Closing learning gaps

August 2, 2020

As schools remain closed, some ideas on how to tackle the widening gaps in learning which hit students from the poorest segments of society the hardest

All the countries of the world are grappling with the problem of providing some modicum of learning continuity to children amidst Covid-19. Nevertheless, the learning gap between children with access to remote learning technologies and those without such access is expected to widen. The impact will be felt especially in developing countries with significant digital poverty.

According to careful estimates, more than 1.3 billion children around the globe including about 47 million in Pakistan are unable to go to school due to Covid–19 pandemic, making children from the poorest segments of society the most vulnerable. The education authorities in Pakistan have sought to engage more than 27 million children enrolled in government institutions in meaningful academic activities whilst staying-at-home in compliance with social distancing rules.

The federal government has started TeleSchool, a TV channel dedicated to the transmission of Student Learning Outcome (SLO)-based educational contents for grades 1–12. The content is aired from eight in the morning till six in the evening.

In Punjab, an initiative called Taleem Ghar has been started and SLO-based digital content for Grades 1–8, for mathematics and science is being supplied through four dissemination channels that include locally-managed cable network with the specified timetable available on Taleem Ghar webpage. The content is also available through a software application that runs on android devices. All the videos have also been housed on the Taleem Ghar website and a dedicated YouTube channel.

The government of Sindh has joined hands with a development partner and a content development company from the private sector and launched a mobile phone app for students of Grades 1–5. Students in Grades 6–12, however, have been left on their own in Sindh. These initiatives assume widespread and affordable access to the internet and /or TV by children.

These measures, though commendable, are likely to be compromised, by the status of technology penetration in the country. Pakistan ranks lower than its neighbours in the provision of affordable and reliable technology services to its citizens. According to PTA, broadband penetration in Pakistan stands at 38 percent. A high concentration of high-speed broadband services is limited to large cities, and within them, largely to affluent areas because low-income groups cannot afford to pay the price. So, people living in low-income urban and rural areas have to rely more on highly unsatisfactory mobile phone internet.

The Mobile Connectivity Index, administered by GSMA, measures and tracks enablers of mobile internet connectivity for almost all the countries of the world. According to their current figures on mobile connectivity 100 index matrix, Pakistan scores 40, this is better only than its neighbour Afghanistan. The situation is aggravated by the high cost of data in Pakistan, primarily, because of the highest tax rates in the world, making it almost impossible for the poor to use mobile data.

Assuming access to mobile applications for learning is assuming ownership of a smartphone. At the moment, smartphone penetration is about 35 percent in Pakistan. Cheap smartphones are not available, and the price of a basic smartphone in Pakistan starts at around Rs 8,000 which is out of reach for low-income segments. Bangladesh, for example, has helped low-income segments by providing low-cost mobile phone sets and has a smartphone penetration of 80 percent. In India the figure is more than 60 percent.

The educational content is also available on online platforms that can be accessed via computers or tablet PCs. However, the ownership of such gadgets cannot be assumed for low-income children who attend government schools – more than than 65 percent of the school-going children in rural areas attend public sector schools. ICT indicators released by the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication suggest that less than 30 percent of households own a computer and the number is down to a disappointing 10 percent for low-income households. Hence, children from low-income families are again at risk of being left out.

Providing educational content via TV channels has its merits in terms of outreach. However, this provision is marred by issues like load-shedding in low-income and rural areas.

The governments could consider the provision of some selective supplementary practice materials for students to augment digital resources broadcast through online/TV channels.

So far, according to a safe estimate, about 25 percent of the content for the current academic year has been pushed for the view of children. How much of that has been accessed by children from low-income groups continues to be a matter of serious concern.

With the Covid-19 crisis becoming complex with every passing day, it appears that the government is seriously considering not to open the schools until September 2020. If Education Departments continue to push the content using the current distribution channels until the schools reopen, this is expected to widen the learning gaps by about 50 percent among the children who have access to digital resources and the disadvantaged children whose major source of learning are is textbooks distributed free of charge.

Given the situation, it will be helpful to revisit the content delivery strategy. Going absolutely digital in its delivery approach response to Covid-19 challenges to serve the segments which are already digitally starved may not be an ideal solution.

More than 800,000 teachers of government schools are a huge resource which should be creatively activated to engage with parents. It is assumed that teachers are generally familiar with students’ parents as they come from the same community due to UC/tehsil-based recruitment policy followed by the Education Departments. If not already available, an active contact list of parents could be developed, and groups formed. The teachers could then provide remote support or if required face-to-face assistance to children whilst complying with social distancing rules. For effective implementation, reporting templates can be created to be monitored at the district level by the respective deputy commissioners through district education officers.

The question is how will the parents and students be reached remotely? Mobile phone penetration is more than 75 percent in Pakistan. Some even suggest that there is at least one mobile phone connection in every household. Government departments could partner with telecom operators for the provision of subsidised calling/SMS bundles to the teachers. These operators have also stepped forward to support the government. Their CSR funds may be mobilised for this purpose. Teachers can communicate with students via mobile call, SMS, or MMS. This may not be an ideal pedagogical solution, yet it will increase the probability of reaching out to technologically-disadvantaged children and will also give liberty to teachers to plan their communication as per the needs of children.

The governments could consider the provision of some selective supplementary practice materials for students to augment digital resources broadcast through online/TV channels. The challenge is the distribution of these materials to each student. All the Education Departments already have an operational printing and distribution system for books. The government could capitalise on it.

Voice-based communication might seem less appealing in the presence of powerful multi-media communication tools. However, despite all technological advancements, one size won’t fit all – so there is a need to think beyond the fashionable technological norm. Interactive Audio Instruction (IAI) is a distance-learning technology which has been successfully used by some organisations in the development sector. The designed content could be transmitted through mobile phone, the radio which has the farthest reach through Radio Pakistan’s short and medium wave service, FM radio channels – both can be played on basic mobile handsets. The challenge in seeking funds for the development of the IAI-based solutions can be tackled by reaching out to potential development partners and exploring options.

These are some ideas that can help. The situation at hand requires out-of-the-box approaches to reach out to digitally-impoverished children. Whatever approach is adopted, needs to be picked sooner than later to prevent further widening of the learning gaps.

The writer is a freelance Education Policy, Management and Reform consultant

Closing learning gaps