Assessments of Learning Loss and Remote Education Inform Data-Driven Response to COVID-19

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By Silvia Montoya, Director, UNESCO Institute for Statistics

World Children’s Day, established to promote child rights and welfare, is more important than ever this year as the world grapples with dual threats to education and health. Creating the evidence for policy actions to mitigate the impact of school closures is crucial, and for this, countries must assess children’s learning, along with the effectiveness of remote schooling, while supporting families, teachers and other front-line workers. At the same time, keeping schools open is a priority, so taking measures to ensure children’s safety in school is central to preventing further closures during a second wave of COVID-19.

From the beginning of the pandemic, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) has set the pace, collecting data on national government responses to the crisis, and collaborating with the World Bank and UNICEF on a joint report, What Have We Learnt. The report is based on two quarterly surveys – the first taking place between April and May with 118 respondents, and the second between July and October with 149 respondents.

The surveys confirm that students in low-income countries are most at risk from school closures. This is because lost school days and the perception (and perhaps reality) that learning from home does not have the same value as learning in the classroom, increases pressure on young people to drop out. Ultimately, only learning assessments will be able to tell us if remote schooling – online, TV and radio programming, as well as take-home paper-based work – have been effective. But in the meantime, 24 million students are at risk of dropping out this year, reducing their skills acquisition and earning prospects for years to come.

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Prepared for the Future: A New Indicator That Combines Completion with Learning

By Silvia Montoya, Director, UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) and Manos Antoninis, Director, Global Education Monitoring Report

New global indicator will provide a simple, comprehensive measure of progress towards the education goal, SDG4.

The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 4) for education recognizes that all children deserve, and have the right to, a quality education. Over the last three decades, enrollment has risen to historic highs, though school disruptions and the economic implications of COVID-19 will offset some of these gains. But enrollment is only a part of what children need. For children to be fully prepared for the future, they need to complete their education, and emerge having learnt at least the basics. The new global indicator will combine all these critical factors to provide a snapshot of progress towards SDG 4.

Completing and learning are critical elements of a quality education

Unfortunately, in some of the poorest regions where children are most in need of a high-quality education to get ahead, poor learning outcomes often result in higher drop-out rates with large numbers of children not completing school at all – or completing it when more than five years older than the intended graduation age for that level. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where 82% of primary aged children are enrolled in school at the right grade for their age, just 62% graduate from this level on time. When children don’t finish school, it is hard, if not impossible, for any more learning to happen.

Even where education is free, poor families still pay for books and uniforms, and there is the perceived “opportunity cost” of lost income or help with household chores, while children are in school. If parents don’t see a pay-off from their investment in education, children can be pulled out of school before completing a level, or when transitioning between levels, from say, primary school, to lower secondary.

Introducing the new indicator: Prepared for the Future

To underline the need for countries to prioritize school completion, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), working through the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning (GAML), is proposing a new, holistic, indicator that will track both completion and learning combined. The aim is to ensure that global leaders and education policy makers have the evidence they need to zero in on where they stand on their SDG 4 commitments. With ten targets and 42 indicators in the monitoring framework for SDG 4, some might argue that it is hard to quickly grasp where countries stand in their progress towards the goal. With so many touch-points, it risks calls for change being watered down. This new indicator will hopefully answer these concerns, providing a simple rallying reference point for all education actors to lobby for improvement, ensuring all children are prepared for the future.

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Recalculating Proficiency in Schools: COVID-19 Related Learning Losses and Dropping Out

Traditional ways of measuring educational proficiency, based on assessment results and the percentage of children enrolled in schooling, may not be as effective a measurement while COVID-19 impacts upon attendance rates.

Analysts working with SDG indicators on learning proficiency, in particular Indicator 4.1.1, would in many cases be familiar with a formula such as the following:

The percentage of enrolled learners who are proficient, S, is typically known from assessment results. The percentage of children of the age of the grade in question who are not enrolled, N, is typically known from household data. is what planners are ultimately interested in: the percentage of the relevant age cohort in the population who are proficient. While there is some ambiguity over whether Indicator 4.1.1 refers to or Pis clearly important and must be monitored.

