Silvia Montoya, Director UNESCO Institute for Statistics and Martin Gustafssson, Research on Socio-Economic Policy (ReSEP), University of Stellenbosch
The 2020 learning losses equal the gains made in the last 20 years
Some numbers to retain:
In many developing countries the percentage of children considered proficient was increasing by two percentage points a year before COVID-19
COVID-19 school disruptions have caused learning losses equal to all of the learning gains in the last two decades
101 million children and youth from Grades 1 to 8 will fall below the minimum proficiency level after 2020 [note]
For each month of no or little contact between teacher and learner two months of learning were lost
Recovery could occur by 2024, but only if exceptional efforts are devoted to the task through remedial and catch-up strategies
The effects of the pandemic on children have been multifaceted and for too many, devastating. Before the pandemic, the data suggested that learning proficiency was gradually improving, though not fast enough to reach the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) objective of all children and young people being minimally proficient in reading and mathematics by 2030. Yet was progress was occurring. A new report by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) examines the learning losses associated with school closures and considers how interventions may help children catch up.
In many developing countries the percentage of children considered proficient was increasing by two percentage points a year. To provide an idea of the global trend, among the 130 million children of the age corresponding to Grade 3, only 73 million could read proficiently before the pandemic, but this was increasing by 700,000 a year. Each year roughly 700,000 additional children were proficient, compared to the previous year. And this is counting just one school grade. This was mainly because learning improved in schools, but to some extent better school participation rates played a role.
Recovering from COVID-19 learning losses will depend on catch-up strategies
The pandemic brought with it school closures of a scale never previously seen. At the most serious point, around March and April 2020, around 95% of children were not attending school. It has been estimated that by early November, the world’s learners had lost between 41% and 68% of the contact schooling they should have received in 2020. It has been difficult to establish precise figures mainly because once schools re-opened many only allowed learners to attend on a rotational basis.
João Pedro Azevedo, Lead Economist, Education Global Practice, World Bank Group and Silvia Montoya, Director, UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS)
Our choice of a measure shapes our understanding of the size and nature of a problem. In a recent blog we discuss why the learning poverty measure is well suited to monitor the educational impacts of COVID-19. In this blog, we discuss two complementary concepts: the learning poverty gap and learning poverty severity, to look at distributions among the learning poor and measure how these changes affect learning inequality. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) and the World Bank provide data for both of these concepts. Data for many key SDG 4 indicators were updated in the March data refresh. The UIS is also collecting data on the national response to COVID-19 on education, equity and inclusion.
Understanding changes in learning inequality through the learning poverty gap, learning poverty severity and minimum proficiency
While learning poverty is a simple concept to grasp, this indicator alone does not provide a picture of the learning level and distribution of learning among those below the minimum proficiency level (MPL). Because learning poverty is a headcount ratio, estimates treat all students below the minimum proficiency level as being equally learning deprived. It also does not reflect improvements in learning below the MPL threshold, which can fail to create compatible incentives as it may miss progress in foundational subskills critical for developing reading proficiency, for example, knowledge of spoken words and how to use them, hearing and making the sounds of words, mapping sounds to letters and letters to sounds while learning letter names, among others, as described in the reading rainbow (Figure 1). Understanding the heterogeneity among the learning poor is critical to combat learning poverty as children who do not master these subskills in early primary grades remain unable to read with comprehension.
Figure 1: SDG 4.1 framework and reading rainbow of literacy subskills
Figure 2: Distributional sensitive measure of learning deprivation
João Pedro Azevedo, economista jefe, Education Global Practice, Grupo Banco Mundial y Silvia Montoya, Directora, Instituto de Estadística de la UNESCO (UIS)
La mayoría de los gobiernos y asociados para el desarrollo están trabajando en la identificación, protección y apoyo del aprendizaje de los miembros más vulnerables de la generación COVID-19. En este blog, analizamos cómo el marco delODS 4.1.1 y el concepto de pobreza en el aprendizaje son herramientas útiles para ayudar a los países a entender y corregir los efectos de la COVID-19 en la escolarización y el aprendizaje.
Del nivel mínimo de competencias a una medición de la privación del aprendizaje
En octubre de 2018, la comunidad internacional acordó ser prudente en la utilización de un estándar global para el seguimiento del progreso en el aprendizaje de los estudiantes. El nivel mínimo de competencias (NMC) acordado a través de la Alianza Global para el Seguimiento del Aprendizaje (AGSA) ofrece un punto de referencia único para ayudar a los países y los asociados para el desarrollo a trabajar juntos para monitorear y mejorar el aprendizaje de aquellos estudiantes que se están quedando atrás. La pantalla de visualización interactiva que se muestra a continuación (Figura 1) permite explorar con el control deslizante los datos utilizados para monitorear este ODS, utilizando tanto el NMC de la AGSA como diferentes niveles mínimos de competencia.
