Outside the digital world: How can remote learning be redesigned outside the internet?

September 13, 2021

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Digital solutions allowed continued schooling during the pandemic, but students without access to the internet were at risk of being left behind. BRAC turned to an understated device for reaching the students in these communities: the feature phone.

This year’s International Literacy Day was celebrated in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic for the second year running. The Day is a reminder of the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights. Given the disruption and havoc that COVID-19 has caused to education, the significance of International Literacy Day cannot be overstated.

At its peak, the pandemic affected 1.6 billion learners worldwide. In Bangladesh, educational institutions were closed soon after the virus entered the country in March 2020, thereby impacting over 38 million students. 

The majority of the world’s governments moved to remote learning modalities including online education, and television and radio lessons to maintain education continuity. The Government of Bangladesh’s response at the initial stage was through TV-based learning programmes which were later supplemented with radio lessons, online learning, and distribution of home assignments.

The government deserves due credit for implementing different remote learning interventions. However, ensuring 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 study by CAMPE found that 69.5% of students did not take part in distance learning. This situation is not unique to Bangladesh.

Read more: ​​Agents of change: Three primary schools in Bangladesh being watched by the world

Narrowing the divide

The Brookings Institute stated in April 2020 that governments of  countries with low and middle incomes 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 which have been excluded from the benefits of the digital age, particularly girls and women. This year’s theme for International Literacy Day of ‘Literacy for a human-centred recovery: Narrowing the digital divide’ could not be more appropriate. 

Watch more: BRAC Academy Phone School (Bangla)

Penetration of mobile internet subscribers in Bangladesh presently stands at around 28% whereas 95% of households have access to mobile phones. 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.

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

Schooling through feature phones: an unprecedented solution

BRAC’s education programme has been working since 1985 to reach education to communities with low incomes across Bangladesh. It was evident early on in the pandemic that the vast majority of students from BRAC’s schools 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, BRAC 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. 

Read more: How BRAC is supporting Bangladesh to continue education in a pandemic

The curriculum and content team designed lessons in Bengali, English, and mathematics, based on the national 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 lessons of the phone class. These sessions were conducted over voice call as online training was not an option due to the lack of smartphones among teachers.

A cohort of students attending a phone lesson by a BRAC school teacher. © BRAC 2021

Putting students and their families at the centre

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. BRAC also recognises 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 us to remain connected with the students and their parents during the pandemic.

Furthermore, its long-standing experience of working with low-income communities indicates that these students 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 is the psychosocial wellbeing of students, for which special supplementary content was developed on psychosocial elements and COVID-19 preventive measures.

COVID-19 preventive measures are being incorporated across all learning. © BRAC 2021

BRAC’s advocacy for social change programme 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.

Read more: Back to school again: Assessing what students missed during school closings for COVID-19

The phone school intervention came with its own challenges. This included training teachers in remote areas over the phone, ensuring staff and teachers’ ability to adequately explain 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 mathematics without visual cues. In spite of all this, by May 2020, a mere two months into the lockdown, BRAC 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. This was possible due to placing the students and their families at the centre of the process, and recognising the constraints of their lives.

Bangladesh is reopening schools after a year and a half. Given the cyclical nature of the pandemic, there is no guarantee that lockdowns are over. 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 Programme. This article was originally published in the Dhaka Tribune.

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