The above formula assumes that non-enrolled children do not reach minimum proficiency levels, following the approach taken in UIS (2020) and UIS (2017). The relationships can be illustrated as in the following graph, which is based loosely on levels of learning proficiency and the out-of-school problem in developing countries. Here is a function of and N, according to the above formula. 

In the context of COVID-19, sudden declines in enrolment, meaning rises, and declines in proficiency in the population due to disruptions in schools, meaning drops, are possible. In examining the effects on the three statistics Pand S, it is important to remember that and influence each other. Assuming that children who drop out of the schooling system are the academically weakest learners, an assumption that is likely to hold for a number of reasons, one can expect S either to rise or decline, depending on the magnitudes of the two effects: dropping out of school and learning losses. If one has estimates of and N, then the new is calculated according to the following transformation of the previous formula:

To illustrate the ambiguity, we can imagine learning losses resulting in a drop in from the 35% seen in the graph to 33%. If out-of-school increases from 5% to 9%, declines from 37% to 36%. However, if displays a larger increase, from 5% to 13%, then displays an increase from 37% to 38%. Even with learning losses in the population of a specific age, if enough learners drop out, and we assume that these learners are those who struggled most academically, then assessment systems may in fact detect an increase in the percentage of proficient learners.

Clearly, planners need to be fully aware of these relationships. Above all, the first formula above should not be used to conclude that more out-of-school children on its own produces a decline in P. If was 37% (as in the graph) and then out-of-school increases from 5% to 13%, one cannot conclude that drops to 32%. This would ignore the fact that if changes, automatically changes too. 

Projections For Learning Proficiency Can Inform Post COVID-19 Educational Strategies

The UIS will soon be releasing its projections of the impact of COVID-19 on the learning proficiency of children and youth, building upon previous UIS projections published in early 2020, before the pandemic. Projections of this kind are vital and inform the planning conducted by national governments, global bodies, and development assistance organizations. 

The data suggest that the impact of the pandemic on learning occurs through two distinct channels:

  1. Disruption in schooling has denied learners their usual classroom experience with teachers and other children. Disruptions have been particularly serious for younger children, who are most in need of contact teaching, and often receive meals through the school. These needs are felt especially in developing countries.
  2. The economic shock of the pandemic has put education budgets under pressure, and worsened household poverty. These factors also impact negatively on learning. 

The findings suggest that the effects of school disruptions on learning proficiency could be felt for many years, even after the pandemic is declared over. In future years, however, as children who did not directly experience the disruptions enter the education system, the longer-term budgetary and poverty effects will be of greatest significance. It is important for planners both to mitigate the effects of the disruptions, and to plan for the educational well-being of future age cohorts of children not affected directly by the disruptions. 

Current focus

The following diagram outlines the variety of factors influencing any schooling system’s ability to minimize learning losses: 

This illustrates how future priorities depend to a large degree on the strengths and weaknesses of the schooling system that existed before the pandemic. Systems with effective support and accountability structures, and which had been experiencing improvements in learning proficiency before 2020, are likely to be the most resilient to the shock of the pandemic. 

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Rethinking School Infrastructure During a Global Health Crisis

By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics

After more than 6 months since the beginning of national lockdowns and school closures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, reopening schools is necessary and essential. Interruptions to classroom-based instructions have widened existing inequalities for vulnerable populations and reduced access to learning for a large fraction of the world’s children and youth. The longer schools remain closed, the more likely disadvantaged children are at risk of dropping out of school completely. Before the pandemic, children from the poorest households were already almost five times more likely to be out of primary school than their richer counterparts.

Proper infrastructure lacking to prevent the spread of COVID-19

As countries start to rethink how to address school openings, new national risk mitigation measures and public health regulations need to be considered within the school’s physical space. Children’s role in transmitting the coronavirus is still uncertain, and younger children are less likely to be sensitive or respectful of strict measures. As such, few schools are prepared to reopen in a way that can protect children, teachers and other school staff. Two of the most important measures cited by global health authorities to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – namely, frequent and proper hand washing (using soap and water) and social distancing – are highly dependent on the existing physical infrastructure.

COVID-19-related hygiene and social distancing norms in schools are unearthing a range of systemic problems with infrastructure in schools across the world. From European schools in densely-populated urban areas to rural remote village schools in the mountains of north-eastern Cambodia, schools are facing a wide range of challenges in their provision of adequately protective COVID-19 environments. Inadequate physical conditions, such as water shortages, poor sanitation and small classrooms, are proving difficult to overcome in the short-term for an immediate response.

