Like many other organizations working in global education, RTI International is working rapidly to understand the implications of the COVID-19 crisis on our overall institution and the way we function, on how we can support our staff and projects, and how we can support education goals in the countries where RTI staff live and work. Do we have all the solutions? Certainly not. But, we are learning and want to share our experience, tools, and resources in the hope they help others.

Our Education Technology Team, a part of RTI’s International Education Division, was called upon by colleagues across the institute and by partners to produce rapid guidance on “going virtual”; that is, transitioning our work from in-person to virtual spaces. We began by holding several webinars to help projects think about transitioning planned activities to virtual approaches while stay-at-home orders are in effect across the world. Next, in collaboration with staff from across our International Education team, we started supporting our projects and government stakeholders to move their regular education activities to a remote format or find other means that mitigate the disruption caused by the current health crisis.

This article co-written by Dr. Carmen Strigel and Sarah Pouezevara

Best practice in distance learning design

In the section below is guidance that our Education Technology Team put together for RTI colleagues. We also adapted the guidance to share with donor clients and governments based on what we thought might be feasible in their context. There are a lot of lists on the Internet right now; our goal is not to add to the noise, but to curate the best and most relevant resources into common guidance. We not only collected Internet resources related to the current health crisis, but also from our experience studying and implementing distance learning and technology-supported teaching and learning initiatives over the past two decades. In fact, most of the recommendations are equally valid whether or not there is a crisis, i.e., they can be used in situations of relative normalcy or in crisis situations.

Thus, we are not starting from scratch. Our team continuously stays abreast of current technologies and establish, to the best of our ability, what works, for what purpose, and in what circumstances. This is an incredibly difficult exercise given how fast technology evolves, how rare it is to systematically and rigorously evaluate education technologies, and how much important work and learning remains undocumented and is unshared. Moreover, even when there is an opportunity to do an evaluation, it is often difficult to isolate the effects of education technologies given the many influences in the classroom and on the child. Despite the popular perception that there is no evidence that education technology is effective, there actually is quite a lot of evidence that it is. However, the effects are usually discernable only in small-scale experiments and conditions where the technology and the evaluation instruments were designed to influence and detect very specific changes in skills. 

Most of the recommendations are equally valid in situations of relative normalcy or in situations of crisis

There have been a range of technology initiatives that responded to emergency situations, especially the refugee crisis, and specifically concern student literacy and numeracy interventions. Illustratively, under the EduApps4Syria competition funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation and supported via All Children Reading, efforts were directed at developing games for Syrian out-of-school children aged 5–10 living in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq. The competition resulted in apps that showed strong positive results in learning gains after a short amount of exposure. In Tanzania, the Global Learning XPRIZE resulted in significant and meaningful gains for children with little to no access to formal schooling. Additionally, Ubongo, a Tanzanian educational television (and mobile) program, has evidence of cost-efficient improvements in childrens’ mathematics ability. Similar mobile games, educational apps, and eBooks, have been developed and evaluated through other global competitions and donor efforts.

RTI also has experience with low-tech, SMS-based delivery approaches of reading content, to mathematics learning and for teacher professional development. We have reviewed the effectiveness of one-to-one tablet programs, distance learning and massive open online courses.  Even lower-tech interactive radio/audio instruction and television have a strong evidence base, even if they are less prioritized now with the advent of near-ubiquitous individual mobile technology. [Stay tuned for a follow-up article summarizing some of these key evaluation efforts].

Now is the time when education technology will be put to the test. We’ll see if it meets the needs of children in highly different contexts and through rapid-response best efforts, rather than through carefully planned and rigorously executed models.

Context, Content and Distribution

When planning to adopt a distance learning strategy enabled by technology (especially where distribution of print resources may not be allowed because of community quarantine restrictions), here is our shortlist of key considerations to get you started with remote design and delivery of content. These are broadly valid whether your target is school-aged children, teachers, or your own staff. The guidelines assume an underlying emphasis on what we already know about good instructional design and education practice for children and adults.

