Most of us may remember our first day at school, making friends and sharing experiences inside and outside of the classroom. In the same way, we might remember our graduation day and sharing with our friends the closing of a stage in our lives and the start of a new chapter full of dreams. Millions of students have lost these and many other formative experiences over the last 18 months. The COVID-19 pandemic has not only caused learning losses, but it has also impacted complementary interactions that were part of being at school or at a higher-level institution. Loss of daily structure, diminished social group interaction, fear of getting sick, uncertainty of the future, social distancing, amongst other factors, have affected and are still affecting the wellbeing of students. Studies in the US, Germany, Spain, Argentina, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Brazil show an increase in anxiety levels, stress, and depression symptoms.
According to the OECD young people were 30% to 80% more likely to report symptoms of depression or anxiety than adults in Belgium, France and the United States during 2021. Also, UNICEF reports that among students between the ages of 13-29 across nine countries in Latin America and the Caribbean 27% feel anxiety and 46% report less motivation to do activities they used to enjoy. While the global education community often empathizes the need for resilience (i.e. the ability to withstand, manage, and overcome cumulative stresses and shocks) across education systems, it is also important to think about the socioemotional resilience that students need during these times.
A review on the use of EdTech in developing countries found that technology-enabled behavioral interventions are highly cost-effective and that implementation and take-up play a crucial role in their potential success. Literature from FCV and refugee studies also shows that EdTech programs focused on providing psychosocial wellbeing support help students feel more connected and part of a learning community. Indeed, as the World Bank EdTech approach highlights education is as its core about human connections and any design should consider five principles to maximize engagement: be guided by a clear purpose and vision; be learner centered and reach all learners; empower teachers; engage an ecosystem of partners; and be data driven.
In this blog we aim to highlight some promising ways in which EdTech could be leveraged to support student’s wellbeing:
- Using hotlines to provide support and advice
Hotlines recently set up in response to the COVID‑19 crisis, as well as those preexisting ones, are playing an important role in providing emergency support to students and parents. Some countries such as Portugal and the US. have created free phone lines and/ or telehealth alternatives to support students, teachers, and parents.
France introduced the “chèque psy” (link in French) scheme in 2021, which allows university students to receive virtual or in person consultations with a psychologist for free and a platform with resources to support mental health of students. Australia has developed Headspace centers as well as a hotline offering support under the “headspace” program.
- Using text messages (SMS) and messaging services such as WhatsApp to create peer to peer networks and change behaviors
Interventions targeted at teachers or parents using messaging apps, SMS, and social media are both low-cost and low-tech and can be used to reduce parents’ information gaps, improve student attendance, and improve students’ overall sense of connection and mindset for learning. Small scale studies on refugee education also suggest that the flexibility and immediateness of these mediums can help diminish the perception of physical and social isolation among students and teachers.
During the pandemic, many countries have implemented messaging programs for teachers, students and parents such as Dominican Republic, Malawi and El Salvador. In Chile, Sumate foundation, a second chance schools network, implemented a program to continue to give emotional support and education continuity to students through WhatsApp and social media. A recent intervention in Ghana is introducing SMS to improve parents’ engagement in educational activities, and promote gender parity in education through messages promoting girls’ education and addressing some common stereotypes around gender roles during the school closures.
- Using online platforms and apps and gamification strategies to provide socio-emotional support and coaching
EdTech-related pedagogies and modalities by themselves may also support psychosocial wellbeing as they enable communication at local and global levels, often involve some element of play and recreation, and require skills such as teamwork and planning.
Online platforms and initiatives focused on developing 21st century skills and socio emotional skills are crucial for students to navigate the shocks caused by the pandemic and any other challenges going forward. Wellness Together Canada is a portal that offers no-cost wellness self-assessment, tracking and support resources, and counseling by text or phone. The EVOKE project, in its many iterations provides an open online educational experience (which includes project based learning, coaching, gamification and interactive content) that helps students acquire 21st century skills (creativity, communication, critical reflection), socio-emotional skills (curiosity, empathy, generosity, resilience), and gain the confidence to experiment, collaborate, and create innovative solutions. The platform and app JovenSalud.net offers free, confidential online coaching for youth in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the US. JovenSalud also offers advice to girls and boys on how to avoid high risk sexual behaviors.
Apps that use gamification strategies such as EduApp4Syria for refugee education and Stubbe for out of school children have been successful in supporting psychosocial wellbeing. A more recent innovation M-Shule is a personalized learning platform operating in Kenya and Uganda that uses SMS and Artificial Intelligence to build skills for refugee learners through the support of refugee-led organizations.
It is important to note that all of these EdTech interventions, which aim to improve wellbeing, are complementary to regular instruction, whether in-person, hybrid, or remote. While more robust evidence is needed to assess their potential impact, they represent a low-cost method to provide students with some sense of connection to their peers or to more professional help, as well as providing parents and teachers information to support students (and themselves) during continued times of uncertainty and isolation. World Mental Health Day, which is celebrated on October 10, should allow us to reflect on the impact of COVID-19 on people’s mental health and specially that of students, teachers, and parents.