion children and young people by 2030 through its Reimagine Education initiative.

Defining ‘world-class’ 

UNICEF has developed a practical set of criteria that serves as a starting point for selecting digital learning solutions that are relevant in a variety of contexts, for a diverse group of learners, are forward-looking, and child-centered. Digital solutions in and of themselves are just a starting point — the way they are implemented is equally important for impact. To be considered as ‘world-class’, we believe the tools should be: 

  • Interactive: able to respond to input provided by learners, with the ability to close feedback loops in real time for learners and other stakeholders, such as teachers and parents. 
  • Adaptive: capable of meeting students’ learning levels by personalising instruction and increasing effectiveness of learning, including through the application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning. 
  • Inclusive: designed to be accessible and aligned with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles to help children with disabilities and all children learn, and with a focus on other marginalised and vulnerable groups such as girls, ethnolinguistic minorities, and children on the move.
  • Market-relevant: available online and offline, in relevant languages, and allowing learners to practise and refine relevant skills in their respective contexts.  
  • Playful: employing gamification, and other forms of play-based learning, so children can learn how the physical and social worlds work. 
  • Nimble: able to interact and be interoperable with other solutions, gather and share data, and integrate with other pedagogical approaches and modalities. 

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Here are two examples of digital learning solutions that UNICEF and partners have deployed in development contexts to support children’s learning. Their design meets many of the criteria described above for “world class” digital learning solutions. 

  • The Learning Passport — a  UNICEF-Microsoft joint initiative — has  enabled learning for over 1.6 million learners in 14 countries (and counting), and was voted as one of Time’s 100 Best Inventions of 2021. In Lao PDR, the Learning Passport was adapted as Khang Phanya Lao and used not only for continuous learning but also as a platform for teacher professional development. Research is planned to assess impact on learning outcomes and teachers.
  • The Akelius Digital Language Learning Course — a partnership between UNICEF and Akelius Foundation — has helped refugee and migrant children learn languages in their host countries. In Greece, it has been linked with improvements in students’ Greek language proficiency. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, interactive and inclusive content enabled migrant and refugee children to learn English. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees showed significant improvements in foreign languages and art competencies.

Through implementation of Reimagine Education, UNICEF has crystallised lessons learnt to support equitable approaches to world-class digital learning solutions at scale:

  1. An uncompromising focus on reaching the most marginalised children at scale. Viet Nam is providing digital literacy and skills for all of their 21.2 million preschool to upper secondary students.  Kenya and Uganda are facilitating learning for children with disabilities with inclusive education through Accessible Digital Textbooks. 
  1. Work with teachers and parents to ensure that the most marginalised receive the necessary scaffolding to engage in digital learning. Digital learning does not mean learning in isolation: with the right pedagogical approaches, digital learning can enrich group activities and project-based learning. Having skilled professionals and empowered caregivers is essential. In Jamaica, a Virtual Instructional Leadership course provides school leaders with exposure to relevant technology to improve their knowledge of tools, resources, platforms, and practices of leading remotely. 
  1. Keep learning at the centre to improve children’s outcomes. Rapid and regular assessments embedded in digital platforms allow for more personalised and relevant learning. In India, Mindspark – a computer-assisted adaptive learning program –  enabled one of the largest improvements in learning outcomes for Hindi and maths, in a short space of time, and was especially effective for academically weaker students. The program used continuous evaluation of learners’ progress to identify challenges and the best course of action to support learning.  

Reaching 3.5 billion children and young people by 2030 is no small feat, calling for a consolidated effort and partnerships that can allow for world-class digital solutions to be inclusive, equitable, and innovative. With the largest generation of young people in history, the time for action is now. 

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