Almost half the schools in the world do not have access to basic handwashing facilities with soap and water while one-third are lacking in basic sanitation (i.e. improved facilities that are single-sex and usable at the school). Overall, schools in rural areas fare worse than those in urban areas while children at the pre-primary and primary levels have less access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities than those in higher education levels. Younger children are more likely to be vulnerable to WASH-related diseases, yet are at the right ages at which to establish foundational learning around health and hygiene. Thus, training young children, staff and family members is an essential component to establishing WASH services for a community.

Establishing adequate WASH facilities for vulnerable populations is crucial

Basic WASH facilities in schools are particularly important for WASH-vulnerable populations, including girls, persons with disabilities, children from poor households and children living in fragile contexts. Access to water and sanitation is not only a right in itself as established in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – and safeguarded by Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 – but it contributes to the realization of other child rights, such as health, nutrition and education. Girls require separate latrines as a fundamental part of their safety and healthy participation in life. Girls are more likely to enrol, attend and complete school if they have access to single-sex facilities, which are essential, particularly for menstrual hygiene management. Yet, this is only the case in 54% of the least developed countries, compared to 72% in Eastern and South-eastern Asia, 79% in in Central and Southern Asia and 81% in Latin America and the Caribbean (UIS database). According to World Bank ranked income levels, only 73% of lower middle income countries provide single-sex basic sanitation facilities to their female students, compared to the World average of 78% and 97% of high income countries.

In addition to WASH concerns, schools needs to consider the existing physical learning environment to safeguard social distancing norms. Adapting school norms to larger classrooms as a long-term response to the COVID-19 situation can also help establish quality learning environments in the long-term. There are no set international standards for classroom sizes or ratios, although norms and guidelines exist to provide guidance on better quality learning environments. In 2005, UNICEF’s Child-Friendly Schools Manual recommended a minimum 3.8 metres squared per child in early learning centres. Setting minimum spaces for children in higher education levels is more complex, however, and depends on the conditions of the local community (including projected population growth) as well as environmental and climatic conditions. In Rwanda, a minimum of one squared meter per pupil is considered adequate. One can also establish a basis for the overall classroom size, whereby child-friendly classrooms could reach a minimum of 100 square meters if playing areas and multi-activity classrooms are included. For example, the preschool square footage per student ratio is usually higher than for primary schools as younger children are less frequently required to sit still at their desks.

Global Education Coalition initiatives provides guidance

Changing or adapting infrastructure to meet the new demands, however, can prove an expensive enterprise for many countries. Indeed, the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) provided more than one-fifth of its total COVID-19 response grants (USD 266 million) to programmes in 12 countries that prepared school facilities for reopenings in safe environments for children and teachers. The Global Education Coalition for COVID-19 Response – launched by UNESCO in partnership with UNICEF, the World Bank, the World Food Programme and other United Nations agencies, international organizations, private sector and civil society representatives – developed the Framework for reopening schools. Reopening schools is composed of a three-step process (before, during and after reopening) and organised according to operational safety standards, learning practices, well-being and protection that reach out to the most marginalised populations (including girls). In addition to investing in WASH to mitigate virus transmission risks, the Framework aims to provide a holistic approach on safe operational procedures by including and training teachers and school staff in adhering to social distancing measures and adopting relevant hygiene practices. A more recent jointly developed update to proper procedures and checklists to consider prior to reopening is also now available.

Ensuring classrooms and materials are accessible and inclusive has been the cornerstone of quality learning environments, and such standards are well aligned with needs during the COVID-19 reopenings. For example, modular classrooms – where furniture can be moved, collapsed or put away – is already a recommendation in some national guidelines for classrooms. As children and projects evolve and change during the school year, spaces that are adaptive can reduce the density of students in the classroom as required by social distancing norms.

