The remote learning paradox: How governments can truly minimize COVID-related learning losses

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A student studying at home, Karail Taltala Slum, Dhaka.
A student studying at home, Karail Taltala Slum, Dhaka. Photo Credit: Mowshomi Akter

Remote learning is having a moment. With prolonged school closures and re-closures, this moment is becoming more consequential by the day. And governments are all-in. A recent survey of 149 countries shows that nearly all have included remote learning in their education response to COVID-19. 

But examine this pivot to remote learning closely, and you see a paradox. Governments are prioritizing online solutions to minimize learning losses. However, the students who are most at risk of learning losses cannot access online solutions. Globally, 60 percent of national remote learning solutions rely exclusively on on-line platforms.  Yet, almost 47 percent of school students do not have access to the Internet at home.  We call this the Remote Learning Paradox.

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Source: Author calculations from ITU, World Bank, UNICEF & UNESCO Data

In some cases, the remote learning paradox is also visible at the country level. For example, despite Cambodia’s internet penetration being only 40 percent, it has allocated about 54 percent more for online learning (US$ 1.7 Million) compared to TV & Radio (US$ 1.1 Million). Rich countries are not immune either. In the US, where schools are nearly exclusively online since mid-March 2020, nearly 14 percent of households with school-age children do not have internet access.

It is precisely these students - who do not have access to internet - that most need government support to prevent learning losses. Around 3 out of 4 students who cannot be reached by existing remote learning opportunities come from rural areas and/or poor households. Students from the poorest 40 percent of families account for 74 - 86 percent of those who cannot be reached by existing remote learning solutions in middle-income countries and 47 percent in low-income countries.  At the same time, students from poor families are more likely to have low learning, and are much more susceptible to experiencing further learning losses and higher dropouts due to COVID. 

“I am frustrated that teachers are not taking enough measures to educate us, even though they are getting paid regularly. Poor students are usually bound to do some household chores to support their family financially which affects their learning. They are not taking any online lessons. They need help.” -  Lulu Bhuiyan, older brother of a secondary school student in Dhaka, Bangladesh

This is not to say that governments are not investing in offline solutions at all. Most countries have multi-modal systems in place, which supplement online solutions with TV/Radio programs and/or take-home packages. However, often off-line solutions receive less resources, attention, and emphasis compared to online solutions. 

We undertook a systematic review of government COVID-19 Education response plans from around the world and found that South Asian countries made about three times as many references to online interventions as to offline initiatives. This despite the fact that online learning can reach only 7 percent of its 430 Million students, while TV reaches 60 percent. And this is not just true for South Asia. Somalia’s plan references online learning twice as much as offline learning;  Philippines’ plan mentions online learning about 211 times compared to only 41 for TV.  

And this is not just true for governments, it may be true of parents and students themselves. In India, even as poor families struggle with WhatsApp lessons, few are interested in the over 32 remote-learning television channels. In Bangladesh, most poor secondary students (86 percent) are aware of government provided TV-based learning programs; yet only half of the students with access to these programs choose to access them, even when they don’t have access to online learning. 

What explains the remote learning paradox? One set of explanations, which we don’t explore, rest on political incentives. Another hypothesis is that online solutions receive relatively more attention because they are perceived to be more effective, more promising, and more exciting than offline solutions. In a recent survey of 149 ministries of education, only 6 percent of countries rated online learning platforms as ineffective. In contrast, 13 percent countries rated TV and 22 percent rated Radio as ineffective.

This could partly be driven by hype. Online solutions present a heady world of buzzwords and delicious promises- personalized learning, adaptive learning, immersive learning, so much learning!  And these are not always empty catch-phrases. As evaluations of computer-assisted learning and Mindspark – both of which can work offline, but at some point require internet connectivity and device investments - have shown, online solutions can provide strong results. And provided access is ensured, they can also be cost-effective!

But the idea that online solutions should get more attention because they are more effective is misleading in at least three ways. First, as shown above, online solutions don’t reach nearly as many students as offline solutions do, especially those in urgent need of help. Second, there are several examples where expensive online solutions have not only been ineffective, they have reduced student learning (examples from Romania and from the US).

The third way this is misleading is reverse causality. One could make the following argument: it’s not that online solutions get more investments because they are more effective. Instead, online solutions have higher likelihood of appearing more effective because they get more investment. The global ed-tech market which was valued at US$ 163 billion pre-COVID19 is expected to be valued at US$ 404 billion by 2025. Many companies offer free and engaging content online as a marketing strategy. The popular technology mantra is: if you are not paying for the product, you are the product. This is the formula companies like Coursera have followed. Similarly, India’s most valuable Edtech startup BYJU’S saw 7.5 million new users on its platform since it started offering free access to content. 

In contrast, there is often a (false) perception that TV and radio learning offers only boring, outdated, and non-engaging content. This may be true in some cases. Broadcasted lessons may have poor or uneven quality. But this only reflects a lack of investment.

“We have collaborated with Radio Sarathi FM (Local FM) which broadcasts curriculum-based classes for Grade 1 to 8. We have 1000 students and around 60% of them have been listening to radio. In radio, sometimes they broadcast the contents prepared for TV hence it sounds awkward at times …  they should tailor contents to radio listeners … subjects like Nepali and Social studies are easy(ier) to grasp because the contents are presented in drama/play format. It would be good if difficult subjects could also be presented in a simplified way.” - Mr. Dhalmani Bhandari, Head teacher, Baglung, Nepal

It doesn’t have to be this way. When offline solutions have engaging and well-crafted content, they can be both high-coverage and high-effectiveness. The widely popular Sesame Street, an American educational TV show, has been adopted worldwide for local audiences and shown evidence towards improving foundational skills in Indonesia and India. Similarly, Ubongo, an educational show for kids in Tanzania has seen similar results. And even basic TV programming can be valuable for the poorest students. In Bangladesh, 76 percent of poor Grade 9 students who watched government’s Sangsad TV, found the broadcasts motivating. 

Basic phones are also offering strong offline remote learning. An intervention in Botswana which used basic feature phones reduced innumeracy by 52 percent and average numeracy skills increased by 24 percent compared to a control group. The intervention was able to reach even remote regions of Botswana and only required SMS & phone calls. Eneza Education (in Kenya, Ghana & Ivory Coast) offers learning and revision material via basic feature phones and has impacted over 6 million leaners with a 23 percent improvement in academic performance after usage for 9 months. 

Ultimately, online or offline, it is the quality of the content that matters (see for example this study). The bottom line is: countries around the world are under-investing in offline solutions, which are critical to preventing learning losses and dropouts among the poorest children. Offline solutions can have massive reach, and if designed well, they can be highly effective in keeping at-risk students connected and engaged with education.

Poor children need and deserve learning solutions they can access today – and these solutions must be designed and delivered with much more care, expertise, and resources. It has been done, it can be done. 


Cristian Aedo

Practice Manager for Education, East Asia and Pacific Region.

Vatsal Nahata

Consultant, World Bank Group

Shwetlena Sabarwal

Lead Economist, Education Global Practice, World Bank

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