At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, as 1.6 billion schoolchildren were affected by school closures, countries around the world introduced remote learning as a crisis-response. This led to an unprecedented change in the provision of education. Most countries found themselves setting up remote learning at break-neck speed and often for the first time at scale, which contributed to large variations in the quality and effectiveness of remote learning programs.
Two years of disruptions to schooling has had a devastating impact on learning. But even before the pandemic, the world was grappling with a learning crisis, which has now worsened even further than previously feared. Pre-pandemic data show that half of ten-year-olds living in low- and middle-income countries were unable to read or understand a simple story, which is referred to as learning poverty. It is now estimated that learning poverty could reach 70 percent globally due to the learning lost to school closures.
We should not forget the magnitude of the inequalities in education that were exacerbated by the pandemic. Globally, more than 635 million children remain affected by full or partial school closures. But in low- and middle-income countries, school closures often lasted longer than in high-income countries, and the response was typically less effective. The long-term effects of a third year of school disruptions are unfathomable. However, despite the grave challenges that countries are faced with, what gives us hope is that there is a spotlight on education and the recognition that education is key to recovery from the pandemic, especially economic recovery.
Tools to support delivery of quality remote learning
By investing in learning recovery and using technology wisely, the pandemic can be a catalyst to improve education for all children. Countries need to urgently invest in developing contextually appropriate Learning Recovery Programs that can help recover and accelerate learning. First, they should reopen schools and ensure the re-enrollment and retention of all students. Second, they should measure learning levels using suitable assessment tools, identifying the specific contents that students have yet to master. Third, and based on this data, countries should take actions to promote effective learning: consolidating the curriculum to prioritize foundational learning, extending instructional time, and increasing the efficiency of instruction through teacher supports and pedagogical approaches such as targeted instruction, self-guided learning, structured pedagogy and tutoring,
The effective use of technology is an integral part of these learning recovery strategies. This is why UNICEF and the World Bank, with funding from GPE and in partnership with Cambridge Education, have created a set of global public goods: seven Resource Packs that are designed to support government officials and education practitioners with strengthening, designing, and implementing effective remote learning opportunities for children in development and humanitarian contexts. These tools comprise an umbrella resource pack which provides the background information and framework to use each of the six topical ones focused on radio, TV, print, digital technology, mobile, and formative assessment. Each pack covers early learning, primary and secondary levels with approaches for the most marginalized children who were mostly left out of remote learning at the height of the pandemic. They also include guidance, tools, and case studies to support localized deployment and the delivery of quality remote learning.
Many remote learning programs combine several different technologies or media in a ‘multi-channel’ approach. For example, a TV broadcast might be accompanied by a website and mobile applications containing learning exercises, such as Morocco’s Athaqafia television channel broadcasting educational lessons covering the national curriculum. SMS message campaigns can be used to raise awareness or to provide interactivity, such as Remote Learning Botswana - a ‘low-tech’ solution that uses SMS messages and phone calls to provide basic skills in numeracy for primary-aged children in low-income households. Digital solutions for remote learning have the potential to provide rich opportunities for learning, a way to widen access, to create more flexible learning opportunities, and to distribute and re-use content developed for broadcast on radio or TV. They can also be used to offer supplemental print or broadcast media with study-guides, timetables, and guidance for parents on how to support children’s learning at home. Pratham, India curated a repository including videos, games, and stories in 12 languages, where parents are encouraged to offer ‘a little fun, a little learning’ through hands-on activities at home, guided by these resources.
We must not forget the holistic needs of learners, including their mental health and psychosocial needs, and that while schools remain closed, children are at a far higher risk. Our key priority is to make sure schools remain open, and that learning loss caused by the pandemic is remedied and recovered. Remote learning innovations using Educational Technology must build upon the foundational understanding that education is, at its heart, about human connections – between students, teachers, caregivers, principals, and broader communities. By incorporating remote learning and building hybrid systems, we will build resilient education systems and we can help recover learning by extending learning beyond the classroom. We hope that countries will leverage and extend the investments made during COVID taking into consideration that lessons we learned, the successes and failures of technology.
Even as schools re-open, remote learning will retain a role after this pandemic. The first is to extend instructional time beyond the normal school day to catch up for lost time and help address learning losses. Students can take extra remedial learning at home. The second is to ensure that systems are resilient and prepared - that in the face of future school closures due to climate change disasters, war, conflict, insecurity or even future pandemics, learning can continue. The third is to enable learning for students who drop out of school by providing a second chance at education. Some countries are repurposing their remote learning investments to create virtual or open schools. Finally, remote learning will be part of the schools of the future, where children can learn anywhere and anytime. The schools of the future need to be flexible and adapt to the needs of students.
The case studies in the resource packs illustrate how successful remote learning programs worldwide have depended upon teachers, parents, and the broader community to enable and support remote learning. By strengthening human connections through remote learning, we contribute to mental health and psychosocial support for children and young people, both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. This moment is our once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform and reimagine education and support learners to leapfrog into the future, and it takes all of us to seize the momentum.
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