Some adopted measures can be detrimental to effective learning

Adaptations to small classroom spaces has been shown to provide less than ideal reopening environments in some countries. To maintain WHO-recommended distancing measures among students and teachers (minimum of 1 meter squared), many schools have limited the number of students returning to classrooms at the same time, thereby reducing effective classroom time for all students. In addition, WHO guidelines recommend several decision points with regards to school reopenings, with specific attention paid to local trends on COVID-19 cases. The guidelines in France, for example, adapted an approach that prioritised certain students (i.e. those of medical workers), followed by children from vulnerable families. Thus, the total amount of time returning to the classroom is a function of the strict social distancing requirements, the school’s physical infrastructure, teacher availability and children’s background.

As effective learning time is reduced for all students, a temporary response is to prioritise learning according to student needs. Limited time in the classroom can make teachers face more time-stress to meet the needs of national curricula and high-stakes examinations for certification or selection to the next education level. As part of the crisis-sensitive approach, education planners can reassess curricular objectives and transitions to upper education levels.

In 2015, the global community validated the importance of infrastructure to deliver quality education for all learners and teachers, regardless of background or disability status. The international standard noted in the Education 2030 Framework states that “Every learning environment should be accessible to all and have adequate resources and infrastructure to ensure reasonable class sizes and provide sanitation facilities.” Sanitation crises such as COVID-19 mark the urgency in reaching these goals and highlight existing concerns around poor learning environments. However, this moment can also serve as a catalyst to improve learning conditions and outcomes for all children.

Eleven theses for a counter-isolation pedagogy

By the Pansophia Project: María Eugenia Arias, Mayra Botta, Delfina Campetella, María Laura Carrasco, Cristina Carriego, Agustina Lenzi, Mariano Narodowski, Emiliano Pereiro and Gustavo Romero

In these confusing and uncertain times due to forced homeschooling, authors from the Pansophia Project propose that we pause and reflect on this new reality before deciding on the best way to move forward to preserve key educational gains. Eleven theses on pedagogy are presented here to provide food for thought as we navigate the current COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Digital culture can breed a false sense of security
If COVID-19 had been unleashed just 20 years ago, even the most fortunate of us would have had to rely on radios, cable TV, dial-up internet access and flip cell phones. No digital platforms, social networks, video calls and no streaming services were yet available.

What would have happened to schooling? We would have had to accept that months of education would be lost, while we planned for the return of children to their classrooms.

Today’s digital culture could lull us into thinking that we are going to lose less or lose nothing at all. After all, we have mobilized technology to keep schooling going, right? But in fact, maybe we need to pause and reflect as we design a counter-isolation pedagogy for today and for similar shocks in the future.

2. Pedagogy is the opposite of isolation
Modern pedagogy aims to educate as many children and young people in the best possible way: in school. Pedagogy is, therefore, the opposite of isolation. Its tools rely on an encounter between teacher and student in a school – a non-transferable and unique encounter that is structured around knowledge.

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3. A house is not a school
Houses are nothing like schools. A school is a complex organization led by specialized teachers who earn their wages from their work. Schools are spaces where students must go to learn a body of knowledge common to them all. They are state-regulated and, mostly, state-funded. Schools are part of the public sphere, and an integral part of what unites us as a community.

Schools may even provide the care, control and affection that may be missing at home. Even so, nobody is paid to be part of a household, and households themselves are only ‘regulated’ in extreme circumstances, such as during quarantine.

4. Confinement isn’t ‘normal’
Learning at home does not mirror learning in a classroom. Faced with a lockdown, our initial response was focused on performance and efficiency. Initial bewilderment became hyperactivity and then exhaustion as we tried to impose a sense of ‘normalcy’ on a situation that was anything but.

No one was prepared for such an abrupt change: most schools lacked the technological capacity and few parents were prepared to teach their children fulltime, in a formal manner and by themselves. The image of a home equipped with the materials and resources of a school has been accurate for only a tiny fraction of the world’s households – if that.

5. Lockdown deepens inequalities that schools have not been able to resolve
Schools provide the greatest potential for equity in human history: populations that were excluded from knowledge for millennia now have access to learning. Yet schools have failed to reach everyone and the access to knowledge they provide is not immune to broader processes of segregation and inequality.

While some resources for distance learning are available for free, socioeconomic conditions reinforce existing disparities – for many, even free resources are unattainable. And of course, the economic impact of lockdown harms children and teenagers from the most vulnerable groups, whose health and food deficits have increased, reducing their chances of continuing their education.

