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Using Education Technology to Build Resilient Learning Opportunities Continuous Learning through COVID-19 and Beyond

think-07-11-Using EdTech to Build Resilient Learning Opportunities-Featured Image

COVID-19 has highlighted the need for education technologies to support children’s learning in times of crisis, but also the limitations of current offerings to do so equitably. As we think of building more resilient education systems through the pandemic and beyond, we can double down on our efforts to create software for continuous learning.

Quezon City, Philippines

A man sets up a table for his son to tap on a local shop's wifi connection so he can participate in online lessons. Photo: Aaron Favila / AP Photo

As with every aspect of life, COVID-19 has also upended education across the globe. At a peak in April 2020, around 1.6 billion students were out of school, representing 90% of the world’s enrolled learners in over 190 countries.1


Nearly a year into the pandemic, some schools remain shut and others have re-opened only to subsequently re-close. The world continues to react to the ongoing crisis and has begun to ask: how do we build more resilient education systems? How do we not only respond, but also mitigate future devastation?

Resilient education systems are those that can provide children with access to continuous learning opportunities throughout unpredictable and disorganised periods of disasters and recovery.

RESILIENCE IS NOT A NEW ASK
Yet these questions are not necessarily new to the education community, particularly in the Asia-Pacific. The region has continuously grappled with disasters, many natural, which have been increasing in number and magnitude over recent years2. In January 2020, Taal Volcano erupted in the Philippines, disrupting learning for over seven million learners for several weeks3; then COVID-19 hit shortly after. The historic 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami is still top of mind for many4 – thousands of schools were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of learners displaced.5

 

With climate change creating and exacerbating crises, communities and countries must continue, if not accelerate, their discussions on how to build more resilient education systems in the light of COVID-19 as well. Resilient education systems are those that can provide children with access to continuous learning opportunities throughout unpredictable and disorganised periods of disasters and recovery, whether caused by global health emergencies, natural disasters or other, often intertwined, calamities.

Near Siem Reap, Cambodia

According to a survey conducted by the Joining Forces and Child Rights Coalition Cambodia with children ages 10 to 17, while 78% of children are reporting continuing some sort of home learning, half of them study for less than 10 hours a week – only half of what they would do on a normal week at school. Other challenges include slow internet connections and the cost of internet credits. Photo: Bidouze St phane / Dreamstime

RESILIENCE WITH A FOCUS ON EQUITY
We have learned from past disasters that vulnerable families and children are disproportionately affected by disasters, and the same has held true for the COVID-19 pandemic across all sectors. Even as governments, organisations and communities mobilised remote learning programmes across the region, UNICEF estimates that at least 80 million children in the East Asia and Pacific region have been unable to access remote learning in the past months as they do not have the necessary resources or support.6 Save the Children estimates 10 million children globally may not return to school because of the crisis.7

 

Children are not receiving equal access to education during the pandemic, which is increasing inequities in previously struggling systems, but also creating new divides in previously high-performing ones. As systems struggle to provide access, some families may not be able to provide care and support for learning due to loss of jobs or a need to work from home. Vulnerable schools are more likely to have teachers who are not trained in digital education.

 

A New York Times article highlights the challenges faced by three teenagers in rural Indonesia who were trying to keep up with their online learning, as they crouched by the side of the road trying to catch a signal to submit their assignments.8 The article quotes Luhur Bima, a senior researcher at the Smeru Research Institute: “Even without the pandemic, there is a big gap between the rural and the urban. The students learn very little during normal times. When the pandemic came, they just stopped the teaching activities.”

The software – the what and how of children’s learning within education technology – is a pertinent area for creating meaningful impact in our post-pandemic plans, including those for vulnerable learners.

CAN EDTECH HELP?
Along with public broadcasts on television and radio, other forms of education technology (Edtech) are in the spotlight of the COVID-19 education response. Edtech deployed by governments, companies and communities has indeed allowed learning to continue in some form for millions of children. However, infrastructure and technologies that truly benefit all learners remain inadequate, as the Indonesian example highlights. Without a focus on addressing equity in our future-proofing efforts, we will fail to build a resilient system.

