Even before COVID-19 hit, 90% of children in low-income countries could not read and understand a simple story when they reached their 10th birthday. In Nigeria, three-quarters of primary teachers cannot pass a fourth grade test. The onset of COVID-19 is exacerbating the global learning crisis.
At its peak, COVID-19 pushed 1.6 billion children out of school. By October, schools in 92 countries will remain closed. These months of lost learning disproportionately affect the poorest and the most marginalised. In a new report, 8 out of 10 children surveyed in 46 countries reported that they have learnt very little or not at all since COVID-19 began. This lost potential is catastrophic not just for individuals, but for future economies and generations.
Education technology and COVID-19
This does not have to be the case. COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on education technology — including all forms of remote learning — which has the potential to reach the poorest children. There are a number of successful interventions, from Rising on Air which is reaching over 10 million children through radio programming, to Tangerine: Coach which provides continuous professional development for teachers. However, these successful examples are not widespread; for the most part, EdTech has not lived up to its potential thus far. In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 90% of students don’t have access to a computer at home and 82% cannot access the internet. Globally, 56 million live in areas without mobile networks.
So what can be done?
This emerging catastrophe needs action. To leverage the existing spotlight on EdTech and ensure it can be transformational for delivering on foundational literacy, in September, ONE brought together education policy experts, EdTech companies, and implementers to debate solutions and help shape a way forward.
Here are 5 key principles that emerged:
1. The conversation on EdTech is not a matter of if but when and how: COVID-19 has demonstrated that we need to ensure children can continue to learn when their schooling is interrupted, and EdTech is one of the most promising initiatives to get there. How we talk about EdTech also matters: for there to be sustained interest, messaging around EdTech needs to go much beyond being linked to COVID-19. The opportunities for EdTech are endless, even when we are not in a pandemic, and highlighting this is critical for the long-term success of these efforts. But we also need to be cautious when it comes to the details because…
2. If we don’t close the digital divide, EdTech has the potential of going from the great equalizer to the great unequalizer: Ensuring that EdTech reaches the most marginalized populations is critical; without this, only those who are already advantaged will have access to EdTech, while the poor will continue to fall further behind. As a result, COVID-19 has raised the stakes because it risks exacerbating inequities in terms of the digital divide, hardware, and software.
3. EdTech needs to build on pedagogical evidence of what works: Hardware on its own has not improved learning; but when EdTech is grounded in evidence, it can be transformational. As such, EdTech should complement teachers in the classroom, and build on what we already know works such as teaching children at the level they’re at and adjusting content for individual learning. What’s more, ensuring that there are multi-modalities for EdTech (including radio, TV, and involving parents as well as teachers) will also ensure it is successful.
4. EdTech needs to move from a technology-led to a demand-led conversation: The success of EdTech in delivering on foundational literacy will depend on how users view it, so building demand-led solutions is critical. With COVID-19, governments are already starting to buy into EdTech, but ensuring that the end users’ (teachers, parents) needs are met is critical.
5. The real challenge is how to ensure successful EdTech can be scaled: EdTech interventions are often costly and cannot be rolled out to every student or school as a result. Scaling successful EdTech interventions at a low cost will be critical in advancing it.
And here are 3 innovative ideas that were shared to fix structural market failures related to EdTech:
1. Introduce a recurring budget line in government budgets for EdTech: While EdTech is catching on rather rapidly, taking it to scale continues to be a challenge. To overcome this, participants proposed introducing a recurring budget line in government budgets for EdTech. This will help ensure it is consistently funded, that the demand is directly from governments and that they are involved from the onset, and that best practices can be scaled up.
2. Ensure coaching support for governments around procurement processes for EdTech: An EdTech implementer shared that even when there is a budget for EdTech hardware, it oftentimes is not spent because procurement processes are cumbersome. To overcome this, participants suggested having coaching around procurement processes so that governments are able to quickly procure and disburse EdTech hardware.
3. Ensure standardization on unit costs for EdTech connectivity, devices, and teacher training: Countries often have a plethora of EdTech interventions that have been introduced by EdTech suppliers, but they all come with their own costs that can differ substantially. This makes it difficult for governments to assess the effectiveness of each one. Having some standardization on unit costs for EdTech can help governments efficiently evaluate pricing and streamline budgeting and procurement processes.
Even before COVID-19, there was a global learning crisis. To prevent it from becoming a catastrophe, we need to act quickly and harness the power of EdTech.