Before COVID-19, we gave children technology to teach themselves. It worked.

Mar 31 2020

Emily Musil Church, PhD

Coronavirus COVID-19 has upended much of the world in unprecedented ways. Like most parents of young children, I am worried and scrambling for ideas and support as schools close indefinitely. Unfortunately, this is the everyday reality for far too many parents around the world. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, over 260 million children—that’s 1 out of 5—were out of school. Even when you include children who do attend schools, more than half of all children globally are not able to read by age 12. Add onto those numbers the additional over 950 million children out of school due to COVID-19, and it is clear that the future of learning must be a future that includes learning when traditional schools are not an option.

Most parents in my community have been frantically sending each other lists of electronic resources and wondering how we could possibly teach our children under quarantine while also keeping our jobs amidst this pandemic. People are looking for solutions. I’ve been reflecting on the work I did for years on  the Global Learning XPRIZE, a competition that encouraged teams from around the world to create adaptive, learning software in English and Swahili. The software had to be intuitive, cutting-edge, teach core competencies in reading, writing, and math, AND be able to work off-line. We tested the learning software of our five Global Learning XPRIZE finalists across 170 villages in Tanzania with nearly 3,000 out of school children. Data was collected when children charged the tablets in a charging station we provided to each village. We conducted a baseline assessment of the children before the competition began, and an endline assessment 15 months later. The results were astounding (see our freely available data here). Children were able to learn at extraordinarily high rates compared to the control population, proving that technology can be a lifeline when a school is not available.

I received many questions during my years working on technology for out of school children about why children were out of school, and why didn’t we just need more schools, and weren’t we worried about technology replacing face-to-face teaching. Most of these questions came from people who had not considered that being in a physical school was not always a safe or viable option, or that it may become a reality for them at some point. 

Now that more parents are facing the reality of not having access to a school and are needing a solution for their children who suddenly do not have a school to attend, the questions around “why technology? Why aren’t they in school?” are less pressing, replaced with the urgency that so many parents around the world feel: “will this work for my children?” Happily, the answer is YES. Educational technology has grown in leaps and bounds over the past decade, and children regardless of circumstance or ability have the opportunity to learn. Access is still a major hurdle to reaching our Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #4, the goal of inclusive and equitable quality education for all. Issues such civil conflict, displacement, gender inequity, and access to technology and connectivity are critical as we work together to create a world in which everyone, anywhere is safe and free to learn.

There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic era will change us, and alter our perspectives on the world. We will have to find new ways for our children to learn, and new rhythms as a society without schools during this crisis. We will also have to find ways to support each other without the many other benefits beyond learning that schools can provide, such as being the only place some children can reliably get food and shelter, or a consistent source of childcare for working parents. As we struggle to figure out how to navigate these unknown times, for many of us, we know that someday the schools will open again. For millions of parents, a society without school is a reality far beyond this pandemic. We have incredible tools at our disposal to create a sustainable and equitable future that can adapt to the inevitable challenges we will face as a global community. As this moment illustrates, we are all globally connected, and truly all in this together.

See what our Grand Prize winners are doing here. For those of you who are software developers, the code for all five of our finalist teams is available for free here. Stay tuned for a docuseries recorded in India just before the borders closed due to COVID-19, where you can see firsthand a new localized version of the software in Hindi, and how it helps children both in and out of school.  A future in which all children, with or without access to school, can learn reading, writing, and math is possible. We have the technology, and the proof that it works. 

Emily Musil Church, PhD