a year ago

Pandemic-induced learning loss: Immediate strategic actions required

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Soaring inflation, volatile exchange rate, depleting foreign exchange reserves, rising external debt – open a newspaper and you will see these making it to the headlines regularly.

Certainly, all these concerns are justified, but amid these pressing macroeconomic issues, one vital national emergency issue is not given enough attention - how can we address the COVID-19-induced learning loss?

 As the Endogenous Growth Theory points out, knowledge production through education induces self-sustained economic growth. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have well endorsed the importance of education as SDG4 clearly aims to "ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all."

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the provision of education in an unparalleled way. According to the United Nations (UN), the COVID-19 pandemic is the 'longest disruption to education-induced learning loss' globally, and the scale of this loss is 'nearly insurmountable' as warned by UNICEF.

The case of Bangladesh is also no exception, and this scenario is more acute in the cultural and socio-economic context of the country.

Due to the pandemic-led school closures, around 37 million children's education has been disrupted in the country. This has created a significant learning vacuum.

A few days back, Mr Asad Islam, who happens to be the Director of the Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability (CDES) and Professor at the Department of Economics, Monash Business School, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, wrote an article on the pressing issue of COVID-19 induced learning loss.

The article has rightly and succinctly pointed out the importance of addressing the learning loss issue. The dropout of students (both girls and boys) amid the pandemic, a lower annual budget for education, the need for low-cost but effective policy in mitigating pandemic-induced learning loss etc., are some of the issues addressed in the article. Out-of-school intervention, parental engagement, Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and catch-up programmes have been recommended as we move forward.

However, some of the recommendations mentioned in the article require further critical inspection regarding their relevance in Bangladesh. The writer has missed out on some ground-level aspects of the issue.

The article has talked about the 'Catch-up through school peer' solution. It has been suggested that older female students will volunteer to tutor the targeted girls. But, the question arises of what should be the selection process for the volunteers to tutor the targeted girls. The depth of knowledge of these volunteers poses a real concern in this regard.

According to the article, one or two-year academically senior top-ranked students of the same school will tutor the targeted girls, but these senior girls are also likely to face COVID-induced learning loss. In addition, what will be the incentive mechanism to engage them in such activities? Will they be interested in involving themselves in such programmes voluntarily?

The article has also emphasised adopting various distant learning solutions to address learning loss. This solution is perplexing as a government study by the Bangladesh Examination Development Unit (BEDU) under the Dhaka education board found that the degree of learning loss was higher in places where the availability of digital devices and internet access was poor.

"Students with internet access and digital devices suffered 10 to 15 per cent less learning loss than those who did not have these facilities," the study revealed.

The Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE) in Bangladesh found that during the school closures, two out of every three pre-primary to upper-secondary children in Bangladesh were not reached through distance education.

Governments in South Asia have made substantial attempts to implement remote learning, but these efforts have been significantly impeded by poor connectivity and limited access to digital equipment. Therefore, with the existing scarcity of digital devices and poor internet access, it is not sure how learning loss can be recovered soon, especially in rural areas.

Even if TV, radio or widely accessible yet basic feature phone-mandated education programmes are deployed, according to a UNESCO report, most of these programmes are proven ineffective in supporting personalised learning and monitoring learners' attendance. The students are most of the time not motivated enough to participate in the classes.

There are many advantages of IVR but also cons associated with this system. One of the key limitations of this system is that it lacks interaction between teacher and student. In addition, the assessment of students' learning is a concern. The efficacy of remote learning modalities needs to be studied further. Call drop is also an issue in rural Bangladesh which works as a barrier to deploying simplified remote learning systems.

Furthermore, remote learning initiatives without parental guidance can be detrimental to a child. This may lead to more screen time, creating physical and mental ailments for the children. Facebook and other social media apps addiction are also likely to become severe and create a nature of aggressiveness and violence among them. Due to children's unprotected usage of digital devices, family violence is expected to surge.

Household distractions and less protected time for children to study, which are very common in Bangladesh, also hamper the remote learning process.

The key issue that Mr Asad has missed in his article is psychological well-being. The pandemic has significantly distorted the mental well-being of tutors and students due to the pandemic-led school closures, movement restrictions, financial hardships and health concerns.

Unfortunately, no government initiatives have addressed this psychological well-being issue. The need for counselling programmes should not be overlooked as students' and tutors' psychological well-being is significantly related to the learning outcomes.

A set of teams with public health specialists, psychologists and sociologists need to be formed in every District who will visit school to school and cater for the psychological well-being of the students and tutors. There should also be enough measures to check the efficacy of such programmes.

A dedicated education policy of the GoB on strategies to address the COVID-19 learning loss should be introduced. To address the COVID-19 learning loss, redesigning and redrafting the syllabuses from classes 1 to 12 is a crying need.

A curriculum revision panel needs to be formed urgently to accomplish this work and promptly address this huge learning loss over the last two years.

A new academic year is going to start in less than 2 months. Stringent actions need to be adopted to finish the redrafting of the syllabus, which will include fundamental lessons from the previous and current classes. GoB should prioritise redesigning and redrafting the curriculum first to recover the Covid-induced learning loss, but instead, the government is busy implementing the criticised no divisional separation from class 9 policy.

Bangladesh govt. has also declared two-day weekends for all educational institutions to save energy. But this decision may further disrupt the process of recovering COVID-19 learning losses in the country. Thus, this decision should be reconsidered again.

Robust data systems, which will include tracking learning outcomes systematically in the country, is of sheer importance for monitoring current COVID-19-related learning responses and planning and developing further strategies.

Summer school may be a way to address COVID-19 learning loss in the country. When summer school programs are rigorous and well-resourced, entail small-group instruction from qualified and experienced teachers, and concentrate on academic subjects, generating high-quality learning outcomes.

It is high time the government should act on the lessons learned during pandemic-led school closures. Redesigning and redrafting the existing syllabus, parental supervision in the remote learning process, leveraging existing technology, robust data system-driven strategies, and catering for the psychological well-being of the students and tutors are some of the steps that will be helpful in the recovery process.

GoB should prioritise formulating 'Educational Policy Strategies' at the earliest, addressing the issues mentioned above. Without any immediate step, this pandemic-induced learning loss will soon create a generational loss.

Mr Muhammad Nafis Shahriar Farabi is a research associate at the Bangladesh Institute of Governance and Management (BIGM).

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