Digital capacities and distance education in times of coronavirus. Insights from Latin America

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By Nicolas Buchbinder, GEM Report Fellow

Due to the coronavirus, schools have closed their doors in almost the entirety of Latin America. This is a situation with no precedent in the region. Countries have implemented different policies to continue the academic year. Many are using paper materials, radio and TV, but the fact is that this formats are not able to capture a significant proportion of the content that is taught in schools for each grade. Online education is in this sense the most important tool, which many governments are providing. But just how far can this reach in the region? And how are we going to support teachers that were not prepared to teach online?

Sadly, we need to start thinking of this situation as a “new normal”. There is consistent evidence of the negative consequences of interruptions in academic activity on learning achievement. This implies that the better we do in ensuring academic continuity now, the smaller the remedial education efforts that will be needed later. Ministries of education must treat this with paramount importance, and the region is offering some great examples.

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Image: Matt Cooper

Teachers need curated and organized materials, courses, guidelines and protocols. Chile and Colombia have developed great, well-organised platforms with activities, lesson plans and multimedia resources that thoroughly cover the curriculum, which teachers can use easily.

Many are also providing pedagogical guidance for teachers to shift to distance education (see, for example, those created by Uruguay, Chile, and Costa Rica). Costa Rica has also provided teachers with specific protocols for using digital devices and virtual etiquette norms, which are very useful for teachers that are not used to work with ICT.

Mexico and Uruguay have established psychological assistance services for teachers. Furthermore, it is important to keep administrative mechanisms working: Colombia has adapted its system for creating teacher positions to work online and recruiting.

What about those who do not have access to ICT?

Access to ICT for education is today almost a synonym of access to education. Access to digital devices and Internet has been expanding throughout the world, and Latin America is no exception. Nevertheless, the PISA 2018 shows that only 60% of 15-year-old students in the region had access to a computer at home, 79% had a link to the Internet, and 78% had at least two smartphones. If we further analyse these data, we see that only 68% live in households where an internet connection is available, and where there is a computer or two or more smartphones. This means that at least around a third of the students in the region do not have access to the Internet or to a device at their homes, and will have serious difficulties to benefit from online education.

The characteristics of the households that cannot access online learning are not surprising. Of students who do not have internet plus a computer or at least two smartphones, 57% are in the poorest quartiles of their countries, and 51% live in households where not even one of their parents had finished secondary education. In addition, 41% do not have a desk they can work on and 60% do not have literature books at their homes.

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PISA also captures the fact that many schools in the region are not ready to use ICT to teach, let alone embark on online education. On average in Latin America, although with much variation between countries, 67% of students attend schools whose principals think there is not enough educational software available, 42% of students attend schools whose principals believe teachers do not have sufficient technical and pedagogical skills to teach using ICT, 50% attends schools whose principals believe teachers do not have enough resources to teach using ICT, and 66% go to schools whose principals believe there is not enough assistance staff.

There are many caveats to these data, however. Let me point out three. First, 15-years-old students mainly attend secondary schools in Latin America, so these figures do not tell us much about the reality of primary school students, which we could argue may be much worse off. Second, they do not tell us much about the quality of the ICT resources that each student has access to; even if a student has a link to the Internet at home, this says nothing about their bandwidth. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) data, among the Latin American countries that participated in PISA 2018, there were 16.5 fixed-broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in 2018, while in developed countries there were 32.5. And, third, part of the analysed data relies on principals’ perception of their teachers’ readiness to use ICT for instruction, not on actual capacities.

Screenshot 2020-05-12 at 18.16.27Even so, the data are clear in pointing out a problem: although numbers vary by country, around a third of students do not have sufficient ICT resources and, according to the principals’ perception, around half of teachers do not have enough skills, resources or assistance to deal with online teaching. Intuitively, this context will increase inequalities between those that can do online education and the ones that cannot.

This means that other kinds of solutions have to be put in place for students that cannot be reached with technology. Paper materials, which all countries in the region are distributing, are necessary, but not sufficient, because of the importance of student-teacher interaction. Some countries are teaching via TV or radio (as Mexico’s Telesecundaria), but it is unlikely that other countries will be able to develop such structured interventions in the short term.

A first solution is to provide computers and internet to students that do not have access, which Argentina, Chile and Colombia are pursuing. However, this is not likely to reach all students in need in the short term, meaning that in-person strategies have to be put in place. A very interesting example of this is found in Uruguay, which has re-opened rural schools with very strict protocols. In rural areas, the possibilities of transmission of the virus are smaller, because social distancing is easier to comply with, and there are no crowds in public transport. Other strategies might consider that students that cannot benefit from online education attending once or twice a week to receive tutoring.

