The GEC Manifesto for Education in Practice: Cláudia Costin and Mark Sparvell
Access to quality education for all is an imperative as it empowers people everywhere to live more healthy and sustainable lives. Education is crucial to fostering tolerance between people and contributes to more peaceful societies.
The Sustainable Development Goal 4 seeks to ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promotion of lifelong learning. It also underscores the achievement of all other SDG’s.
When people are able to access quality education, they can break from the cycle of poverty. Education helps to reduce inequalities and to reach gender equality. Digital technologies allow us to find entirely new answers to what people learn, how people learn, where people learn, when they learn and importantly, provide continuity and scale when formal education is disrupted.1
Broadly, significant progress has been made in developing countries with primary education now reaching 91% and the percentage of out-of-school children in some areas declining from 40% to 22%. Literacy levels have risen over 50 years from almost one-quarter of youth lacking basic literacy skills to less than 10% in 2016.
The progress was interrupted in 2020 and the existing inequities that were illuminated as advances in academic achievement, health and safety were by no means equally shared. Consider that 102 million of the illiterate population are between 15 and 24 years old and worldwide, the number of girls out of school is a staggering 132 million. The impact of COVID has not affected all students equally.
The crisis – considered by some an accelerator of long-stalled education reform – particularly revealed disparities, especially for vulnerable youth impacted by the digital divide.
The digital divide predated the coronavirus pandemic and will persist beyond it if stakeholders do not seize the moment.2 The divide is created by inequities in access to the internet, devices needed for online education and teacher readiness. This is significant as the benefits offered by digital technologies go well beyond a stop-gap solution during the crisis.
Students from privileged backgrounds, supported by their parents and eager and able to learn, could find their way past closed school doors to alternative learning opportunities. However, those from disadvantaged backgrounds often remained shut out when their schools shut down, without devices, access or even a quiet place to study.3
If universal access to technology should be part of every child’s right to education, how have some of the education systems in the most challenging contexts responded with equity at the forefront?
Case Study 1: Brazil
Brazil stands out as one of the countries that has had one of the most unsystematic responses to the pandemic, stressing economy activity over preventive measures and gridlocked by political turmoil while relying on subnational levels of government to lead the efforts to combat the pandemic – including in education. The country was affected by more than 40 weeks of school closures.
In this context, subnational secretaries of education, without the expected coordination of the Federal Ministry, collectively organized an educational response to COVID with the support of civil society organizations, the private sector, and the international community. Each one of the 27 federal units (26 states plus the Federal District) created a digital platform that could be accessed through computers or mobile phones, with sponsored data, where classes were delivered. For the families that did not have such devices or connectivity, TV and radio offered classes that were complemented with booklets for self-instruction.
Teachers were not prepared to deliver such classes, but with improvised professional development strategies, and a lot of learning by doing, some learning certainly happened.
The same was true for municipalities. Some adhered to state level platforms or TV programs and others prepared their own materials for learning at home.
CEIPE-FGV, a think tank located in one of the most valued private universities in the country and led by one of the authors of this article, Claudia Costin, spoke with 53 secretaries of education in their mentorship program and began to think strategically about how educational systems could combine different modes of delivery and instruction to ensure that losses would be mitigated, especially at crucial stages of human development. For example, the CEIPE-FGV considered how learning could be ensured during the first years of ISCED level 1 (primary education) when children learn and hone their literacy skills, and in the last year of ISCED level 3 when youth begin to transition to tertiary education. They also evaluated how to maintain the supply of school lunches by giving staple basic products to families, etc. Moreover, they promoted communication amongst stakeholders, engaging secretaries to support teachers in their professional development and encouraging them to reach out to parents via telephone and social media, with special attention to households that had children with special educational needs, using apps such as WhatsApp and Instagram to foster a connection.
For instance, in the city of Boa Vista, the capital of the state of Roraima, Brazil, at the margins of the Amazon forest, the then vice-mayor and secretary of education, Arthur Henrique, was already responding to unforeseeable developments in the educational sector as a result of a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, receiving immigrants from the neighbouring country and adopting measures to make their transition to Brazil less traumatic. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated risks in several dimensions, especially the social and emotional, which are the basis of a holistic education and key factors for human flourishing. Mitigating additional hindrances caused by the pandemic, the secretary consulted teachers, who had already begun to propose activities to students, and created a new system-wide initiative called “Boa Vista Learning at Home” (Portuguese: Boa Vista Aprendendo em Casa). The secretariat designed and offered a formal, malleable curriculum that could be adapted by teachers while prioritizing key knowledge and skills aligned with Brazil’s National Common Core, translating it into lesson plans and sharing these resources via Instagram.
In Maranhão, one of the poorest states in the country, a digital platform was created just after two weeks of school closures. Using classes prepared by their own teachers, Maranhão was able to ensure the continuation of students’ learning whilst at home, with 61% of the state’s high schoolers engaging with classes on the learning platform through their mobile phones. For the students unable to access the platform, TV and radio programs complemented the education options. In the more affluent state of Paraná, more students were able to access their platform, with around 95% average attendance, mostly through computers and tablets. But even in this case, alternative provision of classes was offered through TV and study guides.
More than that, states helped poor municipalities by producing guidebooks, offering their digital platforms and TV and radio programs to students that, by the federal organization of the country, were not their own. Normally in Brazil elementary schools and lower secondary are municipal-level responsibility, while states offer mainly public high school education.
