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Grade 7 students in Vietnam using the High Touch High Tech math prototype developed by the Education Workforce Initiative

As the global community struggles to adapt to a new normal, the scale and scope of the pandemic’s impact is only beginning to emerge. Aside from health concerns and the tragic loss of life, the looming economic impacts may potentially reverse years of progress on the 2030 Global Goals. COVID-19 is likely to cause the first increase in global poverty since 1998 with Africa hit the hardest. But the health and economic crisis is also concealing an outsized catastrophe unfolding at the foundation of everything – the disruption of education. 

At its peak in early April, almost 1.6 billion students worldwide – more than 90% of all students – found themselves forced out of their typical learning environments. If the phenomenon of “summer learning loss” is any indicator for the current situation, the impact of interruptions to schooling, especially for those from low-income households, will be devastating. Pre-pandemic, it was already estimated that on current trends, by 2030, more than 800 million school-age children would not be on track to achieve basic secondary level skills. Given that COVID-19 has added several layers of uncertainty to this pre-existing global learning crisis, countries – and the organizations advising them – are scrambling for solutions. 

Flung full force into what the World Bank has termed the “coping phase,” education systems are grappling with the reality of sudden school closures and the need to preserve continuity of learning as swiftly as possible. With social distancing an imperative, remote learning schemes serve as the only option for the countless students out of school. Countries are striving to make meaning in the midst of chaos during this initial coping phase, but many lack the capacity to cope well.

Bridging the digital divide where possible

The disruption of education has revealed a host of pressing challenges, one of the most glaring and apparent being the digital divide. In sub-Saharan Africa, 82% of learners lack access to the internet. But even in highly developed countries such as the United States, the digital divide continues to be a persistent problem. There are ambitious projects to solve this complex challenge, including Google’s Project Loon and its first commercial partnership with Telekom Kenya, which just launched a fleet of balloons to provide 4G LTE internet service to remote parts of Kenya.

But many of these new solutions may not be widely available for some time, forcing countries to develop other coping strategies, such as the use of radio and television in combination with SMS. In these situations, remote learning is adapted contextually, often using a combination of high and low tech, and sometimes no tech at all. In Chile, the ministry has developed a learning platform, “Aprendo en linea” working with mobile operators, ensuring free downloads of learning materials. A partnership with Google and Fundación Chile has provided technical support to educators using Google Classroom and G Suite. To reach the last mile, the ministry has printed the same educational materials and distributed them to 3,700 rural schools. 

Meanwhile, in Kenya, a traditional media approach to distance learning is being implemented, focusing on delivering educational programming through television and radio. Radio is more accessible than the internet with 75% of households in developing countries having access to radio. Interactive radio instruction, where a one-way radio is used to deliver pre-recorded lessons, has been deployed across the globe, from Honduras to Zanzibar. Given high mobile phone penetration – 67% of the world’s population has access to a unique mobile phone – SMS-enabled instruction has also been leveraged in countries likes Niger and South  Africa.   

The digital divide is not limited to the availability of internet access or digital solutions. A decent internet connection and access to digital devices are prerequisites, but even with those basic conditions present, deep inequities still exist due to variations in digital literacy, development of human capital, and overall preparedness for online learning. Concerted efforts must be made to enable all students to learn remotely – whether through no-tech, low-tech, high-tech or hybrid means – so that those from under-resourced communities are not left out. A continuum of approaches across countries and communities contributes to an equitable delivery of learning.

The importance of the human element in the equitable delivery of learning cannot be overemphasized. As we look towards the development of human capital to help solve the digital divide, how we develop and deploy teachers in this new learning environment is crucial to success. As technology continues to shift how students learn, how – and how deeply – teachers support their learning will be a key differentiating factor. A U.S. analysis of 800,000 students looked at student progress in online math coursework, before and after schools closed. Their study revealed that, through May 17, student progress declined by almost half in low-income classrooms, by almost a quarter in middle-income classrooms, and actually increased in high-income classrooms. Global evidence shows that it is critical to maintain teacher presence and engagement in remote student learning. Educators and policymakers must understand that technology on its own will fail to deliver learning without the quality “high touch” aspect that only teachers can provide. 

Harnessing the potential of personalized, adaptive learning

Beyond the initial coping phase lies the challenge of addressing the inevitably widening learning gaps. Even before COVID-19, the variation across countries, schools, and classrooms – as well as within – was deeply concerning. A study published just last year reveals how disparities in learning achievement have not diminished over the last half century; the most disadvantaged still perform at levels that are three to four years behind the most affluent. Now with the added variables of remote learning, the divergence is likely to become even more stark. When students go back to school, will education systems be adequately prepared to respond to the learning gaps exacerbated by the pandemic?

Many of us hope that this crisis could be the moment education has been waiting for to truly transform how we teach and learn. Evidence suggests that a more personalized approach through adaptive learning is promising. For far too long, education systems have relied on the centuries-old, standardized modes of delivery en masse for all students. While this model has been outdated for some time, the education crisis caused by COVID-19 has finally made these deficiencies impossible to ignore. Now more than ever, a new and more personalized learning approach is needed to address the ever-widening learning gaps that have only been magnified by the pandemic.

At the heart of the personalized learning approach is the concept of Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL). Rigorously evaluated by J-PAL for the last two decades, TaRL has shown to consistently improve learning outcomes by tailoring teaching and assessment to individual learning needs. But in order for personalized learning to be realized at scale—and for education systems to experience the shift “from mass production to mass personalization” – technology is key. Adaptive learning technology in particular brings a real-time dimension to personalized learning. It adapts the learning experience for students depending on their progress and behavior, providing support that is not only individualized but also immediate.

The potential of personalized, adaptive learning is evident in initiatives such as Mindspark, an afterschool program for middle schoolers in India. Several months of program participation led to an increase in both language and math test scores, with the impact being even greater for lower achieving students. Another recent example is the Education Commission’s High Touch High Tech (HTHT) prototype project in Vietnam. Through a partnership with the Ministry of Education and Training and Arizona State University, the project developed a 7th grade math course prototype using an adaptive learning platform that tailored instruction to individual learning levels (High Tech), combined with data-driven, more personalized and active learning experiences provided by teachers (High Touch). An independent impact evaluation determined that one semester of HTHT intervention increased students’ math scores by 0.436 standard deviations, equivalent to two years of learning. Like Mindspark, the benefits were most pronounced for those academically behind, reinforcing the potential of this approach to narrow learning gaps.

An opportunity to transform education

Amid the chaos and confusion, this could be a pivotal moment for a much needed learning transformation. Notably, this transformation cannot happen in a vacuum, and its success will depend on access to infrastructure, affordable business models, robust policies and regulation, as well as concurrent transformations in workforce, financing, and delivery. As highlighted in the Commission’s Learning Generation report, all four transformations must occur in tandem to produce meaningful change.

The global community must come together to swiftly respond to the most pressing learning needs revealed by COVID-19, while simultaneously addressing the longstanding gaps in the system as a whole. Although the challenges are many and multifaceted, this crisis presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for countries to leapfrog into more innovative, equitable, and sustainable modes of learning. How we choose to act now – to respond, to recover, and to reimagine – will determine the educational landscape for many years to come.