While avoiding learning loss seems impossible for reasons that exceed what schools can remedy, governments have the duty to make these damages as small as possible. Scaffolding and supporting teachers for online education and focusing on the students that cannot benefit from online learning are the natural steps that should be pursued to accomplish this objective.

Back to school, back to normality? Dilemmas in high-income countries

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There seemed no doubt when schools closed earlier this year that closures were a necessary response to the pandemic. The question is whether that reasoning has sufficiently subsided for the opening of school doors to be again acceptable. If groups of 10 people or more are being banned from assembling, how can classrooms of 15 students be allowed? If yesterday we were at risk of possible infection – and fatality – how, today, is it ok for students and teachers to group together in a school where social distancing is particularly hard to control? Policy makers, parents and teachers all have strong but conflicting views.

There are multiple approaches to opening schools in high-income countries at the moment. In Denmark and Norway, some schools and creches have already reopened. One cost-effective approach to the problem is to teach outside, something that Denmark is doing, as this eye-opening photo series shows. In Germany, the details of how schools will reopen are up to its 16 states to decide, but pupils in primary school are due to return to school in a staggered way, starting next week. France’s pre-primary schools are due to open on May 11 and other schools progressively from May 18.

In Australia, where schools are opening in New South Wales and Queensland, the staggered return will be handled differently by each school, with the hope that children will be able to go back full-time for the third term, which begins on July 20. The Government has said that families with multiple siblings should be prioritised and has suggested organising students by house colours, or alphabetically.

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Image: Pasco County Schools

Parents in countries, such as France, have reacted with bemusement. If parents are confused about when their children can start school, so are teachers. The rules, regulations, and opening schedules, hours and provisions are seemingly different everywhere.

The core deciding factors for schools reopening are related to the timing, the conditions and the processes, says a resource paper by UNESCO on ‘Preparing the reopening of schools’. The conditions, however, are not always agreed upon. In France, for example, the government’s scientific committee advised keeping schools closed until September – advice which has not been taken. There appear to be conflicting findings as to whether children are as likely to transmit the virus or not, with some in Germany claiming they are, but others in Australia – cited by the Prime Minister when announcing schools were to reopen – claiming the opposite.

What we do know is that adults face the highest risks of coronavirus transmission, which means teachers are likely most at risk. The Australian Education Union, for example, is concerned by the prospect of schools reopening, saying that the report claiming children were not vectors of the virus “provides little clarity about how governments are going to ensure a safe working environment for teachers, principals and support staff”.

One of the main unions in France is equally as concerned about how this adds up, asking: “How can we avoid a new epidemic flare-up when almost 900,000 teachers and 12 million students are re-assembled in class?” In the United Kingdom, over 200,000 people have signed petition of NEU, the main education union, to “open schools when it is safe” with signatures climbing every day, including those of more than a quarter of head teachers in the country. The NEU also believes that “systematic testing and contact tracing needs to be operating fully and be accessible,” all part of regulated hygiene measures in school that Germany’s main teacher union described as a “mammoth task”.

In the United States, teacher unions are also warning that sending them into crowded schools without widespread testing is an unacceptable risk. The head of the union in New York City wrote last week that it won’t support a return without testing for all students and staff, daily temperature checks, and tracing of those have been in contact with someone showing symptoms. Reportedly 68 education department staff have died in the city. The leaders of the country’s two largest teachers’ unions said they wouldn’t rule out teachers strikes if schools reopened too soon. The head of the American Federation of Teachers, was reported saying that if school doors opened again without regulated hygiene measures in place, “you do everything you can to … use your public megaphones.”

In China, for instance, not only are all students wearing masks, but there are often glass dividers between desks and teachers have proper personal protective equipment. In the United States, teachers are meanwhile commenting on the amount of funds made available to improve the security of schools after the spate of school shootings, but the lack of anything similar in the face of today’s crisis.

In March 2020, UNESCO ran an online survey on education responses to COVID-19, which showed that the majority of MOEs are eager to reopen schools as soon as possible. But the core push-factor for sending children back to school, apart from its core role in helping children learn – and learn on a more equal footing – is economics. Brookings recently did some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations on how much it will cost to keep schools closed for four months, concluding that it would set the United States back $2.5 trillion—12.7% of GDP. No wonder the political urgency.

Although one teacher in France wrote in a recent opinion piece “I am not responsible for the logistical challenges of capitalism,” the fact is that schools are definitely part of the economic motor of society. The deciding factor has to be whether risk-mitigating measures are in place. These are listed in a new framework for re-opening schools produced by UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank and the World Food Programme. “The first condition for a successful transition to onsite education is meaninigful social and policy dialogue with educators and their unions,” David Edwards, General Secretary of Education International, told us for this blog. Teachers  are partners, not pawns, in this new phase. To get this wrong will see union movement, and potential further education interruption unfold.

