Mobile phones can enable learning during school disruptions. here’s how

The COVID-19 pandemic has put tremendous pressure on education systems around the world. At the height of the crisis, school closures forced more than 1.6 billion learners out of classrooms. This has exacerbated a learning crisis that existed before the pandemic, with many children in school but learning very little.

Widespread school closures are not unique to COVID-19. Teacher strikes, natural disasters, other epidemics and extreme weather conditions all lead to lengthy school closures.

The cost of school closures has proven to be substantial, especially for households of lower socio-economic status. When schools are closed, remote learning is rarely as effective as classroom teaching, and caregivers become the frontline educators.

In households with sufficient resources, learning materials such as textbooks and online Internet access may exist in the home, and caregivers are more likely to be involved in their child’s education. But in low-income households, there are fewer resources to support school instruction.

Reducing learning loss when schooling is interrupted requires out-of-school interventions that can effectively deliver large-scale education to children. But there is little evidence on cost-effective learning interventions during school disruption.

It is estimated that globally, 70-90% of households own at least one mobile phone. This suggests that the use of mobile phones has the potential to provide educational instruction in resource-limited and large-scale settings. But this “low-tech” solution is less commonly used in education compared to “high-tech” approaches that rely on Internet-based teaching. This is despite the fact that only 15-60% of households in low- and middle-income countries have internet access.

To examine the potential of mobile phone education, we conducted a randomized controlled trial in 4,500 households across Botswana, led by Youth Impact, one of the country’s largest NGOs. In Botswana, mobile phone access is high: about 1.5 mobile phone connections per person on average. Many people have multiple SIM cards.

We tested two mobile phone-based methods as low-tech solutions to support parents and their children during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Households were divided into two types of intervention groups. A group received SMS messages with some basic math problems for the week. A second group received these same weekly text messages plus a 15-20 minute phone call from a teacher.

Phone calls enhance learning

We found that SMS messages alone had little effect on learning outcomes. But a combination of phone calls and SMS interventions resulted in significant learning gains.

Learning levels, measured by a test focusing on fundamental numeracy skills such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, increased by 0.12 standard deviations. That equates to more than a full year of high quality education earned per $100 spent. This ranks among the most cost-effective learning interventions.

These results show that teaching by mobile phone can provide an effective and scalable method for delivering school education when schooling is interrupted. Research also shows the importance of direct live teaching to complement more automated SMS-based approaches to deliver effective distance learning.

We then developed telephone assessments, as a way to measure learning, and found that this allowed high-frequency data collection to target teaching on children’s learning levels in real time. For example, children who did not know addition learned addition; children who did not know subtraction learned subtraction. One-to-one phone calls allowed for a cost-effective and scalable form of tutoring. They were also very focused on the children’s learning levels. This approach to teaching targeting is inspired by a well-known model called Teaching at the Right Level.



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We also saw an improvement in parental engagement. Parents became more confident and specific in their beliefs about their child’s education following the intervention. This shows that they were committed and involved in the instruction with their child.

Our findings have immediate policy relevance as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt schooling. Many schools have reopened since the COVID-19 pandemic, but only partially. For example, in Botswana, instruction time has often been reduced due to social distancing measures such as double-shift systems where half the students go to school in the morning and the other half after school. midday. Many countries around the world have adopted similar double-shift systems, which requires urgent action to provide additional high-quality education.

Low tech education

Our findings also have broad implications for the role of simple, low-tech methods in supporting education beyond COVID-19. Schooling is disrupted for many reasons such as public health crises, weather shocks, natural disasters, elections, summer holidays and in refugee and conflict situations. During these times, education systems need resilient approaches to continue providing education.

It is important to note that our study assessed only a subset of potential interventions. Other popular low-tech teaching methods, such as radio and television, require further investigation.

Since the initial trial in Botswana, our research team has engaged in a series of follow-up studies in India, Kenya, Nepal, Uganda and the Philippines. The results will show how well this approach adapts to various contexts.

This is an edited version of an article originally published in Nature Human Behaviour.

A broad coalition of partners is committed to testing and developing the low-tech solutions discussed in this article. This includes implementing partners, research partners and funders: the governments of Botswana, Nepal and the Philippines, the World Bank, Youth Impact, the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), Learning Collider, University of Oxford, Columbia University, Brookings Institution, USAID, New Globe, Teach for Nepal, Street Child, Alokit, Global School Leaders, Building Tomorrow, Teaching at the Right Level Africa, Mulago Foundation, Douglas B Marshall, Jr. Family Foundation, Echidna Giving, UBS Optimus Foundation, Jacobs Foundation, Northwestern University Economics of Nonprofits Class, Peter Cundill Foundation and Stavros Niarchos Foundation. Related efforts are also underway in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank in Latin America.