• Monash CDES Blog

Learning Loss of Children in Developing Countries and COVID-19

It has now been more than two years since the COVID-19 pandemic struck us, prompting closures of educational institutions, and causing disruption of the education of millions of students globally. The United Nations (UN) estimated that the COVID-19 pandemic has already wiped out 20 years of educational gains. Across the world, according to a UNICEF 2020 report, one in three children missed out on remote learning when COVID-19 forced schools to close.

In many developing countries online and home-schooling were not feasible due to a lack of internet access. Hence, for students with limited or no access to the internet, a low-cost and sustainable learning solution is needed to help them recover the learning loss. We conducted a series of research to examine the effectiveness of low-cost out-of-school or home-schooling support services.

Connecting with children’s home during school closures: Mentoring via mobile phone

When all schools in Bangladesh closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, in early 2020, we collaborated with a local NGO, Global Development and Research Initiative (GDRI), to evaluate the effectiveness of a free tele-mentoring program delivered by volunteer tutors to rural children using basic feature phones.

We recruited volunteers from various universities as mentors, who engaged with children along with their parents (primarily mothers). The volunteer tutors provided weekly remote learning support and home-schooling advice to primary school-age children and their mothers. Mentors were provided with brief training, guidelines, and phone bills. There was no out-of-pocket cost for parents or mentors.

We find that the USD 1.50 per student per week program improves the learning outcomes of children in the treatment group relative to those in the control group. The children who received telementoring scored 35% more compared to the control group, who did not receive mentoring. Extended parental involvement helped the children to improve their learnings. The improvement in learning outcomes is equivalent to moving a child from the 30th percentile to the 60th percentile. This is significant graduation.

At present, several millions of students are enrolled in the tertiary level. Many of these students were previously involved in after-school tutoring. Our intervention and experience demonstrate that a significant portion of these students can be mobilised to help primary and secondary school students learn over the telephone.

Remote Learning through Interactive lessons using basic mobile phone

After the tele-mentoring program, we continued our collaboration with GDRI to examine a low-cost Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system that also delivered over-the-phone learning resources to rural students in Bangladesh. Participating students called a toll-free number to listen to the learning lessons and instructions together with their parents.

We recorded a set of audio lessons and stored them on the server that could be accessed at any time by calling our program-specific phone number.

This IVR approach has enabled parents to schedule their time for children’s home-schooling with greater ease. Furthermore, to maximize the efficacy of the one-way pedagogical resource, we utilised Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI) methodology to develop the lessons. IRI is a method that allows learners to stop and react to questions and exercises through verbal response and to engage in physical and intellectual activities with a ‘special helper’, such as, mother, while the program is on the air.

The advantage of this program over the tele-mentoring program is that: (i) children can access the IVR system on demand; (ii) GDRI does not need to recruit and manage volunteer tutors; and (iii) lower monetary cost (USD 1.00 per student per week). Thus, it is relatively easy to scale up to reach more children.

The findings indicate that more than 95% of the children completed the lessons. There was significant demand for this intervention. Such intervention could provide wider access to distance education. It could support learning in out-of-school settings to address the learning challenges of disadvantaged children beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moving forward: Home-based Intervention and Parental Involvement

Though schools have reopened in many parts of the world, the need for home-based learning is not over for at least two reasons. Learning loss because of the COVID-19 might cause inertia and disappointment among the students for reengaging in their educational endeavour. Delivering education for using TV, radio or basic mobile phone has some limitations such as one-way communication, non-interactive, non-visual communication in the case of basic feature phones. However, these limitations can be overcome if we could include adult members of the household in the delivery process and instigate them to engage in the child’s education actively.

We believe that “low-tech” solutions are the way forward to provide equitable access to education to recover from learning loss due to school closures and to reduce the learning deficiency among children from rural, and lower socioeconomic groups.

Expanding the research on remote learning to address the COVID-19 Learning loss

We are now working in a number of countries to test the different remote learning opportunities in different settings and in different groups of children. We are collaborating with local researchers and educators to quickly understand the possible solutions that might work better (rather than experimenting a range of approaches) in particular contexts. We are fortunate to receive funding from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and Monash Business Schools. In South Asia, works are now ongoing in Nepal and Bangladesh to test the efficacy of IVR interventions among upper secondary school children. We are also in discussion with partners in other countries in South-East Asia.

(These projects are joint works with many co-authors including Liang Choon Wang and Hashibul Hassan from the Monash Business School, and Abu Siddique from King's College London, Michael Vlassapoulos from the University of Southampton. This write-up draws upon many pieces of blogs and papers written jointly with them).

Related Studies:

Hahn, Y., Islam, A., Patacchini, E. and Zenou, Y., 2019. Friendship and Female Education: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Bangladeshi Primary Schools. The Economic Journal, 130(627), pp.740-764. (link)

Hassan, H., Islam, A., Siddique, A. and Wang, L.C., 2021. Telementoring and homeschooling during school closures: A randomized experiment in rural Bangladesh. (link)

Hassan, H., Islam, A., Vlassopoulos, M. and Wang, L.C., 2021. Delivering remote learning using a low-tech solution: Evidence from an RCT during school closures. Monash University Working Paper. (link)

Islam, A., 2019. Parent–teacher meetings and student outcomes: Evidence from a developing country. European Economic Review, 111, pp.273-304. (link)

Islam, A., Malek, A., Tasneem, S. and Wang, L.C., 2019. Can public recognition reward backfire? Field experimental evidence on the retention and performance of volunteers with social-image concerns. (link)

Islam, A. and Ruthbah, U., 2020. After School Private Tutoring: Evidence from a Randomized Controlled Trial. Monash University Working Paper. (Available upon request)

Asad Islam

28 February 2022