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Successful Low-Tech Educational Solutions in COVID-19 Digital Response

By Wayan Vota on March 24, 2021

low-tech edutech solutions

The COVID-19 pandemic paralyzed education systems worldwide; at one point, school closures forced over 1.6 billion learners out of classrooms. While smaller in scale, widespread school closures are not unique to COVID-19: teacher strikes, summer breaks, earthquakes, viruses such as influenza and Ebola, and weather-related events cause schools to close.

Closures result in large learning losses, which have been documented globally. To mitigate learning loss in the absence of school, high-income families have access to alternative sources of instruction – books, computers, internet, radio, television, and smart phones – that many low-income families do not.

Stemming learning loss when schools are closed, particularly in areas where learning resources are lacking in the household, requires outside-school interventions that can substitute instead of complement ongoing instruction. Doing so at scale requires cheap, low-technology solutions that can reach as many families as possible for COVID-19 digital response.

Low-Tech EduTech Solutions

School’s Out: Experimental Evidence on Limiting Learning Loss Using “Low-Tech” in a Pandemic provides some of the first experimental estimates on minimizing the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic on learning by evaluating two “low-tech” solutions that leverage SMS text messages and direct phone calls to support parents to educate their children.

A sample of 4,500 families with primary-school-aged children across nearly all regions of Botswana were randomly assigned to either intervention arm or a control arm. In one treatment arm, SMS messages provided a few basic numeracy “problems of the week.” In a second treatment arm, live phone calls from instructors supplemented these SMS text messages. These calls averaged 15-20 minutes in length and provided a direct walk-through of the learning activities sent via text message.

Remote instruction also compelled several innovations in high-frequency, low-cost remote assessment. The widely used Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) was adapted into a phone-based learning assessment.

Statistically Significant Learning Gains

The researchers found statistically significant learning differences between treatment and control groups. The combined phone and SMS intervention increases learning by 0.121 standard deviations (p=0.008). The results are robust to a series of sensitivity tests, do not appear to be driven by effort, and evidence shows that targeted instruction is more effective than non-targeted instruction.

These results demonstrate that certain types of edutech instruction through “low-tech” mobile phones can provide an effective and scalable method to deliver educational instruction outside of the traditional schooling system and to personalize instruction.

The phone and SMS intervention is highly cost-effective with 0.63 to 0.89 standard deviation learning gains per $100 USD. These results also reveal that some level of direct instruction, which can be done cheaply and virtually via phone, can be necessary and that automated SMS messages alone do not produce lasting learning gains.

ICT4Edu Parent Engagement

Moreover, parents exhibit strong demand for the ICT4Edu intervention, with over 99 percent of households expressing interest in continuing the program after the first four weeks.

Parental engagement with the interventions is high: 92 percent of parents report that their child attempted to solve the problems sent, with slightly higher engagement in the SMS plus phone group of 95 percent. Parents report 15.2 percent greater self-efficacy in supporting their child’s learning because of thephone and SMS intervention.

Parents also update their beliefs about their child’s learning level in tandem with their child’s learning progress. This suggests that parents are involved and aware of their child’s academic progress.

Parents’ return to work post lockdown is unaffected by the interventions, and if anything, is slightly higher, which alleviates the concern that further parental engagement in their child’s education might crowd out other activities, such as returning to work.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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One Comment to “Successful Low-Tech Educational Solutions in COVID-19 Digital Response”

  1. Hi Wayan
    Your experiment is well documented and analyzed and shows that simple engagement through text messages combined with parental interest can keep learning alive even if temporarily.
    Mine is a gut feel program consisting of five components but focused on girls living in slums.
    1. Rations to keep food in the table and girls off the street.
    2. Tablets loaded with software and zoom fir teachers to conduct online classes plus self learning.
    3. Incentives to teachers to work harder and smarter.
    4. Incentives to girls to stay and rewards for performance.
    5. Mother’s in slums who have an education to mentor the girls to learn.

    It works based on unscientific feedback.
    Cost $55 per girl per year.

    Anand Seth