These inequalities are not erased by lockdown: they just become deeper. Available data shows that a lack of internet connection and technology leaves most students worldwide unable to ‘virtualize.’ And those who have connectivity may find it hard to interact with their teachers via cell phone.

The social distribution of technology will remain unfair as long as network access remains limited to teach and learn. And something that has been denied will become only too clear: students do not abandon schools but schools abandon students when we do not give them a realistic alternative.

6. Remote teaching is not equal to moving the school to the teacher’s house.
Remote teaching means relying on information and communication technologies (ICTs), and adapting the teacher’s work implies a profound transformation. The means change, but so does the nature of the education itself, which abandons face-to-face interaction, is provided remotely and requires major modifications.

Structured and planned remote teaching usually requires changes in content and even the actors involved, with greater reliance on the support of tutors or counselors to monitor each student. In theory, it demands careful, systematic and predictable design and planning. That, in turn, typically entails time-consuming preparation of specific materials from didactic guides to evaluation tools and the division of teaching functions into different roles, such as content specialists and virtual design experts who are paid specifically for the design of remote classrooms and lessons.

In lockdown, however, the opposite is happening: teachers add all the different roles required for remote teaching to their school responsibilities – and all for the same price. The rapid and immediate virtualization of teaching carries a high cost, and teachers, parents and learners pay for it.

Rather than a systematic approach to remote learning, what we have is a kind of emergency remote schooling. That is not enough.

7. Technology is an aid, not a solution
There is a belief that for every problem there is probably a technological solution. This technological solutionism is foolish when it fails to answer the biggest question: can technology solve the educational issues posed by lockdown? It is clear that the technology at home is no substitute for the technology that is available in some schools. But just as important as the technical limitations are the didactic limitations: re-opening the debate between the defenders of traditional schools and the ‘techno-fundamentalists’ who advocate for the replacement of school technology with artificial intelligence.

This fascination with technology is an obstacle if we expect it to achieve the same results as schools during lockdown. Better to move forward with tools that foster innovation, making sure that all teachers and families have devices and connectivity.

8. Create educational continuity in other ways
It is time to adapt our expectations to the new reality, allowing ourselves more flexibility, and selecting content, activities, care, quantities and qualities in a smart and measured way. Schools resolved the challenges of catering for students of different ages and educational levels two centuries ago. But without schools, the solutions – classrooms, breaks, timetables and tests – become illusions. And the younger the student, the greater their reliance on adults and the lower their chances of learning without depending on a school. Trying to replicate a school schedule during lockdown is also unlikely to succeed.

Some teachers use more complex platforms and could impose a schedule similar to the one in school if families have the economic, housing, technological and cultural conditions to go along with it – i.e. the smallest and richest sector of the population. Perhaps lockdown entails testing options that will enhance the educational experience once it ends. But even in the best-case scenario, there is no certainty that the digital model will work as well as the school model.

9. Go back to basics – time to prioritize
Social isolation forces us to detach ourselves from the school timetable and re-think teaching: what are we going to do and how are we going to do it once we reject the idea of doing for the sake of doing?

Prioritizing content and experience seems less ambitious, yet more realistic than trying to force continuity for something that is no longer there. Prioritizing means building relevant criteria for disciplines, contents and knowledge, but also for the bond with and among students. Prioritization criteria should be the foundation for every decision and should be filtered by the question: why? The schoolteacher is only one type of teacher, and maybe this forced exile encourages us to question the meaning of what we do.

Perhaps the first priority should be dealing with the socio-emotional situation of our students and of ourselves: the context cannot be ignored, and pedagogical continuity requires ongoing reflection from teachers that cannot be paused due to confinement.

Prioritizing is the bedrock of building a counter-isolation pedagogy. It means establishing deep feelings that connect us through knowledge and encounters that, while remote and mediated, allow us to reconstruct the pedagogical relationship that is missing.

10. Build a flexible, realistic and pansophic project
Perceiving the sound of a person’s voice, their writing and even their image on a screen, but without experiencing the actual presence and gaze of the other is a challenge. This pretense that things are somehow the same must give way to a realistic approach that allows the continuation of educating in the context of lockdown.

