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OP-ED: Putting people at the centre: BRAC’s phone school

  • Published at 12:30 am September 10th, 2021
Brac distance learning
DHAKA TRIBUNE

Re-designing learning for communities outside the digital world

In October 1966, Unesco’s General Conference declared September 8 as International Literacy Day (ILD) “to remind the public of the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights.” UN member states have been observing the day ever since. For the second year running, the day will be celebrated in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic. Given the disruption and havoc that Covid-19 has caused to education, the significance of ILD cannot be over stated.

At its peak, the pandemic affected 1.6 billion learners worldwide (Unesco 2021). In Bangladesh, educational institutions were closed soon after the virus entered the country in March 2020, thereby impacting over 38 million students (CAMPE 2020). The majority of the world’s governments moved to remote learning modalities including online education, and TV and radio lessons to maintain education continuity. The Government of Bangladesh’s response at the initial stage was through TV-based learning programs which were later supplemented with radio lessons, online learning, and distribution of home assignments.

The GoB deserves due credit for implementing the different remote learning interventions, however, access and uptake continue to be a challenge. While this is particularly acute for online learning, low tech interventions such as TV and radio lessons face similar difficulties. A 2021 CAMPE study found that 69.5% of students did not take part in distance learning. This situation is not unique to Bangladesh. 

The Brookings Institute stated in April of 2020 that governments of low and middle income countries would not be able to reach most students through online educational materials. If anything, the pandemic has laid bare the plight of already disadvantaged communities that have been excluded from the benefits of the digital age, particularly girls and women. This year’s ILD theme of “Literacy for a human-centred recovery: Narrowing the digital divide” could thus not be more appropriate.   

Penetration of mobile internet subscribers in Bangladesh presently stands at around 28% (GSMA 2021) whereas 95% of households have access to mobile phones (MICS 2019, BBS). We can infer from this that the vast majority of cellphone use is therefore voice based. So while there is considerable fanfare, much of it deservedly, on the use of smartphones and apps for addressing a host of services and problems, its older cousin -- the feature phone -- has become the long neglected relative. 

There have been interventions such as using interactive voice recordings for learning or text-based courses, but these seem to be few and far between, and do not receive much coverage.         

BRAC’s flagship Education Program (BEP) has been working since 1985 to reach education to marginalized and disadvantaged communities. It was evident early on in the pandemic that the vast majority of BEP students did not have access to cable TV let alone the internet. Limiting factors included lack of smartphones, cost of data, limited digital skills, availability of cable operators, and stable electricity supply. The one device that was accessible in most households, though, was the feature phone.

Taking all of these critical and contextual realities into consideration, BEP designed an innovative phone school intervention based around feature phones. Teachers use the voice conference call facility available in the phone sets to first connect groups of three to four children and then deliver the lessons live via voice calls. 

The curriculum and content team designed lessons in Bengali, English, and math based on the NCTB curriculum. The duration of each lesson ranges between 15-20 minutes and is delivered one to two times a week. Teachers were trained on activating and using the voice conference call function along with sessions on delivering and managing phone class lessons. These sessions were conducted over voice call as online training was not an option due to the lack of smartphones among BEP teachers.

In spite of the advances in remote learning, particularly in the use of technology, it is by no means a panacea nor can it be considered as a replacement for face-to-face teaching and learning. BEP also recognizes that the phone school intervention has limitations in terms of addressing the learning loss resulting from the extensive school closures. The availability of feature phones, however, has been invaluable for BEP to remain connected with the children and their parents during the pandemic. 

Furthermore, its long-standing experience of working with disadvantaged communities indicates that these children have a higher likelihood of returning once physical classes resume due to them staying connected to learning, to their peers, and teachers. 

Another equally if not more important dimension that is addressed is the psycho-social wellbeing of children for which special supplementary contents were developed on psycho-social elements and Covid-19 preventive measures. BRAC’s Advocacy for Social Change Program carried out a study that found students and parents’ perception towards the phone school as positive and that it kept children engaged in learning and mentally motivated. 

There were a number of challenges in implementing the phone school intervention. This included training teachers in remote areas over phone, field personnel and teachers adequately explaining the concept to parents, ensuring that parents left their phones at home at the time of the lesson, and the cost of phone calls. 

Students also struggle relatively more with English and learning math without visual cues. In spite of all this, by May 2020, a mere two months into the lockdown, BEP was able to pilot and roll out the phone school initiative nationwide. Students, teachers, parents, and field staff demonstrated remarkable ability to adapt and respond to the new intervention. And this was possible due to placing the students and their families at the centre of the process, and recognizing the constraints of their lives. 

Bangladesh is soon set to re-open schools after one and a half years. Given the cyclical nature of the pandemic, there is no guarantee of no further lockdowns. Hence, it is essential that appropriate blended learning interventions are designed for communities living outside or on the margins of the digital world.            

Safi Rahman Khan is Director of the BRAC Education Program. Views expressed are those of the author.

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