Friday July 01, 2022

Learning loss

July 12, 2020

A recent World Bank report says that 85 percent of students across the globe are unable to go to school due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This is causing learning loss for the children. The education ministries in Pakistan are using remote learning technologies to engage the more than 27 million children enrolled in government schools. But in the endeavour to keep the students engaged, one may wonder if learning is actually taking place.

Punjab, for example, has launched Taleem Ghar. Under this initiative, the services of 848 out of 891 cable TV operators have been engaged at the district level. These operators have been asked to allocate a channel on their cable networks. The school education department has provided Student Learning Outcome (SLO) based digital content of English and Mathematics for Grades 1–8 to the respective deputy commissioners, who, in turn, have supplied that content to the cable operators. The content is aired throughout the day as per a timetable. The students can also download the timetable from the Taleem Ghar webpage.

Similarly, the Ministry of Federal Education launched a dedicated TV channel by the name of TeleSchool in partnership with PTV. Private companies provided SLO-based content for grades 1–12. This content is transmitted through this channel from eight in the morning till six in the evening. To organise students’ time, a timetable has been developed, which is available on the ministry’s website and can also be obtained by sending an SMS at a prescribed number. The timetable provides a 15-minute slot for every subject and every class.

The governments of Sindh and Punjab have also supplied digital content by virtual means. It can be accessed by mobile phones, tablet PCs and computers. But how well are these means suited to our needs within the existing technological context? That is a vital question, which needs to be discussed in a separate article.

Realistically speaking, the use of TV as a medium for the transmission of educational content is a smart and timely move. This is largely because of the accessibility of TV across the country. It is estimated that more than 90 percent of households in Pakistan own a TV set and PTV has nearly 100 percent reach through the terrestrial broadcast transmission. This means that PTV can be viewed even at those locations where cable operation has not reached. At the same time, penetration of cable network is also deep in the country, regardless of any socio-economic divide.

Whether these efforts are genuinely helping children is a relevant question. Now, without going into the discussion of complex approaches to child learning, let’s have a common person’s view of how learning takes place in the classroom. A teacher prepares a topic and based on the appropriate principles of lesson delivery, he/she delivers a lesson. If the teacher knows the subject matter and is well prepared, he/she is able to engage students in a meaningful learning experience. It is likely that the students will learn.

The effectiveness of engagement through these video-based learning episodes is a pertinent concern because, generally speaking, these videos have not been produced with the purpose of mass broadcast. As a matter of fact, with the exception of a few, these videos have been produced for use in the classroom.

In a classroom situation, a teacher primarily uses them as support material and refers to its contents during the lesson. Or, a few others have been produced to be used as part of a larger digital learning design which normally uses a software called learning management system (LMS). Videos in an LMS create a learning impact because they are used as a self-contained package along with other elements such as formative assessments, descriptive materials etc. Therefore, we do not know whether these videos are engaging children who study at home in an unguided environment and if these videos are ensuring continuity of learning for children.

Now, what should the government do? The first logical step is to avoid the complacency-syndrome, and challenge the assumptions of this initiative. It will be useful to go back to the users of this service and ask them about its utility. This could be done by conducting a rapid assessment survey by selecting a representative sample of teachers, parents and students. The rapid assessment survey should aim to assess the effectiveness of content delivery via cable and TV channels. The rapid assessment must bring evidence-based findings and recommendations to inform decision-making and the next steps should be taken accordingly. Some countries, such as Morocco, have launched such surveys to inform and improve TV-based education solutions.

It is quite obvious that ‘digital’ is inevitable in order to proceed effectively; education departments must build digital capacity at the system level. This is a difficult undertaking in view of the digital readiness of the education departments. With the commitment from the top, facilities for developing specialised digital content could be set up at government teacher training institutes in all the provinces. To initiate this process on a fast track, PC-1 project documents should be prepared and approved by the relevant department(s) on priority. Budgets should be provided without delay. And qualified and skilled staff should be hired to run these facilities. More importantly, these centres must be put to action beyond ribbon-cutting ceremonies by the top political and bureaucratic leaderships of the provinces.

In the wake of Covid-19, terrestrial TV and cable networks have emerged as a workable method for content delivery to students at a large scale. However, in order to optimize its utility, it is imperative to evaluate if the content delivered through TV and cable is really helping children learn. The solution must be improved in light of the results of the survey. It is also pertinent to build the capacity of government education departments in developing high quality and relevant digital contents suited to the method of delivery. In this regard, the role of top political and administrative leadership would be of key importance to take it to the optimum level.

The writer is a freelance education policy, management and reform consultant.