The institutional and professional learning derived from all this effort during the pandemic will certainly reshape education in the country and ensure that connectivity for all appears strong in the country’s agenda. Bridging the digital divide will not come for free and additional resources must be offered for professional development for teachers, as well as connecting not only schools to high-speed internet, but even students’ households. Most importantly, good content aligned with the recently approved Curriculum Guidelines should be delivered using a hybrid model – for learning at home and at school – with the guidance of proficient and motivated teachers.
Case Study 2: Senegal
Senegal has a geographically dispersed educational system and schools are often far away from other institutions, forcing some students to travel great distances to attend classes. Until recently, the lack of a unified curriculum and technology platform to support learning often meant that different schools produced very different learning outcomes for students.
Senegal’s Ministry of Education (MoE) partnered with Microsoft and was able to take advantage of its existing network of educational tools and efficiently transition to a remote learning environment. Without this partnership, countless students would have been left without any means of continuing their education during the COVID-19 crisis. Through these programs, however, the Ministry was easily able to avoid those challenges and create an effective digital curriculum for its more than 3.5 million students.
Senegal’s digital shift heralds unified platform, access for all
Senegal has been working to restructure and modernize its National Education Information and Management System, otherwise known as “SIMEN.” The original goal of SIMEN was to create a comprehensive hub of educational information to help schools easily transition to more technological forms of teaching. Seyni Ndiaye Fall, the coordinator of SIMEN, has been working with the MoE since it began using Windows devices, Microsoft Office 365, and OneNote.
To achieve that goal, the Ministry would have to overcome a series of technological challenges. Aminata Lo, one of the Microsoft Innovative Educator Experts working with the MoE, was well aware of these challenges when the program began: “They know how important it is … having enough devices and connection.” Initial challenges related to a lack of widespread internet access, as well as a finite number of devices in the country, limiting the first set of students and teachers who could utilize the program to approximately 100,000 users.
That number skyrocketed after the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. More and more teachers began to rely on the system to disseminate their lesson plans. Students began using their mobile devices for remote learning in place of a laptop. At present, the Ministry believes it has a staggering 1 million enrolled users.
Strategic partnerships improve outcomes, ‘leaving no one behind’
In keeping with the mission of the Global Education Coalition launched by UNESCO —the United Nations’ agency dedicated to improving educational outcomes and leaving no one behind globally—the Ministry sought to build on the successes that other countries have seen with Microsoft remote learning technologies. With the help of a local team, Microsoft Senegal, devices were distributed and training programs were created, all with the goal of beginning the country’s transition to remote learning.
Teachers across the country were introduced to the basics of Microsoft tools by the local team and quickly discovered the plethora of options available to them. One such program that is gaining more attention is Flipgrid. Flipgrid’s ability to simulate human interaction non synchronously by disseminating videos created by teachers and students helped teachers maintain a level of normalcy in their class structure.
From an administrative perspective, Microsoft has also been indispensable in minimizing the overall MoE workload including the deployment of an easy-to-use cloud-based management system designed to manage, maintain, and protect the 67,000 devices being distributed to students.
Digital is good for everyone
More important than the efficacy of the program has been the overwhelmingly positive response from teachers and students about the remote learning system, despite some initial hesitancy from more seasoned teachers to the use of the technology. Since Senegal contains a great deal of schools in remote areas, curriculums between schools can lack consistency. Teaching techniques, and even the material taught in class, can vary greatly between schools. The shared digital environments and content will help create a more uniform educational plan and experience for students in Senegal.
‘The plan worked’
Through a strategic partnership with UNESCO and Microsoft, Senegal’s Ministry of Education has successfully navigated the transition to remote learning brought about by COVID-19. Learning materials were quickly developed and distributed to teachers through digital tools and platforms. Training professionals were assigned to regions of the country to minimize potential disruptions in teaching. Students were given the means to access the lesson plans developed by the Ministry. The partnership aligned its vision, mapped the interdependencies across agencies and school systems, kept stakeholders engaged in the deployment process, and it has continued to meet its goal of providing each of its 3.5 million students with the ability to engage in remote learning. Put simply, the plan worked.
For a country striving to improve its educational outcomes, achieving a learning experience that many students prefer is an amazing accomplishment. If the success of this transition during the COVID-19 crisis is any indication, reaching that goal is not only attainable, but reachable in the very near future.
As humanity has learned throughout its history, crises are certainly painful, but they bring along a lot of learning and they accelerate change, for the better or for the worse. Another feature of these times of suffering is that they illuminate challenges to be faced.
This is particularly true for COVID-19 crisis and the changes in the education agenda. Without the proper preparation for some form of remote learning, schools were closed, and learning had to continue – including in vulnerable areas where connectivity and devices were not available. This has aroused creativity among educators in a process of professional reinvention and made connectivity and the availability of devices an important part of the educational agenda. In addition, it has highlighted the urgency to bridge the huge education disparities among countries and within them.
We have learned at least two important things during this period. The first is that technology may allow for more synchronous education and if rightly used, can offer students more direct contact with their teachers, who can themselves benefit from additional content to prepare their digital classes and data from kids’ learning and challenges, even at a distance. The second is that far from being a course, technology will still be useful after the pandemic is over.
Even before the pandemic in a globalized world where, in adult life, you need technology to work and to act as an informed citizen, ensuring digital competencies to all was already extremely important. But now, with lessons learned during and through COVID-19, access to technology, including connectivity and the development of digital skills, has certainly become part of the universal right to education. Now we need to incorporate it into good and sound education policies around the globe. Otherwise, the commitments made by 194 countries to ensure quality education for all will not be fulfilled.