The case for policy reform through capacity building
|Syed Munir Khasru
Chairman, The Institute for Policy,
Advocacy, and Governance
Chief of Education Sector Group,
Asian Development Bank
Director, Centre for Innovative
Teaching and Learning in ICT,
|Abdullah Ar Rafee
Deputy Manager (Programs & Projects),
The Institute for Policy, Advocacy,
|Jeffrey Jian Xu
Senior Education Specialist –
Asian Development Bank
THE PANDEMIC’S IMPACT ON SCHOOLCHILDREN
The overnight shift to online learning forced by the COVID-19 pandemic confined schoolchildren to their homes at an age where outdoor social and sports activities are a staple of their physical and mental development. The lockdowns have put significant strain on the mental health of these children, with the anxiety and stress of the pandemic taking a toll on their young minds. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted many children in rural areas and urban slums, forcing some to take jobs to support their families during the crisis, which has been as much an economic as a health crisis.
The pandemic has exacerbated the preexisting learning crisis and inequities, and has threatened to reverse the world’s hard earned progression toward quality education for all. Over 258 million children were unable to go to school before the crisis. In low- and middle-income countries, more than half of all 10-year-old children were unable to read or write a simple text, while in Sub-Saharan Africa, the rate climbed to almost 90%. The pandemic only worsened these figures. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), at the peak of the pandemic during April 2020, 1.6 billion students (94%) were out of school. A considerable portion is still unable to return to face-to-face learning. Today, around 700 million students globally are still studying from home using hybrid or remote learning options amid continued uncertainty.The situation is much worse for girls, as they are more likely to drop out of school and/or be subjected to early marriage when parents, particularly in developing countries, face financial constraints. With the pandemic still raging in different parts of the world and school disruptions expected to be protracted due to the long time needed to vaccinate the population in developing countries, the urgent priority is how to continue learning of children to “avert the crisis from becoming a catastrophe,” as emphasized by the Save Our Future campaign. According to World Bank figures, this generation of students may lose up to USD 10 trillion in future earnings.
As the world slowly recovers from the pandemic, the necessity of online learning, or at least the hybrid of online and face-to-face learning, is becoming clearer. It is therefore critical that no segment of the population is left behind. To this end, it is important to ensure that infrastructure and qualified and trained teachers are available both in rural and urban settings alike.
» The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the learning crisis and inequities that existed prior to the crisis.«
ISSUES FACING DIGITAL LEARNING TODAY
Digital tools today, aided by advanced telecommunications and internet connectivity, has been a major catalyst in cushioning the impacts of the pandemic. For many children with access to digital learning mediums, online education and digital learning tools have been a savior for learning amid lockdowns. However, the existing digital divide means that leveraging the fruits of today’s technologies has uneven benefits, which in many cases worsens inequality. Around two-thirds of the world’s schoolage children (1.3 billion) do not have internet connection in their homes. The difference is stark between high income and low-income countries with nearly 90% of school-age children from high income countries having internet connection in their home, compared to less than 5% in low-income countries.
The disparity in such figures stems from different issues that have hampered the progress of learning through digital mediums for children in poorer regions. Chief among these challenges are those related to infrastructure – access to electricity, connectivity, devices, and affordability of data where connectivity exists. The importance of access to connectivity and to digital devices has become evident during the pandemic when most services, including education, moved online. The surge in e-commerce, online learning, and affiliated jobs during the pandemic has demonstrated the criticality of broadband internet for all sectors. However, over 4 billion people globally lack access to a stable internet connection, and only 35% of the population in developing countries have access to the internet. Even when broadband connections are available, the speed can be poor in underdeveloped regions. Countries with the slowest internet speeds have download speeds that are 40 times slower than the fastest countries.
For students that rely on videoconferencing tools and other learning software and applications that require fast internet speeds, such disparity often equates to a prolonged inability to access the required learning. When internet access and speed are ensured, access to electricity becomes another major concern. For instance, it was reported that in the villages of India only 16% of households received 1–8 hours of electricity daily, 33% received 9–12 hours, and only 47% received more than 12 hours a day.10 Even when the children somehow manage to overcome these hurdles, high poverty rates in developing countries mean that they often lack access to the relatively expensive computers and other digital devices.
Infrastructure challenges are significant but are not the only ones impacting eLearning or education’s progress. The shortage of and the lack of quality teachers are equally as significant. Seventy percent of Sub-Saharan African countries face shortages of teachers at the primary school level and 90% face shortages at the secondary level.11 Available teachers also still need training in core pedagogy skills, instructional design, and classroom management skills – both in an online and offline classroom setting. This requires, among others, training on digital schools, to enable teachers to continuously educate themselves (professional development) and to better teach their students. Investing in teachers’ development, both in preservice and in-service, will have a significant return in the quality of education that students receive. Blended learning and the use of new generation adaptive learning tools provide an opportunity to incentivize teachers to remain updated with proven digital tools to enhance their pedagogical practices.
Existing literature has often focused on the need to invest in faster internet connections, access to electricity, subsidization of internet rates, and devices like computers, tablets, and smartphones. However, research shows that such investments will work only if digital tools are used to improve pedagogical practices, to continuously monitor students’ progress on learning and to target those who are lagging behind, and to enhance the efficiency of the learning system. For example, the experience of the People’s Republic of China in using the “double teacher” teaching model by pairing high-quality urban teachers with rural teachers through remote teaching or live-streaming can help propel teaching and learning in rural areas.
