Since the coronavirus pandemic began, school closures have disrupted the education of 1.5 billion children and young people globally. Here, Robert Jenkins, UNICEF’s global chief of education, talks about the challenges of remote learning and what parents can do to support their children.
Global Chief of Education, UNICEF
What is UNICEF doing to keep kids learning during the COVID-19 pandemic?
UNICEF is supporting a wide range of tools to support remote learning, depending on the context. They range from low- to no- tech options, such as delivering learning materials to children at home, and supporting the creation of educational programs on radio and TV. Then there are “higher tech” learning tools to reach children who have access to the internet in their homes.
What are the primary tools teachers need to successfully engage students at a distance?
The challenge is providing the right learning tool in each context. “Live instruction” is indeed very powerful, but often not possible, and of course comes with the downside of being fixed in terms of scheduling. This is a disadvantage at a time when many families need greater flexibility in how and when their children can learn.
The key is to start with the learning outcome and then work backwards, adopting the right tool for each context. That shows the most promising results.
What are you hearing from the educators and school systems UNICEF works with? How are students adapting to this new learning environment?
I’m really inspired by what children, teachers, and my UNICEF colleagues are doing around the world.
In Somalia, they’re broadcasting lessons over radio and television, and uploading recorded lessons onto solar-powered tablets. In Mongolia, we helped produce TV lessons in the local languages, Tuvan and Kazakh, which reach about 13,000 children from ethnic minority groups in the first month of the crisis.
In Bangladesh, UNICEF is helping the government share learning content over TV, radio, mobile phone, and internet platforms. In Paraguay, we’ve developed video and audio content for children between the ages of 0 and 6. And in Timor-Leste, Ukraine and Kosovo, they’ve launched the Learning Passport, a really exciting partnership between UNICEF and Microsoft to help children access their school curriculum remotely.
How can parents help children adjust to remote learning?
Here are some simple tips we’ve been recommending to parents: Try to establish a routine that factors in learning, playtime, and reading. Take your time. Start with shorter learning sessions and make them progressively longer. Have open conversations. Encourage your child to ask questions and express their feelings.
Establish rules together about how, when, and where they can use the internet and set up parental controls where necessary, particularly for young children. Find out how to stay in touch with your child’s teacher or school to stay informed, ask questions, and get more guidance.
What are some things to consider about reopening schools?
When schools reopen, we can’t simply return to business as usual. Before the pandemic, we already had a learning crisis with more than half of all children in low- and middle-income countries unable to read and understand a simple story by the end of primary school.
We must ensure that when schools reopen, every child is included and learns; every child has access to school-based health, hygiene, and nutrition services; and every child is connected to the internet. This global disruption can be a catalyst for a once-in-a-lifetime transformation in our schools, so that every child learns the skills they need to succeed in life, school, and work.
The key is to make the “new normal” better for children. That is, better learning outcomes, but also more support for children in terms of their health and well-being.