5 insights into how autonomous learning can support children during COVID-19 and beyond
With more children out of school than ever, autonomous learning has the potential to give children a sense of stability and continuity of learning.
For four months, Ruma got up every morning, met the IRC staff at 9 am, grabbed her eight tablets fully charged for the day, and oversaw three learning sessions with different groups of children in her own home. “I have two children in the program. I became a facilitator to help them learn and to help other children learn,” said Ruma, a 23-year-old mother of three children living in a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Together, they would start their session by singing a song or playing a game and then open their tablets and learn quietly for about an hour, until it was time to wrap up and welcome the next cohort of children. Ruma would oversee children’s wellbeing and provide encouraging words and positive discipline when needed. The tablet, loaded with localized autonomous learning software, did most of the teaching and children were able to learn foundational skills in literacy and numeracy.
This was Pop-Up Learning in Bangladesh, the IRC’s first digital learning pilot with 600 out-of-school children from the Rohingya community, before COVID-19 hit. Together with our partners at Imagine Worldwide, Enuma, and War Child Holland, we were exploring autonomous learning solutions to reach last-mile learners — students who are out of school due to displacement.
Today, COVID-19 has made the last mile a lot longer, with 60% of the world’s children out of school. Autonomous learning programs have the potential to give children a sense of stability and educational continuity when schools close down. There are rightfully critiques of one-size-fits-all efforts to roll out digital learning solutions in the time of COVID-19, but with Pop-Up, we are ahead of the game. We have already begun testing ways of localizing and delivering adaptive, child-led software and understanding when and how children benefit from it. These five insights gained from this careful implementation work are critical to ensuring children can receive a quality education while staying safe from COVID-19.
1. It is possible for displaced, out-of-school children to learn foundational literacy and numeracy skills in informal learning spaces, leveraging autonomous learning software, without relying on skilled teachers.
High-quality, interactive, and guided curriculum on a tablet can enable students to take charge of their own learning without relying on the physical infrastructure of classrooms or internet connection. When the content is gamified, structured, and adaptive to the child’s current learning level, it is likely to yield an increase in learning outcomes for children.
In Bangladesh, we worked with Can’t Wait to Learn from War Child Holland and Kitkit School, from Enuma. We saw that both software programs improved foundational skills in only 16 weeks of programming. Students in two types of learning settings — home and center-based sites — showed baseline to endline improvements in their reading, numeracy, and social-emotional skills. This is very promising and gives us confidence in autonomous learning solutions for school closures related to COVID-19, as in this pilot, there was no support from skilled teachers and children were truly independent, as they would be if we had given a tablet per home.
2. Children can increase their motivation to learn and sense of hope and agency through autonomous learning programs.
While the software did not specifically target outcomes around motivation to learn, hope, and agency, we were interested in this hypothesis from the beginning. Contrary to formal school models where the teacher provides one-size-fits-all knowledge to children, the software proposes interactive, fun, independent, and self-paced learning, which can help restore or grow children’s confidence. We found that both software programs improved baseline to endline hope and agency outcomes in children. Caregivers also noted specific benefits for children using the program including increased motivation to learn, an increase in confidence, and new skills related to technology.
“After playing with the tablets we are seeing children’s brains opening up. They show an interest in learning.” — Mother
“Children are more confident about [navigating the different neighborhoods] in camp. They can read the camp signs [in English].” — Mother
“Before Pop-Up children wouldn’t go to the market. Now they do — they are becoming brave because they can read and write.” — Mother
These skills are essential, and our programs must promote them as much as possible to ensure growth and development of the whole child, especially in times of uncertainty like the current pandemic with COVID-19.
3. The tablet content can keep children focused and engaged throughout the session.
The software programs tested in this pilot are well-designed and can keep children engaged and focused for the intended dosage. While a TV/video program, SMS, or radio program can provide interactive and interesting content to children, design research conducted by our software partners suggests that only carefully crafted gamified and interactive software can succeed at keeping children focused for an intended period of time. Software companies like Enuma with KitKitSchool and War Child Holland with Can’t Wait to Learn have invested years in developing comprehensive experiences that leverage game mechanics to keep children engaged and learning foundational skills.
During the Pop-Up pilot, students learning on Can’t Wait to Learn at home experienced an average dosage of 54 minutes learning on the tablet per session and 51 minutes learning on the tablet per session when in a center in the camp. Initial data inquiries using Kitkit School tablet analytics also suggest steady engagement with the software throughout the program without any major drop-offs, and persistence and agency among learners when faced with challenging content.
When possible, we would recommend looking into these child-led autonomous solutions as a temporary substitute for formal education during COVID-19 or anytime there are school closures.
4. Further investment is needed in agile technology infrastructure
Low cost, flexible, and mobile technology can enable deployments in homes, centers, and schools. Learning can happen anywhere, at any time. There is no one-size-fits all approach to infrastructure, but there will be solutions adapted to each context.
For our pilot in Bangladesh, we relied on medium-range Lenovo tablets, and Pixel C tablets from Google, charged and stored securely in IRC field office locations. In the future, we want to test implementation with solar charging solutions for the family and lower cost devices. This can enable us to deliver directly into homes.
5. Organizations can depend on community members and low-skilled caregivers to run learning sessions with the tablets, maintaining an environment conducive to learning and keeping children safe.
During Pop-Up, thoughtful human facilitation guided children through their learning, without the need for academic expertise which can be difficult to find in crisis contexts. When possible, we encourage providing some level of human support to children, even if only for comfort and encouragement. In Bangladesh, we relied on female facilitators from the community, who had children and siblings in the program. Their responsibilities were those of basic implementation, ensuring that children were getting the intended dosage and that there were no issues with discipline or child protection.
Despite the majority of facilitators exhibited limited skills and proficiency in pedagogy, children attended the Pop-Up Learning sessions and were able to show improvements in their learning. This result is inspiring and confirms that there is an opportunity to develop home-based learning programs when schools close down. With the right level of remote support, caregivers and siblings are more than able to support their children’s learning, and it is also likely to be an empowering experience for them. Clear guidance and expectations for facilitators was required, and we found that a bi-weekly or monthly peer-to-peer group discussion enabled them to share and to learn from each other’s experience. Now because of COVID-19, we must take extra precaution to limit contact. Virtual peer to peer support groups could be a potential solution to address limited contact, and could be supported with behaviorally-informed messaging on adoption and social norms.
Even with the uncertainties of COVID-19, women like Ruma can continue providing safe and predictable learning opportunities for their children as well as others in their communities.
It is without a doubt that COVID-19 has brought new design constraints for education actors. However, it has also exposed the ways in which our solutions must become even more adaptable to difficult contexts. It is no longer enough to give access to quality education to the children who need it the most, but a question of increasing access to quality education while also respecting essential hygiene standards and being as remote as possible.
Through our Pop-Up Learning pilot, we learned that there is great potential in delivering evidence-based autonomous learning software, with thoughtful facilitation and agile technology infrastructure, to improve education access and quality in emergency settings. Our next steps include strengthening our implementation model to become an adaptive solution in times of crisis like COVID-19 and rigorously testing the model in the future to provide evidence about the effect of autonomous learning programs on learning and social-emotional outcomes.
More insights and preliminary evidence from this pilot, such as children’s experience, facilitator’s experience, dosage, attendance, social-emotional results and more, can be found in our detailed report.
Pop-Up Learning is a digital learning program, created and launched by the IRC in partnership with War Child Holland and their software Can’t Wait To Learn; Enuma and their software Kitkit Schools; Imagine Worldwide a key partner providing design, implementation and technical support, ongoing thought partnership; and many other advisors and supporters.