Testing Technology: Optimizing Low-Tech Phone & Radio Solutions In Kenya and Sierra Leone

Photo: A child and their caregiver receive remote phone tutorial support at home. Photo credit: Youth Impact.

Over 1.6 billion students were affected by Covid-19 school closures, with an estimated global average of 14 weeks of school lost  (UNESCO, 2021). This compounded a learning crisis that existed before the pandemic and has increased inequality, as the most marginalized were often left without structured learning for longer periods (Brookings, 2022). 

With nearly 90% of countries utilizing some form of technology at the peak of the pandemic (UNICEF, 2020), EdTech platforms have gained increased visibility as tools to facilitate quality educational delivery. Interventions that leverage ‘low- and middle-technology,’ or platforms that don’t require expensive hardware inputs and the internet to be effective, have shown particular promise. Unlike higher-tech options that have been shown to contribute to a growing digital divide between higher- and lower-income communities, these platforms are widely accessible in most settings.

Using simple tools to solve a complex problem

Solutions that leverage low- and middle-tech platforms are particularly appropriate in contexts like Kenya and Sierra Leone — the focus countries in our research. Kenya has only 43% internet penetration compared with 98% mobile penetration (Datareportal, 2020). A similar trend exists in Sierra Leone, where just 5.7% of households have access to a computer while 71% of households own lower-tech tools like radio or mobile phones (EdTech Hub Country Scan, 2020). 

However, governments in both countries have struggled to support distance learning at home during school closures.  A May 2020 report issued by Uwezo found that only one-quarter of Kenyan students were accessing digital learning during Covid-19 school closures. Nearly one-quarter of households were not using any remote learning method (Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, 2020).  An IPA survey in Sierra Leone in June 2020 found that most children were relying on their own school books for learning during school closures, with 5% accessing online content (IPA, 2020).

Expanding research into low- and middle-tech education solutions

Continued focus on the most promising low-tech approaches can therefore advance two important goals. First, study trials in new country contexts can demonstrate a use-case for widespread low-tech platforms in settings where they are currently underutilized. Second, evidence on mechanisms that drive effective low- and middle-tech programming inform a longer-term public good on core methods to improve the delivery and scale that are adaptable across contexts. 

With support from EdTech Hub, Youth Impact is implementing a set of studies to advance our understanding of low- and middle-tech programming in new contexts. In Kenya, we are partnering with NewGlobe to study optimizations of phone-based remote tutoring, a popular approach that was previously found to be effective during the pandemic (Nature Human Behaviour, 2022). In Sierra Leone, we are working with Rising Academies to test the uptake and effectiveness of radio programming, which is one of the most popular remote learning platforms used by governments.

Researching optimizations to scale phone-based education programming

Sometimes the easiest solutions are already in front of us. Tools like basic mobile phones and radios are cheap and easy to access but are often overlooked as an effective platform to support education. A recent study (Youth Impact) that we conducted in Botswana showed that simple 20-minute phone tutorials coupled with practice math problems sent through SMS could reduce cases of innumeracy by up to 31%. The intervention was inexpensive, costing between USD 5 and USD 19 per child, and has been cited as a cost-effective intervention to improve learning (World Bank, 2020). 

Still, more evidence is needed on how low-tech options can be best used in  education settings, including whether and to what extent they can continue to be effective when regular schooling is ongoing. In Kenya, we are building on an existing body of evidence on successful low-tech programs conducted in Botswana, Nepal and Bangladesh to test optimizations leading to more effective delivery. 

For example, exploring the use of low-tech platforms based on gender and urban/rural settings can ensure everyone who needs this program can get it. Moreover, answering questions on the extent to which phone-based programs lead to positive spillovers in classrooms can describe the impacts of phone interventions that have been less studied. Knowing the best ways to deliver these programs and the key, critical elements of their success can help us reduce costs and increase uptake.

Exploring educational radio

In Sierra Leone, we are assessing the uptake and effectiveness of educational radio programming across the country. 

Radio programs (like mobile phones) are extremely low cost, have the potential to reach children on a massive scale and are already some of the most popular EdTech responses delivered by governments. Perhaps most famously, interactive radio instruction (IRI) stands out as a notable success story related to EdTech. These interventions, in which teachers and classes engage in a range of group activities prompted by radio broadcasting, have been shown to be effective in multiple settings. 

And yet, little evidence is available outside of IRI settings where students and caregivers are engaged in more direct, home-based radio programming. A recent survey conducted by the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel estimates that, while delivering radio directly into households was one of the most popular distance education solutions adopted in low-income countries, only a small proportion of programs have been studied using high-quality research designs (GEEAP, 2022). More research on the benefits of radio can inform better use of the platform for education purposes, including addressing challenges to uptake, which remains an issue when delivering radio programming (Ho & Thukral, 2009). 

Future implications

As the world turns towards a post-pandemic future, the time is ripe to innovate streamlined approaches that respond to our ongoing learning crisis. At the same time, governments looking to efficiently utilize large education and ICT budgets can benefit from the knowledge of the potential for various low-tech platforms and the relative cost-effectiveness of each. To this end, optimized low-tech education programming will be critical in supporting more targeted, accessible and impactful education programming. 

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