Figura 1. Ejemplo de cómo el ODS 4.1.1 puede utilizarse para poner el foco en los estudiantes que están por debajo del nivel mínimo de competencias (NMC)
La pobreza en el aprendizaje: un indicador multidimensional para el sector educativo
En octubre de 2019, el Banco Mundial y el Instituto de Estadística de la UNESCO (UIS) lanzaron un nuevo indicador multidimensional llamado pobreza en el aprendizaje. Se basa en la idea de que todos los niños deberían estar escolarizados y ser capaces de leer un texto apropiado para su edad a los 10 años. Esta formulación refleja cuál es su aspiración y sirve como indicador de alerta temprana del Objetivo de Desarrollo Sostenible 4 (ODS 4), de que todos los niños deben estar escolarizados y aprendiendo, y se basa en dos privaciones.
João Pedro Azevedo, économiste principal, Pôle mondial d’expertise en éducation, Groupe de la Banque mondiale et Silvia Montoya, directrice, Institut de statistique de l’UNESCO (ISU)
La plupart des gouvernements et des partenaires de développement s’emploient à connaître, à protéger et à soutenir l’apprentissage des membres les plus vulnérables de la génération COVID-19. Dans ce blog, nous examinons de quelle manière le cadre de l’ODD 4.1.1 et le concept de pauvreté des apprentissages sont en mesure d’aider les pays à comprendre les impacts de la COVID-19 sur la scolarité et l’apprentissage, et à prendre les mesures appropriées pour les atténuer.
Du seuil minimal de compétences à la mesure de la pauvreté des apprentissages
En octobre 2018, la communauté internationale a convenu de réfléchir sur le suivi des progrès de l’apprentissage des élèves à l’aide d’une norme mondiale. Le Seuil Minimal de Compétences (SMC), approuvé par l’Alliance mondiale pour la mesure de l’apprentissage, fournit une valeur de référence incomparable pour aider les pays et les partenaires de développement à travailler de concert pour suivre et pour améliorer l’apprentissage des élèves qui ont du retard. La visualisation interactive ci-dessous (figure 1) vous permet d’explorer les données utilisées pour le suivi de cet ODD à l’aide du SMC-GAML et des différents seuils minimaux de compétence en déplaçant le curseur.
La figure 1 montre comment utiliser l’ODD 4.1.1 pour mettre l’accent sur les élèves en dessous du Seuil Minimal de Compétences (SMC).
La pauvreté des apprentissages : un facteur multidimensionnel pour le secteur éducatif
En octobre 2019, la Banque mondiale et l’Institut de statistique de l’UNESCO (ISU) ont lancé le nouvel indicateur multidimensionnel appelé « pauvreté des apprentissages ». Il est fondé sur la notion selon laquelle chaque enfant devrait aller à l’école et savoir lire un texte adapté à son âge à 10 ans. Cette formulation, qui traduit l’aspiration de l’Objectif de Développement Durable (ODD) 4 qui stipule que tous les enfants doivent aller à l’école et apprendre et qui tient lieu d’indicateur d’alerte précoce, repose sur deux privations.
By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) and Daniel Capistrano, University College Dublin
This International Day of Education, the impact of COVID-19 on education is top of mind and finding solutions to revitalize learning is a priority, now more than ever. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) is working with regional organizations and education partners to expand the global focus on benchmarking for the Sustainable Development Goals for education (SDG 4) so that regions and countries have more manageable, annual objectives.
With just a decade remaining to achieve SDG 4, it is imperative that all countries have the means to monitor progress and to plan necessary changes for the future. As the custodian of SDG 4 data and the lead agency providing internationally comparable and quality education data, the UIS has been working to help countries deal with this challenge.
One of the most effective ways of achieving the Agenda 2030 is by connecting existing efforts. The Africa Regional Report is a product of this collaborative strategy. Worldwide, there are several regional or sub-regional organizations that produce data and follow the progress of education policies based on common goals. Their transnational commitments require national and regional coordination and monitoring mechanisms to identify progress and obstacles. At the same time, they have articulated – or begun to articulate – their regional objectives with the Education 2030 Agenda.
By Friedrich Huebler, Head of Education Standards and Methodology at the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS)
It is not enough to simply collect data. Data that are useful for monitoring progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 4 on education must be of high quality and comparable across countries. But collecting the data across a wide range of indicators has strained the data collection capacity of many Member States. At the same time, additional reporting needs brought on by COVID-19 have added further pressure to produce data as evidence for remedial action once schools fully re-open.
