Adapting approaches to deliver quality education in response to COVID-19

The parent of 8-year-old student Reem Al-Jaony helps her son with his school work at their home, after coronavirus lockdown forced schools to go online amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Amman, Jordan March 23, 2020. Picture taken March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

The world is adjusting to a new reality that was unimaginable three months ago. COVID-19 has altered every aspect of our lives, introducing abrupt changes to the way governments, businesses, and communities operate. A recent virtual summit of G-20 leaders underscored the changing times. The pandemic has impacted education systems around the world, forcing more than 1.5 billion students out of schools and universities. The crisis offers an important reflection point for education leaders to question the status quo and explore new approaches for delivering quality education to millions of children. How can the global education community use this moment as an opportunity to ”build back better” to meet the demands of the future?

At the Center for Universal Education (CUE), we are driven to better understand how education initiatives scale and spread across communities and countries. Similar to the multistakeholder approach required to address a global pandemic, scaling an education initiative requires strong leaders from diverse sectors working toward a common goal. How does the scaling process play out in real time, and how can lessons learned be captured and shared to inform related efforts? CUE is investigating this through Real-time Scaling Labs, an action research approach of Millions Learning undertaken with government and civil society partners in Botswana, Côte d’Ivoire, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, the Philippines, and Tanzania.

The Real-time Scaling Lab approach is guided by the notion of adaptive learning. This means understanding local contexts, being flexible when plans change, and systematically learning along the way. A number of key actions underpin an adaptive learning approach, such as experimenting with new approaches, leveraging deep roots within communities, sharing knowledge, and embracing windows of opportunity. CUE’s scaling lab partners are indeed taking these actions to ensure children and young people continue to receive an education, particularly in response to COVID-19. While the safety of staff is the top priority, it is inspiring to observe how partners remain committed to their mission of supporting beneficiaries by using an adaptive learning approach during this challenging time.

Experimenting with new approaches. Young 1ove is a youth-driven NGO in Botswana that identifies, adapts, and scales evidence-based health and education initiatives, such as the Zones and Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) programs. The first COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Botswana on March 31. When the government closed schools, Young 1ove rapidly mobilized to collect 10,000 students’ mobile numbers to provide text-message based instruction, and established hotlines to answer questions from parents and students. Young 1ove is also working with television and radio programs to deliver proven life-saving messages. A trusted government partner, Young 1ove is sourcing educational content and developing strategies to support nationwide distance learning, and working with government officials to plan for scaling these approaches. Distance learning has significant potential in a large but sparsely populated country such as Botswana where 2.3 million people inhabit a space roughly the size of Texas.

Leveraging deep roots within communities. Marginalized communities are most at risk of suffering from the pandemic. In these areas, schools provide not only instruction but also additional life-saving needs, such as food and psycho-social support. The first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Tanzania on March 16, and, when schools quickly shuttered, this school-based support disappeared. CUE’s scaling lab partner, CAMFED, is a nongovernmental organization that supports marginalized girls to complete secondary school and empowers them to become independent women through leadership training and membership in the CAMFED Association. A key component is Learner Guides, female secondary-school graduates who volunteer for 18 months to serve as mentors at local schools delivering a life-skills curriculum to complement academic teaching. They come from the places they serve, and have a deep understanding of the unique challenges marginalized communities face. Learner Guides have expanded their roles to meet these challenges during the pandemic, working with families in their communities, sharing official World Health Organization and government guidance, and improvising learning opportunities for students while schools remain closed. When schools eventually reopen, Learner Guides will play a critical role in ensuring girls who are most vulnerable to child marriage and dropout return to their classrooms. CAMFED’s work reinforces the importance of community-driven responses to the crisis; similar grassroots mobilization helped Sierra Leone confront the Ebola pandemic in 2014.

Sharing knowledge. Global crises such as COVID-19 have a unique ability to bring the world together. Every country is facing a common threat, and there is much we can learn from each other about how to minimize negative impact on education systems. Several promising resources have already emerged; UNESCO curated a robust list of distance-learning solutions for parents and educators, the World Bank shared practical tips and guidance, and the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) created an online repository of blogs, webinars, and other helpful resources to support its 16,000 members. The network of Real-time Scaling Labs has remained in close virtual touch over the past weeks, using Microsoft Teams and WhatsApp to share stories and learn from each other about how to move forward despite the new challenges. Though the virus continues to uniquely impact every country, it has emphasized that education actors have much to learn from each other as they collectively weather the storm.

Embracing windows of opportunity. The Jordanian government closed schools to curb the spread of the virus after cases increased in late March. CUE has partnered with INJAZ, a social enterprise that builds youth competencies in financial education and entrepreneurship. These skills will be critical to stabilizing Jordan’s economy and creating jobs in the wake of the pandemic. INJAZ and the Ministry of Education had been planning to introduce online delivery of financial education in the coming years, but have seized the unanticipated opportunity presented by the pandemic to pilot online classes for grades 11 and 12 immediately. The Jordan Real-time Scaling Lab is documenting this pilot process so that the ministry of education has practical guidance and recommendations about how to deliver e-learning at a larger scale in the future.

The world faces significant challenges in addressing the immediate and longer term effects of the pandemic on education systems. But the commitment of global education actors, including CUE’s scaling lab partners, in finding new and innovative ways to deliver quality education should provide us all with a sense of hope. Crises showcase leadership. If the international education community can come together and learn from each other about new ways of providing quality education, it will emerge better equipped to help students thrive in a rapidly changing world.