Tuesday, 25 January, 2022

‘Low-Tech Solutions’ to Address Learning Loss

Asad Islam and Hashibul Hassan

‘Low-Tech Solutions’ to Address Learning Loss

Covid-19 related closures of educational institutions disrupted the education of millions of students globally. At the peak of school closures, approximately 1.6 billion (or 94%) students were out of school worldwide. While many countries have taken online and home-schooling measures to cope with the adversity, it was not feasible in many developing countries due to the lack of mass internet access and the incapacity of parents. Bangladesh has also faced a similar situation in continuing education during the lockdown.

Despite the government’s best effort in providing mass distance education via television, a significant portion of the children have missed those lessons due to their lack of access to television. Figure 1 exhibits access to various communication technologies in different divisions. Only a small segment of households has the access to a computer or internet, 5.6% and 37.6% respectively. Note that active internet access will be much lower considering high data cost, approximately 13% according to the World Bank’s estimate. Even a TV is not very common, only 50.6% of the households possess one. If rural areas are considered separately, the situation is likely to be worse. Overall, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed pre-existing digital divide of our society and disproportionately impeded the educational endeavour of children.

However, in Bangladesh, 94% of households in rural areas own a basic feature phone, which can be utilised to provide universally accessible basic education. In this context, we develop, implement, and evaluate two basic feature phone-based educational interventions. In partnership with an NGO, we work with more than 2600 children and their parents from the rural areas of Khulna and Satkhira districts to measure the efficacy of these interventions.

Program 1. Mentoring via mobile phone

During August 2020, we recruited volunteers from various universities as mentors. They provided learning support and home-schooling advice to primary school-age children and their mothers. The program ran for 13 weeks. Each mentor work with 2 students. The mentor called (voice call) the mother once a week at a pre-determined time and day. During the mentoring session, the mentor provided the child with textbook solutions, the mother with guidance in setting weekly goals and homeschooling assistance. Each mentoring session lasted approximately 30 minutes. Mentors were provided with brief training, guideline and phone bills. Besides mentoring, mothers were sent text messages every week with tips, advice, and ideas for better parental engagement. There was no out-of-pocket cost for parents or mentors.

We found that such a low-cost and less-intensive volunteer-based program offered significant benefits to children’s learning outcomes. The evaluation of the intervention suggests that children who received telementoring scored 35% more compared to the control group, who didn’t receive mentoring. The largest gains were observed in English Literacy (Figure 2). Extended parental involvement due to the program participation helped the children to improve their learning. The results also suggest that academically weaker children and households from lower socioeconomic backgrounds benefitted the most from telementoring. In other words, the low-ability students could improve more from such educational support. The improvement in learning outcomes is equivalent to moving a child from the 30th percentile to the 60th percentile. This is a significant graduation.

At present, nearly 3.2 million students are enrolled in the tertiary level. A significant portion of these students are pro-socially motivated and can be mobilised to help junior students voluntarily over the telecommunication network. Parents and university students can be paired using a toll-free hotline for such mentoring support.

Program 2. Interactive lessons via IVR system using basic mobile phone

While the telementoring program was very effective to improve students' learning outcomes, we have learned that mothers who are mainly involved in children’s education want more flexibility in terms of the time of the day to access distance education. To address this issue, we have developed our second intervention using the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system of the mobile communication platform. We have recorded a set of audio lessons and stored them on the server that can be accessed at any time by calling our program-specific phone number. This IVR approach has enabled parents to schedule their time for children’s homeschooling with greater ease.

Furthermore, to maximize the efficacy of the one-way pedagogical resource, we have utilised Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI) methodology to develop the lessons. IRI is a method that allows learners to stop and react to questions and exercises through verbal response and to engage in physical and intellectual activities with a ‘special helper’, such as, mother, while the program is on the air. We have focused on basic numeracy and literacy in this intervention. The actual intervention was 15-weeks long.

At the end of the program, we estimate the effectiveness of the intervention. Again, we found that the children who have received the intervention performed significantly better compared to their counterparts who haven’t received any intervention. Figure 3 exhibits the test score distributions of both groups. The treatment group’s distribution is on the right side of the control group distribution, meaning that participation in the IVR-based program helps children to reach the upper levels of the distribution. Most importantly, we have found that there is a significant demand for this sort of educational intervention. Mothers are very comfortable in traversing IVR and accessing the lessons during their free time. This type of intervention could provide mass access to distance education. It could further supplement the national curriculum to support learning in out-of-school settings i.e., in the household environment.

Moving forward

Though schools have reopened from mid-September, the need for home-based learning is not over for at least two reasons. First, learning loss because of the Covid-19 might cause inertia and disappointment among the students for reengaging in their educational endeavour. Second, schools are now open partially, one day in a week for grades 1-4 and 6-9, and all days for grades 5 and 10. Even when schools are fully open, children will not be ready to learn at their grade level as they have already lost 18 months of schooling. Hence, we need to plan and design some other forms of schooling and educational inputs for a rapid recovery of learning loss.

Delivering education for primary school-age children using TV, radio or basic mobile phone has some limitations such as one-way communication, non-interactive, non-visual communication in the case of basic feature phones. However, these limitations can be overcome if we could include adult members of the household in the delivery process and instigate them to engage in the child’s education actively.

Overall, we found that there is a high demand for accessible distance learning and rural children can benefit significantly from it. We believe that “low-tech” solutions are the way forward to provide equitable access to education to recover from learning loss due to school closures and to reduce the learning deficiency among children from rural, lower socioeconomic groups.


Asad Islam is the Director, Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability (CDES) and Professor of Economics, and Hashibul Hassan is a PhD Candidate, Monash University, Australia