As the custodian agency for SDG 4, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) works with countries to build their capacity to collect, produce and disseminate the data for monitoring progress towards international goals and for designing appropriate interventions, all while trying to mitigate the demands that this entails.
With this in mind, today the UIS is launching the 2020 SDG 4 Data Digest. This year, the Data Digest focuses on using household surveys to improve the scope of data collection while filling some of the gaps in administrative data.
To do this, the Data Digest explains the need for more and better data, serving as a “how-to” manual for ministries of education, national statistical offices and other education sector stakeholders. Readers will find information on everything from planning and design considerations for a household survey, to tips for writing compelling and effective questions, an interviewer’s check list of do’s and don’ts, the pros and cons of various modes of survey administration, along with implementation details like the most appropriate kind of field materials. The Data Digest also makes suggestions on how to communicate data findings.
In short, the 2020 SDG 4 Data Digest is the go-to source for a succinct overview of creating and implementing a household survey.
By Andrés Sandoval-Hernández, University of Bath, and Diego Carrasco, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile
When UN Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there was not much discussion about how these goals were going to be measured. As we enter the Decade of Action, deciding on a measurement strategy for all SDGs and their targets has become a pressing issue.
We live in very challenging times. The rapid influx of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, along with increasing intolerance, social exclusion and feelings of alienation, extremism among young people, and the ongoing climate crisis, pose complex challenges. To face this global environment, we need information that enables us to think critically, connect our actions with their impacts, and act as empowered, active global citizens.
When looking specifically at SDG 4 for education, Target 4.7 asks Member States to “ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.”
In this blog post we describe a recently developed strategy for assessing two indicators that embody tolerance, respect and sustainable development:
Indicator 4.7.4: Percentage of students by age group (or education level) showing adequate understanding of issues relating to global citizenship and sustainability.
Indicator 4.7.5: Percentage of 15-year-old students showing proficiency in knowledge of environmental science and geoscience.
Indicators 4.7.4 and 4.7.5 speak to empowering and enabling students to be active agents of positive change, while taking action to meet the other goals.
Using UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) data, we are preparing an open-source, robust and easy-to-use document containing detailed technical guidelines for countries and other interested parties to collect the data necessary to produce the scales we discuss below.
Our measurement strategy is based on International Large-Scale Assessments (ILSAs) in education ((Sandoval-Hernández, Isac, & Miranda, 2019; Sandoval-Hernández & Carrasco, 2020)). In our view, ILSAs are a natural fit for assessing these particular thematic indicators because existing studies have already collected much of the relevant information. Our strategy includes a proposed conceptual framework, measurement models, a process to generate proficiency scores, and a method for establishing a threshold of ‘adequate’ and ‘satisfactory’ performance for Indicators 4.7.4 and 4.7.5, respectively.
We first identified a global content framework based on UIS data for defining and operationalizing Global Citizenship Education (GCED) and Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) (Hoskins, 2016; IBE, 2016). While there is no universal agreement on how to define or operationalize these concepts, it is possible to identify a set of guiding principles and themes.
We then carried out a mapping exercise to evaluate how to measure concepts in the framework using instruments and procedures of existing ILSAs. To do this, we identified the International Civic and Citizenship Study (ICCS) as the most valuable source of information for Indicator 4.7.4; and the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) as the most informative for Indicator 4.7.5. These studies have the highest coverage of topics relevant to the SDGs, and a high potential to inform long-term monitoring. The results of this mapping exercise can be found here.
The analytical strategy to estimate the percentage of students who show ‘adequate’ and ‘satisfactory’ performance in each indicator had four main steps:
verifying the availability of observed responses to the items proposed by the mapping exercise,
testing the uni-dimensionality of the intended constructs,
fitting the corresponding measurement models to obtain scores for the categories and sub-categories of each indicator, and
establishing the cut-off points to identify ‘adequate’ or ‘satisfactory’ performance assuming a common measurement model.
A list of the categories and sub-categories of scores produced for Indicator 4.7.4, and a description of student knowledge at the cut-off points are shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Categories and descriptions for SDG 4.7.4
The percentage of students showing an ‘adequate’ understanding of issues related to global citizenship and sustainability (Indicator 4.7.4) – according to the scores and cut-off points – is shown in Figure 2. In this waffle plot, each square dot represents 1% of students reaching a certain standard (category or subcategory). As can be observed, there is an important variation in the proportion of students reaching the different standards both across countries and across standards. If we look at the cognitive standard, Latin American countries have lower proportions of students being able to make connections between processes related to global citizenship and sustainability and the legal and institutional mechanisms used to control them; while these proportions are generally higher in northern European and Asian countries (e.g. 19% and 32% in Dominican Republic and Peru vs 77% and 78% in Finland and Chinese Taipei).
