The world is grappling with the increasing spread of COVID-19, and in addition to the direct health effects of the pandemic, education systems and student learning worldwide has been paralysed.
Over 1.6 billion children were out of school at the height of the pandemic globally, and over 900 000 from primary and secondary schools in Botswana.
Young Love, a non-governmental organisation in Botswana that is conducting educational programming in partnership with the Ministry of Basic Education (MoBE) took decisive and early action to ensure school-going children would not be left behind due to the pandemic.
They provided remote “low-tech” services via phone calls and SMS to provide educational instruction for students in 10 000 households across Botswana with no need of internet connectivity. According to Advocacy and Communications Manager Dorothy Okhach, they ran a rapid randomised trial and produced some of the first experimental evidence on minimising the fallout of the pandemic on learning. “Our results show that remote instruction by phone and simple SMS texts can reduce innumeracy by up to 52 percent for less than approximately P140 per child”.
The trial was run in partnership with the University of Oxford, Colombia University and the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) and is now actively exploring partnerships with IPA and the World Bank, among other partners to replicate the results across contexts. According to Okhach, prior to the closure of schools as a result of the lockdowns, their in-school remedial education programme, Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL), had provided a large learning boost, reducing innumeracy from 30 percent to six percent across four of the 10 regions in Botswana. Teaching at the Right Level is a remedial education programme implemented in primary schools in Botswana by Young Love through a partnership with the Ministry of Basic Education, Ministry of Youth Empowerment Sport and Culture Development, UNICEF and USAID.
Young Love has a memorandum of understanding with MoBE to scale the programme to all primary schools in the country. In addition to the low tech interventions, they produced an interactive radio show which was aired on RB2 for four weeks. The show incorporated elements of the numeracy curriculum and was aligned with the weekly activities that were sent out to the students. Over 40 percent of the households that received the interventions tuned in to the radio show. Implementation of the intervention was done concurrently with an evaluation to enable the organisation to generate some of the first rigorous evidence on what works to minimise the fallout of the pandemic.
According to Co-Founder and Country Coordinator of Young Love, Moitshepi Matsheng the programme reached over 20 percent of primary schools in Botswana in four regions namely, North East, South East, Kgatleng and Chobe. Digital programme findings indicate that a cohort of students received only text messages while others received both text messages and phone calls. The use of text messages alone reduced innumeracy by 34 percent.
A combination of SMS messages and phone calls reduce innumeracy by 52 percent. Both interventions increased learning mostly for students with larger learning gaps prior to the intervention.
Matsheng says both interventions are relatively cost effective and scalable if effected in a targeted manner. Parent engagement increased meaningfully as well. “Parents have been more engaged in educational activities of the
children more during the course of the intervention,” she says.
According to Young Love the demand for low-tech interventions is high, as 98 percent of huseholds wanted to continue the programme after four weeks.
Of the households that received the programme, 99 percent of parents want remote learning services. Their research also reveals the potential for parents to play a larger role in their child’s education.
Prior research has shown the parents serve as effective complements to school inputs, providing motivation and accountability to the traditional schooling system.
“We find that parents with light additional support can partially substitute schooling by serving as at-home teachers. This includes parents in both rural and urban communities and with limited to no formal teacher training.”
This, according to the organisation suggests potential for greater parent-teacher interaction around a child’s education.
While many schemes exist to facilitate parent and teacher interaction in school systems worldwide already such as report cards and parent-teacher associations (PTAs), results suggest that these built-in interaction points in low or middle-income country contexts might be substantially enhanced with simple, easy-to-engage learning content that parents can directly engage their child in at home.
Okhach, Advocacy and Communications Manager says their digital programming is a response to a need for continued education during a crisis.
“It is time to incorporate alternative approaches to education programming for continued learning to occur. This is the time to involve parents in the process of learning.
“Alternative methods of education programming will ensure that as a nation we do not have fallout during any other crisis.”
Young Love believes that low-tech solutions are cheap and feasible to deliver at scale, as both rely on phones and do not require internet access.
While only 15 percent to 60 percent of households in low and middle-income countries have internet access, 70 percent to 90 percent of households own at least one mobile phone.
“This high rate of access means these low-tech solutions have the potential to teach the masses in an era of unprecedented school closures, especially for low resource families with limited access to the internet and alternative sources of learning at home”.
According to the organisation, the results also have implications for school closure beyond the current pandemic. School closures occur during annual school holidays, other public health crises, natural disasters, and during weather-related shocks.