 

As many governments pledge to improve infrastructure for all learners, organisations globally also have an opportunity to contribute to building a more resilient and continuous learning system for all learners. The software – the what and how of children’s learning within education technology – is a pertinent area for creating meaningful impact in our post-pandemic plans, including those for vulnerable learners.

 

SUCCESSFUL USE OF EDTECH IN REACHING THE MARGINS
Prior to the pandemic, there were already 258 million children out of school9 and 617 million youth who had some access to school, but lacked basic math and literacy skills despite their attendance.10 The learning crisis is not newly created by COVID-19. In response to these persistent education gaps, the XPRIZE Foundation launched the Global Learning XPRIZE competition in 2014, which challenged the world to develop scalable software solutions that could teach a child anywhere to read, write and count on their own. The competition was conceived out of the existing pre-pandemic need to support all children with quality education, regardless of whether they have ever had access to a school, a quality school, or any sort of learning environment.

The Global Learning XPRIZE

Launched in 2014, the Global Learning XPRIZE challenged innovators around the globe to develop scalable solutions that enable children to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic within 15 months. Image source: Global Learning XPRIZE

To demonstrate the potential of technology to help close gaps, the XPRIZE chose sites with learners who were traditionally difficult to reach.
The participating villages in rural Tanzania had little access to running water and no access to the Internet. They were located far from schools, with 74% of children reported as having never attended school and 90% unable to read a single word in their national language Swahili.11


The XPRIZE challenge spurred hundreds of teams on to propose software solutions for reaching these last-mile learners. Five finalist teams were selected to compete in a 15-month field test in rural Tanzania, each having developed software that aimed to support a young child to teach themselves basic reading, writing and math.

 

XPRIZE installed solar charging stations to keep tablets powered, set up a data collection mechanism, and trained local community leaders to take care of the tablets. In the most extreme set-up, little to no training was provided to communities on how to use the software or run any sort of programming. The hope was that with the appropriate infrastructure in place, the software could successfully support learning without the need for additional resources, which are often not available to vulnerable learners.

Tanzania

Infrastructures were put in place, such as installing solar charging stations to keep tablets powered, setting up a data collection mechanism and training local community leaders to take care of the tablets.

This reliance on the quality of the software is critical, as it assumes that children have unequal access to support systems and persons who can guide them or instruct their learning. As we have witnessed during COVID-19, not all children have access to a school or an adult – whether at school, virtual school, or at home – who can effectively support their remote learning. Such support is traditionally important for young children, and XPRIZE encouraged teams to think about how they could best support the youngest learners to access education regardless of their circumstances.


As a member of one of the finalist teams, I worked with Enuma to conduct several field trials of its entry, Kitkit School, in preparation for the XPRIZE competition. We worked with rural communities in Tanzania and Kenya, with out-of-school children as well as with remote schools suffering from teacher shortages and other resource constraints. Most of the difficult-to-reach communities did not have connectivity or stable access to electricity.


With equity as a key focus, we took initial trips to work with children who had little, if any, prior exposure to digital learning tools. We observed how children responded to touch tablets, what they found challenging and what they found engaging.
It quickly became clear that having software that could build the digital literacy of users, particularly the confidence and ease with which they could manage the digital learning tool independently, was an important factor to children successfully unlocking the potential of edtech. And what was universal for all children regardless of their prior experience with digital technologies was the importance of maintaining their engagement and motivation to learn.

KITKIT SCHOOL BY ENUMA

Enuma’s submission, Kitkit School (named for the Thai word, ‘to think’), was named a winner of the Global Learning XPRIZE after competing in the 15-month field test in rural Tanzania for showing the highest learning gains and engagement amongst software products in a randomised controlled trial.

Engagement is a critical ingredient for supporting independent learning and helping to ensure self-motivation in contexts where external factors might be absent. This is particularly relevant for vulnerable children or those in vulnerable contexts: generally without access to literate adults, or a global pandemic making it difficult for families to fully support their children’s learning at home.


One of the keys to Enuma’s success was its ability to build a program that effectively engaged children in independent use. As experienced game designers, the Enuma team carefully integrated gaming principles to ensure engagement while teaching academic knowledge. The difficulty of each stage was carefully levelled so children could experience an appropriate mix of success and challenge to keep them engaged, while adding rewards and a range of choices for children helped maintain excitement as well as variability.