Figure 2. Proportion of students reaching the SDG 4.7.4 standards in each country.
Note: Data is presented for all countries for which data is available in ICCS 2016. BFL= Belgium (Flemish); BGR= Bulgaria; CHL= Chile; TWN= Chinese Taipei; COL= Colombia; HRV= Croatia; DNK= Denmark; DOM= Dominican Republic; EST= Estonia; FIN= Finland; HKG= Hong Kong SAR; ITA= Italy; KOR= Korea, Republic of; LVA= Latvia; LTU= Lithuania; MLT= Malta; MEX= Mexico; NLD= Netherlands; DNW= North Rhine-Westphalia; NOR= Norway; PER= Peru; RUS= Russian Federation; SVN= Slovenia; SWE= Sweden.
As with global citizenship and sustainability, the results for Indicator 4.7.5 for environment science and geoscience, also show interesting variations both across countries and standards. A list of the categories and sub-categories for which scores were produce for Indicator 4.7.5 and a description of what students know or can do at the established cut-off points and are shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Categories and descriptions for SDG 4.7.5
The percentage of students showing ‘proficiency’ in environmental science and geoscience (Indicator 4.7.5) according to the scores and cut-off points is shown in Figure 4. As in Figure 2, each square dot represents 1% of students reaching a given standard.
When looking at the cognitive standard, Asian countries report the highest proportions of students who are able to apply and communicate concepts related to environmental science in everyday situations (e.g. Singapore, 59%). However, this pattern does not hold for the non-cognitive standards, where Botswanan and Kuwaiti students are the ones who report the highest enjoyment and confidence in learning science (51% and 39% respectively). Nevertheless, we insist that the real value of these measures is that given their reliability, relevance and timeliness, they can be used to inform the development of strategies to reach the targets included in Target 4.7. A full description of the thresholds used to set these standards and the items and methodology used to produce the respective scores can be consulted here.
Figure 4. Proportion of students reaching the SDG 4.7.5 standards in each country
Note: Data is presented for all countries for which data is available in TIMSS 2015. AAD= Abu Dhabi, UAE; ARM= Armenia; AUS= Australia; BHR= Bahrain; BWA= Botswana; ABA= Buenos Aires, Argentina; CAN= Canada; CHL= Chile; TWN= Chinese Taipei; ADU= Dubai, UAE; EGY= Egypt; ENG= England; GEO= Georgia; HKG= Hong Kong, SAR; HUN= Hungary; IRN= Iran, Islamic Rep. of; IRL= Ireland; ISR= Israel; ITA= Italy; JPN= Japan; JOR= Jordan; KAZ= Kazakhstan; KOR= Korea, Rep. of; KWT= Kuwait; LBN= Lebanon; LTU= Lithuania; MYS= Malaysia; MLT= Malta; MAR= Morocco; NZL= New Zealand; NOR= Norway; OMN= Oman; COT= Ontario, Canada; QAT= Qatar; CQU= Quebec, Canada; RUS= Russian Federation; SAU= Saudi Arabia; SGP= Singapore; SVN= Slovenia; ZAF= South Africa; SWE= Sweden; THA= Thailand; TUR= Turkey; ARE= United Arab Emirates; USA= United States.
Conclusions, limitations and suggestions for monitoring these indicators
We believe that studies like TIMSS, ICCS and PISA are well suited for providing at least a proxy measurement of Indicators 4.7.4 and 4.7.5. These ILSAs provide high coverage for the GCED and ESD themes, incorporate these topics naturally in their frameworks, collect comparable data consistently (allowing long-term monitoring), and have unrivalled data quality assurance mechanisms in place (ensuring data accuracy, validity and comparability).
It is, however, important to consider the limitations of this measurement strategy. For example, the data is confined to a specific level of education or student population (e.g. Grade 8 for ICCS and TIMSS; 15-year-old students for PISA). Another limitation is country coverage. The information available in the last cycles of TIMSS and ICCS allowed us to produce scores for 60 countries. While this is a significant number of countries, it is important to acknowledge that two-thirds of UN members do not participate in these studies.
Nevertheless, we believe that with a coordinated effort and support by all stakeholders, many more countries can collect the data for this measurement strategy so that we can work toward the elimination of discrimination in schools and create a more equal and just society.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.