We lack a play book for this – not because governments, international organizations, and specialists have become silent, but because nobody has instructions to give. Once again, no one taught the teachers, and teachers themselves are having to figure it out. Acknowledging uncertainty is the first step to avoid hyperactivity that rings hollow or the anguished “nothing can be done” paralysis.

Moving forward, it is essential to map out the situation, creating a realistic diagram of the contingency of social isolation conditions that can adapt to the variations that we are facing. It needs to be pansophic enough – in other words, an approach that ensures that all human knowledge is equally accessible to all human beings, despite socio-economic and other such barriers – to enable a counter-isolation pedagogy through which we can maintain opening the paths of education for ourselves and others, even during lockdown.

11. When experience is not enough, we need to draw on the present
There are no magic recipes for the new. Counter-isolation pedagogy needs to consider everything that needs to be thought about and done, but not just anything. Having no prior experience with confinement and school closures on this massive global scale, we need to draw and reflect on the lessons we are learning now as we navigate the challenges in the present. After all, education itself is the possibility of thought. And thought is the virus we all need to catch.

The Importance of Monitoring and Improving ICT Use in Education Post-Confinement

By Silvia Montoya, Director, UNESCO Institute for Statistics; and Alexandre Barbosa, Head of the Regional Center for Studies on the Development of the Information Society, under the auspices of UNESCO, Brazil (Cetic.br).

The global provision of schooling is facing unprecedented challenges as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Within the span of a few months, 191 countries had closed their schools to deploy social distancing measures in accordance with the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations. More than 1.5 billion students from pre-primary to university-level have been affected by these closures, with classroom-based learning interrupted for indefinite periods of time. While some education systems, teachers, students and parents were somewhat prepared to adapt to existing distance learning programmes and platforms, millions were not.

In the context of COVID-19 school closures, paper-based and digital distance education platforms have become essential to the continued provision of education for all. After more than a month of school closures across the world, many students are still struggling with remote learning. Global estimates suggest that 826 million students are without a household computer, 706 million lack internet access at home and another 56 million lack coverage by mobile 3G/4G networks. To better gauge the scope of the impact of school closures and of the ensuing national education responses, a survey of ministries of education developed jointly by UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank was recently launched to more accurately inform a collaborative global education response.

Without adequate information and communication technology (ICT) devices, internet/mobile network access, educational resources and teachers’ training, students simply cannot partake in distance education to continue on their learning trajectories. At most risk of being left behind are students from resource-poor areas, remote rural areas and low-income households. In addition, learners with disabilities or those who use a different language in the home than in school will require more individualised support.

Multiple delivery channels are an essential component to reach all children and youth during this pandemic. A recent UNICEF survey found that 68% of the 127 countries were using a combination of digital and non-digital delivery of remote education (i.e. TV, radio and take-home packages). Even before the COVID-19 related school closures, the use of radio, video and television for remote learning has proven to be strong components of well-designed numeracy, literacy and financial education programmes for children, youth and adults living in remote and rural communities. However, the implementation and reach of such programmes require the monitoring and support of trained educators.

Distance learning also requires that school systems consider the needs of parents and guardians who have to step in to facilitate learning to ensure the pedagogical continuity of their children, especially for the children in earlier grades (Grades 1-3) who need more one-on-one support. The ability for parents and guardians to effectively facilitate home-based learning depends on a variety of interacting factors, including their education level, native language and time availability. Understanding parental digital literacy – which could be estimated from SDG 4 Indicator 4.4.1 that assesses ICT skills among youth and adults – is essential for targeting skill support and development for parents. Without ICT skills support for the adults in the home, children from families with poor digital literacy are likely to fall even further behind.

Developing ICT skills to ensure education weathers the storm of future crises

Reports of parents, teachers, communities and networks that have developed innovative and makeshift interventions, such as mobile-based Wi-Fi networks as well as on-demand content and textbooks available in clouds — to broaden digital capacities have certainly sparked optimism. However, these grassroots efforts largely serve as a short-term band-aid solution. Although they are inspiring, more fundamental developments to bolster access to and use of ICT are required – both at home and in schools, and especially for younger learners at the primary and secondary levels where gaps are largest. Hastily put-together remote teaching approaches have not proven to be optimal learning experiences and could be off-putting to some students.

