Is EduTech the key to lifting children out of learning poverty?

By Woo Hoi Yuet

An entire generation of children has been deprived of quality education at an unprecedented scale. We speak with educational experts to understand if EduTech and policy reforms can fill the gap.

A “learning poverty” has emerged in the wake of the pandemic, leaving millions of students at risk. But EduTech and policy reforms may help to plug the gap. Image: Canva

“The state of children’s education today is a global emergency, and government responses to this emergency must match the sheer magnitude of the crisis,” says Haogen Yao, Education Specialist at UNICEF. In ASEAN countries, schools for at least 140 million children were closed for an average of 60 weeks between February 2020 and 2022. 


The Covid-19 pandemic has caused “levels of inequality in education that we’ve not seen for decades”, he says, adding that two-thirds of ten-year-olds globally are unable to read and understand a simply written story, up from about half before the Covid-19 pandemic. In Cambodia, the percentage of students who fail to show basic proficiency in Mathematics increased from 49 per cent in 2016 to 74 per cent in 2021, found recent research by UNICEF.


Low levels of learning today directly translate to fewer opportunities tomorrow. Should governments fail to reverse current trends, they risk creating the perfect storm for underachievement, unproductivity, and unemployment, he highlights. 


He describes this situation as a “learning poverty”, conveying its long-lasting impact on the child’s future socio-economic circumstances. According to Yao, the current generation of students risks losing 21 trillion dollars in lifetime earnings based on present monetary value. Other than lost potential earnings, they have also lost their routines, access to health and nutrition services, and the safety that school provides, he adds. 


But even the lifting of pandemic restrictions isn’t a cure in itself. The Covid-19 crisis has revealed the broken roots of an education system and business as usual is not good enough anymore, says Shaveta Sharma-Kukreja, CEO and Managing Director at Central Square Foundation (CSF). The Foundation aims to provide quality education for children in India. 


Educational technologies for low-income communities


Systemic issues already plagued India’s education system prior to the pandemic, Sharma-Kukreja says. For instance, she highlighted that many schools and teachers did not have adequate resources to support the children’s learning—only 30 per cent of classrooms had teaching materials other than textbooks. 


Another challenge is the lack of standardisation in classrooms, she points out. Students from varying grades share the same classroom in over 60 per cent of primary schools, and around a quarter face a learning disadvantage as schools are taught in a language different from their mother tongue.


CSF is thus exploring how EduTech tools can be adopted in culturally-diverse classrooms and low-income settings to solve these problems. It created TicTacLearn, a YouTube channel that offers digital learning resources categorised according to grade and subject. The videos combine animation and storytelling in teaching, engaging students in more interactive learning. 


These videos are also available in major Indian languages so that young learners can learn more effectively in their mother tongue. So far, eight states have telecasted it on their regional television channels to reach a larger audience. 


While there is a wide range of EduTech tools available, the difficulty lies in adapting them to different learning contexts—nationally and regionally. CSF is undertaking research to generate evidence on the success of EduTech in India, says Sharma-Kukreja. They have published a report that evaluated EduTech initiatives and offered suggestions on how to leverage digital learning during the pandemic. 


For instance, the report identifies Whatsapp as an important distribution channel for school content, with 80 percent of children receiving learning materials primarily through this platform. Several EduTech platforms have also tapped into these accessible channels to reach a more inclusive audience. 


Rocket Learning, an EduTech organisation supported by CSF, creates WhatsApp groups for low-income parents who cannot afford to provide quality early childhood education for their children. It provides educational videos and activities to help parents teach their children foundational literacy and numeracy. 


Filling the learning gap


Governments need to “invest early, invest in quality, and invest in equity—or pay the price of a generation of children condemned to grow up without the knowledge and skills they need to reach their potential”, says Yao.


Today, only two out of seven countries in South Asia reported having a nationwide plan to measure learning outcomes after children return to school, he adds. Similarly, few countries have implemented measures to adjust the curriculum to catch up on missed learning post-pandemic. 


Children return to classrooms forgetting how to read and write, or recognise numbers and simple equations, Yao says. If these basic, foundational skills are erased, the students will lack the necessary groundwork to pursue further education. 


To address this, Yao shares five steps laid out by UNICEF that can help in overcoming the learning crisis.


First, children must have access to quality education and be retained in school. For instance, Thailand is starting to implement early warning systems to identify children at risk of dropping out of school. This could involve looking out for signs like absenteeism and poor academic performance. 


Second, schools must assess students’ learning levels after lockdowns and consistently throughout their schooling life. Mongolia, for example, implemented formative assessments in the first classes after schools reopened, which informed how teachers would plan subsequent catch-up classes.


The lack of focus on improving learning outcomes is a deep-seated problem, Sharma-Kukreja highlights. For instance, school systems emphasise on aspects like school infrastructure, the number of teachers, and enrollment of children as they are visible and easy to measure. But more holistic benchmarks can provide better incentives to improve the quality of learning for students. 


To address this, UNICEF implemented the Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics, tailored specifically to national education systems in the region, to assess and monitor students’ learning outcomes. 


Third, schools must prioritise foundational literacy and numeracy skills, which future learning is built upon. The Department of Education in the Philippines has published the Basic Education Learning Continuity Plan (BE-LCP), which streamlines the K-12 curriculum into essential learning competencies across all schools.


Fourth, schools need more catch-up programmes to help students recover what they have missed during the pandemic. UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Education in Thailand to help children catch up on their lessons. The pilot project, implemented in 40 schools, assesses the extent of students’ learning loss while training teachers to tailor catch-up lessons for students


Fifth, schools must provide a conducive environment for learning, including access to healthcare, psychosocial and nutritional support. These holistic factors play a huge role in helping students retain information and learn. The Philippines’ BE-LECP integrates child protection by identifying actions to strengthen collaboration between social welfare and education authorities to help out-of-school children. 

Also read: Digitally transforming: developing more intelligent education