Dealing with obstacles to distance learning

Distance learning solutions have been deployed over the past month in a vast majority of countries, but how effective are they in reaching the world’s 1.5 billion students affected by school closures?

‘’The effectiveness of the strategies is mainly conditioned by four levels of preparedness: technical preparedness, content readiness, pedagogical preparedness and monitoring and evaluation,’’ explained Mr Borhene Chakroun, Director of the Division of Policies and Lifelong Learning Systems at UNESCO, opening the fifth Covid-19 webinar on 17 April.

These four dimensions encompass access to distance learning options; the availability of online content aligned to the national curriculum; the pedagogical readiness of teachers as well as parents and caregivers, and the tracking of students’ progress. Obstacles at each of these levels can affect learning continuity, especially for the most marginalized students, as participants conveyed during this webinar, attended by 280 participants.

Phases of implementation of distance learning solutions

As Fengchun Miao, Chief of the Unit for ICT in Education at UNESCO, pointed out, there are three key phases in the reaction to school closures. The first stage is the immediate response to identify the best mix of technologies to ensure learning continuity, with additional focus on psychosocial support. The second phase involves settling into the new daily routine of isolation, when remote participation, engagement and extra-curricular learning comes to the forefront. In the last stage the focus shifts to the reopening of schools, with attention to making education systems more resilient, open and future read by sustaining some of the technology-enhanced models tested over this period.

Lessons learned from countries

Regardless of size, countries are grappling with a similar set of challenges. While Armenia has prior experience with distance learning, 25% of the 383,000-strong student population lacks access to computers. In response, the government launched a public solidarity campaign aimed at providing devices to low-income families while also negotiating zero rates with telecommunications companies for internet usage. Lack of online content aligned with the national curricula and pedagogical preparedness are further challenges, explained Ms Zhanna Andreasyan, Deputy Minister of Education. Some 47% of teachers report that they have never used ICT in their classes. “We have created a unified platform offering distance learning resources and video lessons, a data base of mentor teachers and online courses for teachers,” said the Deputy Minister, noting that the majority of teachers are using the materials. “We are looking at this as a new opportunity to advance the education reform agenda,” she concluded.

Similarly, in the Canadian province of Ontario (2 million students), 15,000 teachers were trained by the Ministry of Education in course of two weeks to give classes online, explained Ms Yael Ginsler, Assistant Deputy Minister at the Ontario Ministry of Education. Course material is focused mainly on math, literacy and science subjects with a recommended schedule and number of hours for each. Online courses and curated multilingual educational resources are posted on a central, open access website. The Ministry holds weekly meetings with trade unions and school boards to consult on emerging issues and work to resolve them through a whole of government approach.

Brazil is a country struggling with extreme inequalities, including in terms of broadband connectivity, as 70% of internet access is clustered around five major urban areas. Mr Ladislas Dowbor, Professor at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo, described context specific actions. As 95% of the population has television, this is the most accessible way to ensure learning continuity in low-income contexts. In the State of São Paulo, the Secretary of Education is combining public television (TV Cultura reaching 150 million) educational programmes with print resources, free mobile text messages and applications, creating a blended approach. Looking to the positive side of the situation, Professor Dowbor said that students are becoming protagonists of their own learning experience, unlike in a traditional school setting.  Furthermore, “with a network of independent producers, we are building another culture of how knowledge is created and shared, more collaboratively, with generations learning together.”

Assessment of distance learning practices

In the Republic of Korea, Ms Seoyong Kim, a parent of a second-grade student and an English teacher expressed concern about one-directional learning and lack of information about what students are actually retaining. ‘’Parents are unsure whether their children are studying or just spending time on the screen. As a teacher, it is important to give feedback and follow up regularly with each student and pay special attention to slow learners, so they are not left behind.’’ For this, she said that teachers need more support and that a mandatory assessment system should be in place to ensure that students are learning.

Mr Mike Sharples, Emeritus professor at the Open University in the United Kingdom noted a lack of research at the primary and secondary level on the effectiveness of distance learning. “Instructional videos alone are not as effective as face-to-face teaching,” he said, referring also to very different home study circumstances. “A mixture of different teaching methods leads to better results, such as personalized learning, collaborative learning with clear goals set for students and regular feedback from the teacher.’’

Integrated and system-wide planning

Concluding the webinar session, Mr Tao Zhan, Director of UNESCO’s Institute for Information Technologies in Education, stressed the importance of an integrated approach to planning distance learning strategies. Such an approach leverages synergies between online, television and radio channels, to ensure that distance learning is used to its fullest potential.