School closures such as those currently experienced by the more than 1.5 billion students worldwide are commonplace in some countries due to natural emergencies, conflict as well as budgetary or labour negotiations. Once schools reopen, building skills and support for distance education in schools so learners can continue learning in the home can help minimise learning interruptions as well as deter learners from leaving school early or dropping out in the event of future crises. In addition, there remains a possibility that the COVID-19 crisis and its ensuing confinement measures may not be short-lived as flare-ups of cases may spark future school closures in certain countries. As some countries begin to reopen their schools, they will need to select innovative remote teaching modalities that blend with face-to-face teaching to ensure that learners are better prepared for future school closures. Thus, given the importance of distance education in the current context and in anticipation of future crises, countries need to take responsibility for monitoring, facilitating and enabling access to ICT in schools as well as in the homes of all learners.

Current measures of ICT availability fall short of capturing the needs in certain countries and regions as they fail to report on factors, such as the availability of electricity (grid- or solar based) and access to computers for pedagogical purposes, which are primary necessities. At a global level, these indicators are needed to monitor ICT use and detect national trends. However, they are not sufficiently detailed or policy-oriented to provide governments with adequate information to improve access to and use of ICT in education as well as sufficient information on teacher training and digital skills. For instance, counting the number of computers per school or per student poorly reflects the use of computers, which may in fact be minimal if these devices are locked in computer labs.

Monitoring ICT use in schools to better inform education policies post-confinement

Reliable data from school-based surveys can provide the quality ICT use data required to better inform education policy and practices, especially in developing countries. Capturing the complex set of factors involved will paint a more accurate picture of what is available and used by both students and teachers. This includes information, such as availability of digital infrastructure; internet connection speed; school activities in which teachers use ICT; training received by teachers to empower them to integrate ICT into their practices; strategies implemented by schools to develop digital skills; and perceptions by principals and teachers on ICT use in education and its barriers. Furthermore, the presence of qualified technical staff (e.g. technicians, librarians) is required to support the use of ICT in schools, including ensuring digital access and ICT learning among teachers.

These indicators and more are proposed in the Practical Guide to Implement Surveys on ICT Use in Primary and Secondary Schools – a joint publication by the UIS and Cetic.br (Regional Center for Studies on the Development of the Information Society). The guide discusses the relevance of survey data on ICT use in schools to inform policymaking and underscores the need for robust data to understand factors that determine equal access to and use of technologies by the teachers, principals, students and their families.

The guide serves as an especially useful reference for government agencies, school authorities and other stakeholders looking to measure ICT access and use in education as it outlines the methodology and steps required to conduct a successful survey (i.e. planning, fieldwork, data processing, reporting and dissemination). This comprehensive document also examines the practical aspects of developing school-based surveys explicitly related to ICT and includes methodological datasheets for 26 core and optional indicators.

As some countries begin to reopen their schools, promoting equity in ICT access and use will continue to be an important factor to consider when addressing educational challenges for disadvantaged schools and learners from vulnerable households. In addition, the availability of computers, tablets, mobile phones and other potential learning devices, along with the provision of internet access in the home, will ultimately determine which children will be able to participate in distance learning and be more likely to complete their education in the event of future school closures.

Bridging the digital divide at home and in schools

Evidence indicates that there is a substantial ‘digital divide’ in access to ICT between countries. For example, according to estimates from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 21% of learners in Africa cannot be reached by 3G mobile networks. In terms of internet access, 82.2% of households in Africa lack access in the home (see Figure 1). To bridge the divide and encourage mobile-based education, and in addition to infrastructure investment, lowering the cost to consumers to gain access to online data needs to be considered as these are prohibitive in many countries.

Source: International Telecommunication Union (ITU) 

Under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 to ensure inclusive and equitable education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all, governments have committed both to increase digital skills and expand ICT infrastructure in schools. To support distance education, schools will need to better equip learners with the skills to migrate onto these online learning platforms. Moreover, closing the ‘digital divide’ will require governments to invest in supporting learners in the early grades of school. In this endeavour, the first step is to map within and between countries where investment is most needed. This requires better measures of access to and use of digital technologies in schools.