The fear of these past few months as Covid-19 has taken over the world will no doubt take some time to get over. Hesitance to return back to normal too quickly is likely a normal reaction, therefore. Aside from the health factors at play, however, we have a real chance now to build back better, rather than to rush back to normal. It would be a wasted opportunity not to assess how to deliver education more inclusively, starting by a more considered re-entry into school from among the most vulnerable families, rather than on a first-come-first-served basis. The 2020 GEM Report on inclusion and education is prepped to be launched on 23 June. We are excited about sharing its messages with you all – messages that could not come at a better time.

TVET and skills development in the time of Covid-19

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PHOTO DSC_0183. OKA 4x6By Paul Comyn, Senior Skills Specialist, ILO

With less than 5 months since the first official reporting of a Coronavirus (COVID-19) case, we have almost arrived at a global paralysis of regular education and training provision. This unprecedented situation is affecting learning at all levels but especially initial and continuing TVET, adult education and work-based learning, which have come to a stop as we know them.  The situation has upturned course schedules and attendance, disrupted teaching and learning, frustrated examinations and assessments, delayed certification and will likely affect the immediate and future careers of millions of learners. But TVET and skills programs do not easily migrate to distance and online learning.

Despite these challenges, in some contexts, it is clear that the crisis also provides an opportunity for the development of more flexible learning solutions that make better use of distance learning and digital tools. However, the shift to online or distance learning in TVET and skills development during the pandemic should be seen first and foremost as an emergency response and not a rapid and permanent migration of programs. Short term solutions can be and have been found but we must seize this opportunity to create long-term positive impacts and develop greater resilience.

Mobilising human and financial resources during this crisis is fundamental to ensure universal access to digital tools and modern learning technologies in the TVET and skills sector. The training of teachers and instructors, managers and learners to ensure their readiness to engage in digital learning must be addressed, and education and training providers have to revise teaching and learning models to make the best use of digital resources and tools.

As of April 14, 2020, according to UNESCO, nearly 1.6 billion or 91.3% of school students have been affected by system closures in 188 countries. Other countries have also implemented localized closures affecting millions of additional learners. Whilst these figures may capture TVET students enrolled in secondary education systems, comprehensive international data on the impact on TVET students is not yet available. In the Latin America and Caribbean region however, we know from ILO CINTEFOR that 85% of TVET institutions are completely closed.

In the TVET and skills sector, there is evidence that the major challenge for institutions has been to remain operational, to establish and maintain communications with and between teachers and students, and to continue to provide their services to the community, despite having suspended face-to-face classes.

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Image: ILO Asia-Pacific

An additional challenge to TVET institutions trying to remain operational is that some are also supporting national crisis response measures. For example, in the Philippines and Costa Rica they are using their workshops to manufacture personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer for healthcare personnel, or to 3D print medical devices.

In addition to the closure of colleges, work-based learning is being maintained in very few countries and in sectors like finance and ICT where commercial activities continue through teleworking. This element of TVET programmes is the most affected by the pandemic, and its impact is highest in countries where it is a compulsory part of the curricula.

Despite recent advances in technology, distance learning, be it online or offline, is not a long-term substitute for face-to-face teaching and practical skills training. In low- and middle-income countries, there are many issues impeding the wider and permanent diffusion of distance learning. These involve socio-economic and cultural aspects beside the limited ICT infrastructure that contributes to the digital divide. While new solutions for teaching and learning could bring much needed innovation to education and training systems, the shifts we are seeing have the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities for those who already face disadvantages in trying to access and engage in learning.

We cannot ignore the digital divide and the uneven access to equipment, tools and skills it implies and we cannot allow the rush to go online to widen existing inequalities. We need to recognise the significant challenges that distance and online learning presents for teachers and trainers, working in institutions and systems that are underfunded and neglected compared to general and university education. If we want to ensure that the shift to distance and online learning both meets immediate learning needs and prepares us for more effective TVET and skill systems in the future, a number of key measures need to be taken now and in the months ahead. Decision makers need to:

  • improve internet infrastructure and access to the internet;
  • expand access for learners to online digital application and platforms;
  • utilise inclusive digital and analogue technologies for distance learning and support lo learners;
  • support teachers and trainers to operate in the new environment;
  • provide support, career guidance and digital skills development for learners;
  • increase distance and short course learning options for core, entrepreneurial and employability skills to vulnerable groups and individuals;
  • strengthen systems for the recognition and validation of digital learning;
  • increase investment in digital solutions for practical skills development; and
  • improve social dialogue and coordination amongst education and training institutions, employment services and local authorities.