DO

  • Segment your approach by specific audience (parents, children, grade level, literacy level, urban, rural, etc.).
  • Within each segment, understand learner needs, context, language, and ways of accessing content. Leverage existing devices and platforms as much as possible.
  • Plan for multiple approaches to reach as many segments of learners as possible, e.g., combine SMS and app-based outreach and content to reach families with both low-  and high-tech access.
  • Prioritize ease of use to access the content, minimizing installation and registration steps for end users.
  • Break content into small units, space new content over time, allow for repetition, and mix content of different areas or domains.
  • Time content delivery to reach learners when devices are accessible to them or their primary caretakers.
  • Leverage the digital opportunity so that learners not only consume information but engage with it; monitor their progress.
  • Build in practical monitoring plans providing data to inform program adaptations, if needed.
  • Consider early on how these approaches may be turned into long-term, sustainable solutions to maximize on the investment value.
     

DON’T

  • Design content before you have determined how it will be delivered. Let form follow function.
  • Attempt to do the same thing you did before, but digitally. Instead, rethink how you can achieve the same objectives with a complete redesign of the approach, if necessary. Make this an opportunity for long-term engagement, rather than one-off delivery of an activity, and an opportunity to build universal design for learning.
  • Neglect to coordinate with other organizations, institutions, donors, and (of course) the host country government when planning and deploying a solution. The utmost importance is to divide and conquer based on comparative advantage. Also, don’t forget to build in human-to-human elements, which allows learners to cognitively and emotionally engage with the content.
  • Expect to reach everyone the same way. Unfortunately, some segments of learners will be left out—as they have been for decades with traditional forms of education. Recognizing this challenge early will help you understand the need to deliberately plan for multimodal delivery based on careful audience segmentation and needs analysis.
  • Skip user-testing the content to ensure it is relevant and appealing and that language and terminology are clearly understood. Although we are under pressure to deliver content rapidly, there are ways to do rapid and iterative user-testing before and during deployment, which saves time later.
  • Consider effectiveness or equity compared to traditional methods. Instead, consider the response compared to nothing.
  • Forget about your target learners’ well-being. A gap in curriculum delivery is a concern, but this is—we hope—temporary. There may be other more serious negative effects from school closures beyond missing some basic skills instruction.

Do no harm

Last words

Finally, the one piece of advice that is very unique to the current situation is “Do no harm”. In the effort to move classes online, to radio/TV or mobile device, be sure that you are not indirectly encouraging learners to go out of the home to gathering spots like internet cafes, phone charging stations or community radio listening hubs. Weigh the potential danger of that action against the negative effect of the lost learning time. There is no simple calculation of that risk but one each community needs to take.  

We know that in the coming weeks and months there will be many efforts to respond and evaluate responses, as well as many new innovations and adaptations that emerge to address specific subgroups and contexts. We remain convinced that there are advantages to digital technology as a deliberate delivery method, not just an emergency replacement. Please feel free to contact us and share what you are working on or provide your suggestions. We will update this article as we know more.  

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Addendum:

Although it would be ideal to acknowledge the source of every piece of evidence and guidance included in the above list, this is not currently practical. However, similar guidance can be found in multiple places on the Internet. Here are a few of the guidelines that we have found most useful and concise that are specifically related to the COVID-19 situation and which we regularly turn to for updates.

On use of EdTech in addressing remote learning:

For school systems and policy-makers reflecting on strategies to mitigate negative impacts:

Cover photo: Photo by Xaume Olleros / RTI, (c) All Rights Reserved

About the Expert

Sarah Pouezevara's picture
Ms. Sarah Pouezevara is Senior Research Education Analyst and eLearning Specialist with the International Education Division of RTI International’s International Development Group. She has expertise in adult learning and training with a special focus on teacher professional development, including using Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) for training. She applies this expertise to designing innovative approaches such as mobile learning, open and distance learning, and communities of practice to increase impact of international education project through monitoring, evaluation, and learning. Ms. Pouezevara has led program evaluations for international NGOs in the education and health sectors, and has been the lead or co-author on several practical research reports and reference manuals, including state-of-the art reviews of mobile learning, one-to-one tablet computers, and massive open online courses (MOOCs) in education in developing countries. Prior to working for RTI, she participated in many education-sector program evaluations for the International Rescue Committee; she developed e-resources for The World Health Organization and the International Committee for the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and designed training materials and delivered training workshops for UNAIDS. Sarah is based in France.