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Schools in low-income countries are embracing ‘low-tech’ solutions amid the pandemic

“Low-tech” interventions such as paper-based activities and radio programs are helping educational institutions in low-income countries educate those who need it the most amid the pandemic.

At the Central Visayan Institute and Foundation (CVIF) in Bohol, the chronic lack of qualified teachers, textbooks, and equipment is bypassed by learning activity sheets prepared by subject teachers. 

The analog solution also dispenses with the need for Internet connectivity in a community where only 10% of students have access to data services, which is “very unstable,” according to Marivic Bernido, who runs the school with her husband and fellow physicist, Christopher Bernido.

The sheets are distributed weekly to students, who send text messages to teachers through SMS (short message service) or Viber if they have questions. Teachers check submitted papers and provide written feedback on the sheets, which are returned to the students. 

“Some basic, low-tech interventions—such as learning sheets and radio—are working. It’s interesting that in 2021, we’re relying on these things,” said Francis L. Larios, Phinma Education’s chief learning officer.

The scenario is a familiar one for participants at the first Education@theMargins conference, which gathered industry experts from Jordan, South Africa,  Brazil, and Australia.

“In the Philippines, there are three crises: the virus, the quality of education, and the economy. … “Somehow, they have to respond to all of those all at once. This probably applies to other low-income countries,” said Ken Vine, principal research adviser of SiMERR National Research Centre at the University of New England, which works with rural communities in Australia to improve educational outcomes. 

Like Bohol’s CVIF, Bridge International Academies, which creates community school programs for children in underserved communities such as Lagos and Uganda, has tied up with radio and TV channels to decrease reliance on mobile phones. It also provides support to parents by sending information through SMS to enable learning to happen at home. Parents are likewise able to send information back to teachers via SMS.

“We do not aim for four or six hours of education per child,” said Sujatha Muthayya, vice-president for policy and partnerships at  Bridge International Academies. “It’s an hour for instruction and an hour of practice per child, because we know a lot are sharing devices. This is minimal, but let’s be consistent.” 

Students in Brazil’s Anima Educacao, a secondary and tertiary educational group, are better off in comparison: apart from lending students Chromebooks and upgrading Zoom and Skype accounts, the organization also provides courses that boost mental health like meditation, aikido, and yoga.

“We try to create a psychologically safe environment,” said Rafael Ávila, director of innovation and trends in education at Anima Educacao. “We offer psychological assistance to students because they started to become depressed. The university is a social part of their lives.”

Mr. Ávila also noted the similarities between the Philippines and Brazil. “We have public universities that are really good, but only the rich can [get] spots here,” he said. “The others go to private universities. They have to pay, but these are poor kids. We’re trying to change the situation. It’s not good for the country. As a private sector, we are trying to do what the government is supposed to do.”

Education is a whole-of-society responsibility, and requires a system-wide approach and investment at a high level, said  SiMERR’s Mr. Vine. “We shouldn’t think about it as a government problem alone,” he said. 

Phinma Education’s Mr. Larios added: “Whether it’s a student in a low-income country like Brazil, South Africa, or Jordan, the dreams look the same. The difficulties also seem the same.”

The idea of a global alliance for education was raised by panelists to “vaccinate the world from the disease of poor quality learning.” Such an alliance, however, is contingent on multi-partisan collaboration and an understanding that—while dreams and difficulties look the same, as Mr. Larios said—cultural differences have to be taken into account.

“There are differences within countries. Different countries are going to have different solutions,” said John Pegg, director of SiMERR National Research Centre at the University of New England in Australia. It is important for countries, he added, to share methods that work and methods that don’t work, so that others may benefit from hindsight. “We have to look with culturally sensitive eyes.” Patricia B. Mirasol

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