Covid-19 school closures and the summer break

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The shift in emphasis in global education debates in recent years towards learning outcomes has been so strong that sometimes it seemed as if we no longer valued education access unless it led to learning. The reaction to school closures in response to the Covid-19 pandemic is a powerful reminder that in fact we do, instinctively, care about access per se, and even about the time physically spent in school. But it is also a reminder that we do not care about it consistently.

Just as some countries like Austria and Denmark are reopening schools, the prospect of schools re-opening their doors anytime soon is receding in many other countries. But even when closures were initially announced for 1-2 months, the education community rightly went into crisis mode. This is despite the fact that closing schools for 2 or even 3 months every year as we do in the summer is considered business as usual.

The point is not to argue that the current situation is less serious than it seems, but to remind ourselves that the question of how much time is spent at and away from school is not as trivial as it seems, even at the best of times.

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Image: GPE/Midastouch

There are large institutional differences between countries with respect to instruction time and the academic calendar. There are 141 school days per year in a normal year in France, for example, meaning that schools are closed for the equivalent of around three months more than in the Republic of Korea with 220 school days. With respect to uninterrupted periods away from school, differences are also large. The summer break between academic years is only one month in Bangladesh, but around 3 months in the Russian Federation, for example. Students in Italy have one extra month every year not in school compared to their peers in the Netherlands. And on top of these differences there are differences in the length of the school day and as a result, in actual instruction time.

These vast differences in the amount of time children effectively have physical access to school raise relatively little debate. One reason is that the statistical correlation with learning outcomes as measured by international assessments is tenuous. But, as the current crisis so powerfully reminds us, we do – and should – care about whether children lose even a month’s worth of school time, especially in systems where learning levels are low.

Many do not believe that the scheduled closures such as the summer break are harmless. That learning might recede in some way over a break of several months seems a common-sense argument, often referred to as the ‘summer learning loss’. If you try and learn a new skill and then drop it for a couple of months, for instance, you’re bound to be a bit rusty when you return to pick it up again.

Recent research in the United States by NWEA, the Northwest Evaluation Association, looked at the evidence for a ‘summer slide’ . It found that, after grade 3, students lost nearly 20% of the school year’s gains in reading skills and 27% of their math gains over the summer break. By grade 7, students lost on average 36% of their gains in reading skills and 50% of their math gains over the break.

A critical question is the extent to which this summer slide is also worse for disadvantaged students. Richer households may have better availability of books, more emphasis on reading, more technology used in the right way and, in richer countries, access to higher quality summer programmes. Indeed, such considerations are also behind the concern that extended Covid-19 school closures could increase socioeconomic gaps.

For the summer break, the evidence on inequality in its effect on skills is decidedly mixed, however. A seminal study in 1996 found that the most disadvantaged students saw far greater declines in reading skills over the summer than others, and that this disadvantage cumulated over their school careers. However, these results have been called into question.

Inequalities are often argued to be associated with other elements such as financing of education systems or the quality of a school or teacher. Much of the achievement gap being looked at in the summer loss data is already present at the start of preschool.

However, much of this research on the summer learning loss has been limited to the United States and other high-income countries. A lack of clear evidence there should not make us complacent about the potential effects on inequality of being away from school for several months in low- and middle-income countries, where there is even greater variation in education resources between homes. An analysis of recent household surveys conducted by the GEM Report uncovered no systematic difference in child welfare indicators, such as child labour, between households interviewed during the school year or the summer break. However, it is unclear whether respondents answer with reference strictly to the current or to the general situation. Similar to the introduction of high-frequency phone surveys in response to the current crisis, more detailed data is required to fully understand when exactly drop-out between grades takes place and how the potential harm of long summer breaks can be minimised in settings with already low levels of education.

There is no perfect schedule for a school calendar, as global variations show. This might lead some to question whether a summer break should be kept as scheduled or not after these closures. Many countries’ so-called ‘summer break’ does not reflect any weather pattern or agricultural activity that particularly justifies closing schools.

In the northern hemisphere, the case for closed schools may be stronger in October than in July and August from a public health perspective. Sticking to the regular summer break may, therefore, force school closures of more than six months.

If schedules can’t be changed, a response might be to use the summer break to focus on supporting students who have been further marginalised by this crisis. Discussions with teacher unions on how to make catch-up instruction possible should take place in the coming weeks.

The world has shown a remarkable amount of flexibility around the disruption that this pandemic has brought. Flexibility could also be found to change school calendars if needed, given that there is not always an obvious rationale why they are shaped that way to begin with.