In March 2020, schools around the world closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating an already tenuous learning crisis. Worldwide, an estimated 617 million school-age youth are unable to reach minimum proficiency levels in basic reading and mathematics (UIS, 2017). If learning levels were already low while schools were open, the additional loss of in-person instruction will likely leave students even further behind.
With as many as 1.6 billion learners out of school, the COVID-19 pandemic greatly underscored the need for adaptable, resilient distance education models (UNESCO 2020). Less than 40% of households in low- and middle-income countries have internet capacity or 3G mobile networks required of typical ‘high-tech’ distance learning options (Center for Global Development 2020). Without the necessary infrastructure and technology, many of these solutions have limited success in these contexts (UNESCO 2020; Beuermann et al. 2015). Therefore, a simple and accessible solution is necessary to support distance learning in the hardest to reach populations and ensure that these children do not suffer disproportionately.
Given that 70-90% of low- and middle-income households own at least one mobile phone, we developed a remote numeracy intervention that leverages this widely available, yet previously underutilized, platform for educational support. Using simple phone calls and one-way SMS messages, we are able to reach households with impactful tutorials with targeted content to improve learning.
We ran a Randomized Controlled Trial in Botswana, which provided some of the first and only experimental evidence on the potential for low-tech mLearning interventions in remote environments, showed that the intervention limited immediate learning loss when there is a lack of other educational instruction. It also showed potential for low-tech platforms to drive persistent learning gains over several months, perhaps as supplements to regular schooling. Among students receiving both phone calls and SMS messages, we saw a 31% decrease in innumeracy.
The Global Solution
Our approach has generated significant attention from global stakeholders and partners and has been cited by the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel as a “Smart Buy” for improving global learning levels. The approach has been adapted and trialed in six countries to date (Botswana, Kenya, India, Nepal, the Philippines, and Uganda) reaching over 35,000 students and generating the fastest, largest-scale multi-country evidence in education. ConnectEd phone tutorials led to positive impacts in all six countries. On average, the phone calls in combination with text messages improved learning by 0.33 standard deviations, over a third bigger than the median effectiveness of education interventions (Evans and Yuan (2022). There is a 65 percent increase in the percent of students who learn division. ConnectEd was implemented by a variety of different types of tutors. Specifically, our work in Nepal showed that government-employed teachers were able to generate some of the strongest learning gains in students, showing that they can be as effective at implementing the program as facilitators hired through an NGO. ConnectEd builds on existing household infrastructure (mobile phones), the main costs are related to content delivery and connecting with families which makes the programme highly cost effective. On average across all six trials ConnectED costs roughly $12 per child. It produced 3.7 LAYS (Learning Adjusted Years of Schooling) per $100, making it one of the most cost-effective remedial education interventions. These results highlight the potential of ConnectEd to be a powerful tool in building resilient education systems both during crises as well as other school disruptions and breaks. Moreover, this approach can complement in-school teaching and interventions, such as Teaching at the Right Level, for extra support to those students furthest behind. In Botswana, our “Innovation Hub,” we also continue to optimize ConnectEd to establish its full potential as a complement to in-person school interventions and aim to sustainably infuse ConnectEd into the national education system in partnership with the Ministry of Basic Education.