» This generation of students may lose up to USD 10 trillion in future earnings.«
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR SUSTAINABLE DIGITAL LEARNING SOLUTIONS
Promote an ecosystem approach to scale up learning and equity by leveraging education technology (EdTech). While the
COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the learning crisis and inequities, its lessons underscore the importance of strengthening the most critical pillars within a holistic framework to optimize synergies and ensure learning for all. We want to highlight five pillars to leverage EdTech. First, the infrastructure pillar includes country readiness in terms of access to electricity, internet, devices, digital content and delivery channels like TV and radio to upgrade a country or region from low-tech to medium-tech or high-tech. Second, the government policy pillar is crucial for education ministries to enhance systematic and data-driven decision-making to target improvements in learning and equity. Third, the school and teacher pillar is important to enhance the digital readiness of teachers and schools to integrate appropriate EdTech solutions to optimize blended learning. Fourth, the shift to home-based learning shows the urgency of developing the digital readiness of both students and caregivers to reduce existing inequities. Fifth, the mainstreaming of online learning in public and private educational institutions provides new opportunities for public–private partnerships in promoting innovative EdTech solutions in teaching and learning.
Smart learning systems can be developed through various formats such as mobile learning initiatives, gamification of learning tools, curation of content, or community learning portals. The goal is to not just make the learning process “digital” for the students, but make it “smart,” so students drive their own learning using digital tools. Such collaborative learning would help students exchange experiences, expose them to a diverse set of ideas, and improve their social and cognitive skills. Similarly, teachers are empowered and supported to adapt blended learning systems by enhancing their professional development through the use of EdTech solutions. This will also motivate parents to support their children’s learning.
Rethink and enhance training and capacity-building programs for teachers. It is a great opportunity for policymakers to ramp up their efforts on teacher training and capacity-building programs that not only help develop digital skills, but also help shape attitudes towards information and communication technology in transforming teaching and learning. Consider using technology-enabled teacher training with blended learning modalities that enable anytime anywhere teacher training to improve pedagogical practices that promote personalized learning. A forthcoming multi-country study from the Asian Development Bank shows that 70%–90% of teachers reported smartphone ownership, which indicates the opportunity for blended teacher professional development. Another opportunity is to develop an online teachers’ community of practice that can allow sharing of experiences, best practices, and lessons learned for teachers. This could be developed using existing social media platforms.
Such programs need to be expanded for parents too, since in many rural areas misperceptions exist regarding digital devices – where parents consider computers and smartphones as means to waste time and hence limit their children’s access. Efforts need to be provided in effectively designing these capacity-building programs, where teachers are encouraged to consider digital mediums as an extension of their teaching methods, not an alternative. Engagement and feedback from the learners and teachers are critical during the implementation of these programs. In addition, teachers need to be encouraged to make use of open-source solutions, and the vast array of free resources that are available online to complement their teaching efforts. Capacity-building programs need to consider the local sensitivities and the needs of the educators and learners based on cultural contexts that vary between regions.
» The shortage of and the lack of quality teachers are significant, requiring training in core pedagogy skills, instructional
design, and classroom management skills.«
Develop content and assessment tools customized by regional languages and cultures. Research have time and again showed that one of the key barriers to digital learning for educators and students in rural areas is their inability to comprehend the resources, which are often developed in English. For instance in India, among the 12.5% population that read their daily newspapers, only 1.6% read them in English.Policymakers need to channel investments toward the development of educational content and software based on regional languages to make them easily comprehensible and usable and drive their adoption even after the capacity building training periods are completed. This will require drawing on international good practices and aligning them with the national curriculum, and integrating them into the local context and culture. Another critical element is embedding continuous formative assessment in such content to allow teachers to monitor progress of students’ learning and target improvements.
Promote government policies that recognize and reward effective teaching practices to motivate teachers. For educators in rural areas, most of whom do not use digital tools as part of their daily activities, initial efforts need to involve a “push” system where they are motivated by appropriate rewards. Teachers need to be aptly rewarded for their time spent on digital skills and EdTech solutions, as well as their innovative use of such tools to improve their teaching practices, leading to improvements in student learning outcomes. Incentives could involve the provision of devices like tablets, laptops, subsidies to internet access, or increased compensation and opportunities for career progression. In addition, they should be provided with flexibility in terms of designing their content and continuous assessment as part of lesson plans. For instance, online support may be provided to teachers to apply different forms of online assessment to test students’ hard and soft skills. At the same time, students also need to be encouraged through the provision of subsidized internet in partnership with telecoms. They should be encouraged to use the internet as a tool to seek academic information and be allowed the flexibility to use such information as appropriate.
An increasingly digitalizing world offers an opportunity to systematically develop an evidence base to integrate technology to transform teaching and learning. COVID-19 forced an overnight shift to online learning globally and demonstrated that the transition to blended learning is inevitable. This is a wake-up call for policymakers and development partners in developing economies to take concerted measures to adopt digital tools to prepare self-directed lifelong learners. This requires increased investment in improving access to affordable electricity, internet, and devices from infrastructure budget to avoid squeezing education budgets. More importantly, this should be balanced with greater investments in software such as quality digital content, continuous assessment,
learning management systems, and blending proven pedagogical skills with educators’ digital skills to build a sustainable learning ecosystem. This will not only facilitate the integration of digital tools, it will also motivate governments, school management, teachers, students and parents to proactively embrace and use them for transforming teaching and learning.
Global Solutions Journal – Issue 7, May 2021 (Page 183):https://www.global-solutions-initiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Global-Solutions-Journal-7-Summit-2021-Edition.pdf