Skip to content

Why EdTech won’t close the COVID-19 learning gap in West Africa

Findings from IDinsight’s partnership with Rising Academy Network highlight steps education providers in West Africa can take to design more inclusive remote learning programs. Read the full report here.

Photo credit: Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images/Images of Empowerment

When the initial wave of COVID-19 cases spread through West Africa in early 2020, schools closed and remained shuttered for nearly a year. In our previous blogpost we reported on data from surveys of 3,247 caregivers of students in Ghana, Liberia, and Sierra Leone shortly after schools reopened in early 2021. We highlighted that students returned to school having spent little time learning over the previous year. On average, students spent six fewer hours per weekday on educational activities during school closures – nearly the entire length of the school day. Given this lost year in education and the probability of further disruptions in the coming year, there is a critical need for education providers to design remote learning programs that can help students catch up and avoid further learning losses during future school closures.

To close this gap, education providers in West Africa need to deeply understand how to optimize remote learning. We partnered with Rising Academy Network with support from Echidna Giving to conduct phone surveys of students’ caregivers to understand families’ remote learning preferences and needs. In July-August 2021, we spoke with nearly 3,400 caregivers of students enrolled in pre-K to senior high school across 149 government and private schools in Ghana, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. We found that tailored, low-tech approaches are both preferred by caregivers and have the highest likelihood of reaching students. 

Technology-based remote learning tools are unlikely to reach most students in West Africa. While EdTech can be very effective at supporting learning, these resources are not widely available to students in West Africa. Smartphone ownership varies across countries and demographic groups but is generally low: in our study population, about 1 in 4 families own a smartphone. But even if a family owns a smartphone, it does not mean that the smartphone is available to students for remote education. In our survey, we found that one in four phones has something wrong that limits its usage, for example, it’s in bad condition, owners have a hard time charging the phone, or owners lack talk time or data. There are additional barriers to remote learning via smartphone, with one in three caregivers not wanting their child to use the smartphone for schoolwork. So overall, the percentage of families with a working smartphone who are willing to let their child use it for learning activities is actually only 13%. In Sierra Leone private schools this is higher, around 41% but drops to 6% in Liberia’s government schools. Smartphone-based learning is not a panacea for school closures in West Africa.

To reach areas with lower smartphone penetration, education practitioners have been interested in whether handset-based programs are more viable. For example, Young1ove’s SMS & phone call intervention in Botswana improved learning and was highly cost-effective, though a similar program  designed as a complement to a radio education program and evaluated by the Center for Global Development in Sierra Leone was less successful. Yet even handsets are not commonly available in our study population: only 1 in 6 families have a working handset that they are willing to let their child use for learning activities. The percent of families with either a working smartphone or handset is about 26%. This ranges from 46% in Sierra Leone private schools to 21% in Liberian government schools. 

Platform aside, additional research indicates that even when most students’ families do have phones – as in RAN’s private school network in Sierra Leone – phone-based educational instruction with teachers may not be an effective learning tool. Although distance learning in West Africa via other technologies like radio (Rising on Air) and television (Ghana Learning Television) may reach viewers and listeners en mass, they are still out of reach for many lower-income families. They are also challenging to evaluate given difficulties tracking listenership and viewership. For example, 27 percent of our sample has access to a working radio that receives a reliable signal and can be used for study; and 21% for TV. We can surmise from this evidence that education conducted over smartphone, handset, radio, or television in these contexts will not adequately reach or educate students who have fallen behind.

To reach more students, low-tech approaches to remote learning seem best and are preferred by families. It’s still important to recognize their constraints and challenges. Our surveys found that most families can provide students with a pen/pencil (93%) and paper or exercise books (83%), which is far greater than their access to technology. However, some families continue to lack access to other inputs that are necessary for creating an environment conducive to home learning. For instance, 67% of households have a quiet space to study, 44% have a table or desk, 47% have a chair. So while remote learning materials may be more easily accessible, lack of a learning environment could negatively affect children’s ability to learn.

Our findings show that families strongly prefer remote learning approaches that use workbooks and in-person instruction over phone-based or radio-based options. These include COVID-safe group classes with a teacher or pre-recorded lesson and private classes or tutoring. In fact, a large majority of caregivers rate private classes or tutoring highly, even in low-resource environments. In Ghana and Sierra Leone when asked whether parents would be willing to send children to private classes for a fee, 80% said yes, with over 50% willing to pay for daily classes.

Figure: Preferences for Remote Learning (% of caregivers rating each modality as ‘very appropriate and useful’

To make remote learning more inclusive, Education providers in West Africa should either provide families with missing inputs (i.e. technology) or provide options for learning that don’t solely rely on those inputs. Our findings point to the need for remote learning programs in West Africa that are tailored to the technological and environmental opportunities and constraints faced by each school’s student population. In our study population, most caregivers prefer workbooks, community classes that adhere to COVID-safe measures – and even fee-based private classes– over tech-based options. Creating and implementing effective approaches to remote learning that do not rely on high-tech inputs is imperative to stemming further learning loss during the ongoing pandemic.

While parents can’t substitute teachers, as explained on this blog, in which we shed light on the challenges caregivers in the Philippines faced when stepping in as teachers during school closures. One should note that the effectiveness of remote learning approaches depends not only on the availability of resources but also on delivery and pedagogy, as explained in this blog, where we highlight how interactions between students and instructors can multiply the impact of remote learning tools.

For education providers in West Africa, understanding the unique constraints of their target population and providing tailored multimodal remote learning options is critical to stemming further learning loss during the ongoing pandemic.