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Considering EdTech in climate emergencies: to what extent and when is it feasible?

Credit: A M Syed / Shutterstock.com

New research from EdTech Hub explores the response to climate emergencies following the Pakistan floods – the worst in recent history – and highlights the importance of utilising existing, most accessible technologies to ensure learning continuity.

According to the Global Climate Risk Index, Pakistan is the country with the eight highest risk from the effects of climate change in the world, yet it produces less than 1% of the world’s planet-warming emissions. Following a record-breaking heat wave at the start of the summer season, devastating floods hit Pakistan in June, leaving one-third of the country submerged in flood water. The Government of Pakistan worked with development partners to conduct a Post-Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) to measure damages caused by the flood and estimate needs for rehabilitation and construction. The PDNA revealed the flood’s devastating impact on Pakistan’s quest for national equity. This is particularly concerning when you consider that 22.8 million children were out of school before the Covid-19 pandemic, and of those in school, three out of four 10-year-olds could not read a simple sentence (World Bank, 2019).

In the six months since the floods began, the education of 3.5 million school-aged children has been disrupted. With poverty predicted to increase by 3.6–4 percentage points due to the floods, many children are at risk of dropping out of school because of increased financial burdens on their families (PDNA, 2022). Access challenges are further intensified by infrastructural damage; almost 26,000 schools have been destroyed, and a further 7,000 schools are being used as shelters for displaced people (Pakistan Education Sector Group, 2022). Of those children who are able to access schools, psychosocial pressures could potentially hinder the way they can benefit from their education.

In response to the challenges highlighted in the PDNA, the Pakistan Flood Response Plan outlines cross-sector approaches for relief and rehabilitation. Responses in education include restoring access to learning through Temporary Learning Centres (TLCs) that aim to provide children with a safe space, offer physiological and psychosocial support, and support learning continuity (OCHA, 2022). However, research from Pakistan’s 2010 floods identified challenges in supporting quality delivery at scale through TLCs (Alexander, 2011). At the same time, due to excessive damage to infrastructure, internet connectivity and textbooks, many distance learning modalities used during the Covid-19 pandemic are largely inaccessible (UNICEF, 2022).

This raises the question: to what extent and when is it feasible to use technology to support learning during climate emergencies in Pakistan?

To begin finding answers, EdTech Hub scanned existing literature on education in climate emergencies but found it to be an area of ‘non-knowledge’ (Selwyn, 2021). Literature including the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies’ (INEE)’s minimum standards and Save the Childrens framework on the ‘Ethical Use of EdTech in Emergencies’ offers useful guidance for effective response, but much of the evidence we have is in relation to Covid-19 (it now makes up 90% of studies about education in emergencies (Crompton et al, 2021)).

Considering the human catastrophe caused by the floods, existing evidence about education in emergencies cannot just be directly applied — it has to be contextualised first. To do this, EdTech Hub’s team engaged directly with flood-affected communities to gather a first-hand understanding of their needs to ensure recommended approaches were grounded in their lived experiences.

“Our teachers are disturbed, parents are disturbed everyone is disturbed. — Teacher Interview 

Due to the immense damage to infrastructure, gaining first-hand insights from people in the affected communities had to be done as simply as possible. The researchers used phone interviews and WhatsApp voice notes to connect with parents and teachers who were asked questions related to:

  • The flood’s impact on their life and routine
  • Access to technology and distance learning
  • Anticipated challenges for children’s education
  • Addressing challenges in education

During a phone call with a parent, Imdad Baloch, Country lead (EdTech Hub) was introduced to a child who dropped out of school: “The young child said he’d been withdrawn [from school] by his parents and now works in this shop. The child told me his siblings have also all been withdrawn — he wasn’t the only one. It was really distressing to listen to, and we know that there are many more [children] that this has happened to.”

These rapid response community insights were able to highlight the structural, psychosocial, attitudinal, and infrastructural challenges impacting learning continuity in Pakistan. These can be captured in four key takeaways:

  • Communication is crucial. Communication during the initial phases of emergency can open up avenues for psychosocial support and raise awareness on returning to school — avenues that are at risk of closing as time and circumstances drag on.
  • Utilise tools people already use. Share resources through tools communities have access to (WhatsApp and SMS) to support communities without access to flexible learning environments.
  • Leverage a variety of approaches. Multimodal approaches can enhance the delivery of psychosocial support and learning in flexible learning environments (including TLCs and community-based learning).
  • Learning loss can be remedied. Through multimodal approaches that help identify learning loss and support teaching at the right level, the loss of learning in climate emergencies can be addressed. 

“Alternative modalities should only be introduced if they, 1) help teachers bring quality delivery to scale, and 2) do not overburden communities. But given education in climate emergencies remains an area of ‘non-knowledge’, we need to work together — the government, development partners, researchers, and communities alike — to respond now and to build back better for any future emergency” 
— Haani Mazari, Country lead (EdTech Hub)

Like the emergency response to Covid-19 school closures, the education response to climate emergencies requires a whole systems approach. Governments and development partners can convene to ensure investments in education response are scalable to support improvements in access to and the quality of education.

Evidence shows that psychosocial support is the key pillar of any learning response that tech can enhance, so it must be considered when supporting student retention, developing flexible learning environments, and remedying learning loss. EdTech Hub is building on these preliminary insights through a deeper analysis of the feasible use of technology in response to Pakistan’s floods. Other organisations are also conducting research that should be used to make informed decisions.

Governments and development partners need to consider the extent to which existing plans to use EdTech to support learning continuity in emergencies are accessible and feasible in response to the floods. 

“Emergency situations are not the time to field test innovations without regard for pre-existing evidence. In the initial stages of an emergency response, the best approach is to focus on EdTech that is already familiar for the users and able to reach high numbers of learners. Decisions regarding the appropriate use of EdTech should be made by those that understand the details of the educational context and within the framework of the education cluster and cluster coordinator.” — David Hollow, Research Director (EdTech Hub)

While many overarching considerations in climate emergencies mirror those from education in other emergencies, it is crucial to consider how the feasible use of EdTech in climate emergencies is reframed by community needs. If used thoughtfully, technology has the potential to promote student retention, supplement lost resources, and support flexible learning environments while helping teachers to address learning loss. 

Read preliminary findings and recommendations from this project. The extended version will be released in early 2023.

Read more on the EdTech Hub’s work in response to the Pakistan floods.

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