The latest UIS data for SDG Indicator 4.a.1 on the availability of electricity, computers and internet in schools for pedagogical purposes indicate that certain regions are behind in their capabilities to support learners. Although sub-Saharan Africa as well as Central and Southern Asia do not have sufficient data for this indicator in lower education levels, there is adequate data for upper-secondary schools. Only about one quarter of upper-secondary schools in sub-Saharan Africa and one-half in Central and Southern Asia are equipped with internet access (see Figure 2). Electricity – another necessity – is also not available equitably across regions and school levels. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 33.8% of primary schools have access to electricity while the same holds true for 57.2% of upper-secondary schools in the region. The situation is bleaker still in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where only 13.7% of upper-secondary schools have access to electricity.

Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics, SDG 4 Data Explorer (data for the latest available year used). 

Teacher training as part of the solution to closing the ICT skill gap

As noted, beyond the provision of internet access and ICT equipment in education, there is also a need to support learners by building their ICT skills. But what about teachers? During this period of school closures, teachers require training in the use of distance learning platforms to ensure teaching and learning can continue. While some of the 63 million primary and secondary school teachers who were displaced by COVID-19-related school closures have managed to reach students with their existing set of skills and equipment, many have not received basic teacher training. It is therefore disconcerting that most teacher training programmes do not include the use of ICT in education to develop appropriate learning and teaching strategies. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 64% of primary and 50% of secondary teachers have received minimum training. Indicators recommended in the Practical Guide to Implement Surveys on ICT Use in Primary and Secondary Schools can point to specific areas in which teacher training needs to be reinforced to improve ICT skills.

Use of ICTs for education during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond is a reality for which teachers and learners must be better prepared. This crisis marks the time for government-led initiatives for schools to test innovative methods to reach out to students, learn from other countries and incorporate effective approaches into the regular provision of education. Digital technologies need to be integrated within sound learning programmes to create effective student learning experiences. Countries need to make the necessary preparations to better map teaching and learning needs for future crises in education. As a necessary step, this requires collecting robust survey data on ICT use in schools to adequately guide policymaking.

Rethinking Education Post-Coronavirus: Lessons from Spain to Avoid Widening the Socioeconomic Achievement Gap

By Ana Capilla, Organización de Estados Iberoamericanos (OEI) and UFV;
Jorge Sainz, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos (URJC), Madrid (Spain) and IPR (University of Bath, UK); and Ismael Sanz, URJC, Madrid (Spain)

In a recent post, UNESCO reminded us of the similarity between the learning challenges that fourteenth century societies confronted during the Black Death and the current COVID-19 pandemic. Back then, as William Courtenay remembers, the plague helped develop new ways of teaching and the beginning of the substitution of Latin with popular languages as vehicles to communicate science. Just as that global pandemic marked the beginning of a new world in education, so could the current one if policymakers respond thoughtfully to this education crisis.

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Nurturing Education at Home in the Midst of a Health Crisis: How SDG Indicator 4.2.3 can Help Guide Where More Support is Needed

By Silvia Montoya, Director, UNESCO Institute for Statistics

In the midst of this global health crisis that threatens lives and containment measures that threaten our ways of living, we are faced with the stark reality that the world we return to will be forever altered. The far-reaching consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic may also jeopardize the hard won gains made in improving global education. 

The country statistics data collected and housed at the UIS has proved crucial in this time of crisis to help us estimate the global scope of the pandemic’s impact on education due to massive school closures. Given the importance of education as the foundation for all development, we must strive to safeguard learning at all ages. Thus, as a response, UNESCO has launched the Global Education Coalition in an attempt to support learning in the home as this becomes the new normal.

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Where Are All the Women in Science and Research?

By Rohan Pathirage, R&D statistician for the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS)

On the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, you could be forgiven for asking: just where are all these women and girls? They are there if you look but they remain the exception at the very highest echelons in science and research. Their rarity may even – on occasion – obscure the critical value of their work. From Marie Curie to Rosalind Franklin, women scientists have often been viewed in terms of their relationships to their male counterparts.

A simple web search on female scientists will yield lists of the ‘17 Famous Female Scientists Who Helped Change the World’ or ‘10 Women in Science and Tech Who Should be Household Names’. But search for ‘the most famous male scientists today and the lists talk about the most ‘influential’ scientists, ‘the top 10 greatest scientists’ – with no mention of the word ‘male’. It simply isn’t noteworthy. Continue reading