 

To support educational responses to COVID-19, Kitkit School has been made available for free download through 2021 (learn more at www.kitkitschool.com).

Digital learning in Tanzania

In a country like Tanzania, where 23.2% of children between the ages of 7 and 13 years are out of school, the mobile technology approach as an educational tool proves to be highly effective.

After a 15-month period and what seemed like a moonshot to many, the XPRIZE competition announced its winners, and showed it was indeed possible to create software technologies that could successfully support children’s learning, even in difficult circumstances. Children were able to independently learn the equivalent of a year’s worth of schooling through an average of one hour a day in the field trial.12

Technology can help make the learning possible and more effective, but stakeholders also need to help support its development and adoption.

It showed that quality software makes a difference in supporting a child to learn, even in circumstances where they might not be able to access traditional learning structures.

 

Following the XPRIZE competition, innovation continues. For example, Enuma is working on a new product, Enuma School, to be launched in Indonesia in 2021 that aims to better support continuous learning for all learners. Similar to Kitkit School, the new product can work completely offline to better ensure access by the hardest-to-reach learners, but will also have learner management features to be leveraged by teachers, administrators and education systems. Should children normally have access to educators but are temporarily displaced due to a disaster like COVID-19, they can use Enuma School to continue learning at home while their progress is monitored by their teachers. Enuma School can also work on mobile phones for rapid deployment to family devices, should circumstances and access prevent children from using devices in or from schools.

 

To best support continuous learning, the program is also designed to slot well into existing learning environments, but can be ramped up or deployed in most contexts should those environments be disrupted. In building a resilient education system going forward, we must consider how to not only safeguard against disruption, but to have systems that can weather any changes, to cater to even the most vulnerable. Innovative development of quality educational software can contribute to those resilient systems.

 

However, the availability of relevant technologies alone cannot future-proof our education systems for the dynamic world.

 

Governments, headmasters, teachers and parents must be on board to support and collaborate towards truly continuous learning, especially as the spaces where children learn are ever changing. Technology can help make the learning possible and more effective, but stakeholders also need to help support its development and adoption. Funders in both government and philanthropy can also contribute towards the development of technologies that support continuous learning education systems, by directing their funding towards initiatives that look at holistic solutions.

 

Whether due to socio-economic, political or cultural reasons – or conflicts, disasters or pandemics – millions of children in the world face the risk of having their education disrupted due to an unforeseen event. To make sustainable progress towards Sustainable Development Goals, we need to focus our efforts on building continuous learning systems that can support a child’s ability to learn, no matter who they are or where they are – whether they are at that last mile, or if they find themselves there temporarily.

PAM VACHATIMANONT

Pam Vachatimanont is Head of Product Strategy at Enuma, Inc., an education technology company with offices in Berkeley, Seoul and Beijing. She currently supports the development and growth of the Enuma School product in Southeast Asia after having served as a project manager for Enuma’s award-winning application – Kitkit School. Passionate about improving children’s access to quality education, Pam has worked in education and international development, specifically with children’s media and tech globally. She has a Master’s degree in International Education Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a Bachelor’s degree from Williams College, USA.

DECEMBER 2020 | ISSUE 7

Future-Proofing Our Recovery

  1. https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse 
  2. https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/evaluation-document/36114/files/rise-natural-disasters-asia-pacific.pdf
  3. ttps://www.pna.gov.ph/articles/1090921 

  4. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00024-015-1134-6
  5. https://www.unicef.org/media/media_24847.html
  6. https://data.unicef.org/resources/remote-learning-reachability-factsheet/
  7. https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/node/17871/pdf/save_our_education_0.pdf
  8. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/05/world/asia/coronavirus-indonesia-school-remote-learning.html
  9. http://uis.unesco.org/en/topic/out-school-children-and-youth
  10. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/education/
  11. Global Learning XPRIZE, Executive Summary

  12. For more information on the Global Learning XPRIZE, please see: https://www.xprize.org/prizes/global-learning/articles/glexp-executive-summary

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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