When 63 million teachers found themselves confined at home last spring (along with at least 1.5 billion students in 191 countries), they had to start getting creative. The closure of schools around the world served to exasperate existing educational inequalities, especially for those who already had fewer opportunities, including girls, those with learning disabilities and those living in poverty. As around half of the out-of-school students did not have access to a computer and over 40% did not have internet at home, online learning only provided a solution for some. Nevertheless, around the globe, educators found innovative solutions to reach even the most vulnerable students to make sure a pandemic didn't halt their education.
India: In one of the countries worst hit by coronavirus, the majority of students have been left out of online learning. Only 8% of households have both a computer and internet connection. But regional governments and nonprofits have found effective solutions using cheap, available resources that don't rely on technology.
• The nonprofit Diganta Swaraj Foundation took on a low-tech mass education approach, using a loudspeaker to deliver lessons to 1,000 students in six villages in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. In southwestern India, the state of Kerala set up temporary classrooms for students who couldn't tune into online or televised lessons.
• Education apps have also skyrocketed in popularity, given that a growing percentage of the Indian population do have cell phones. In early March, Bengaluru-based education startup Byju decided to offer free access to its interactive education app, which has since seen a 60% rise in student usage.
• Ironically, many American families have turned to tutors in India to help their children through the challenges of online learning. This raises the question of how these well-trained educators could potentially reap equitable economic benefit teaching students in their own country.
Denmark: The Nordic country was one of the first to close its schools and then reopen them this past spring. Two key principles — holding outdoor lessons and maintaining smaller class sizes — have had unexpected benefits.
• Forest schools have long been popular for young students in Denmark, with around 1 in 10 pre-schoolers learning outside in nature. In the coronavirus era, these outdoor spaces can alleviate indoor virus spreading and allow students to spread out and socially distance, as reported in the daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten.
• The model is catching on throughout Europe, especially in Germany and Norway. Studies show that students are calmer and can concentrate better when they're not sitting at desks. This model also benefits their physical health.
• Like in many countries, some Danish schools have also switched to a part-time model to lower class sizes. While kids might have less time with their educators and peers, this isn't necessarily a downside. "We can see now very clearly that smaller groups bring a higher degree of wellbeing for the kids, and give the teachers more contact with the kids during the day," Dorte Lange, vice-president of the Danish Union of Teachers, tells The Guardian.
• Lange says this may have long-term benefits: "We are looking at whether we can continue this and maybe shorten our school day a bit, with fewer lessons but with a higher degree of contact with students."
In a Barcelona classroom in October — Photo: Jorge Franganillo
Mexico: When Mexico decided to keep its public schools closed this academic year, it was clear that online learning would be impossible for many, so the government turned to a different media platform.
• About half of Mexico's 31 million school-age children live in poverty according to UNICEF. Just 56% of households have internet access and in rural parts of the country, service is shaky at best.
• But there was a solution: As a full 93% of households have a television, an ambitious program named Aprende en Casa (Learn at Home) was set up to broadcast educational content 24/7 for students pre-kindergarten through high school, as reported in El Universal. Educational radio programs have also been delivered across 18 stations in Spanish and indigenous languages.
• "It's challenging," fifth grade teacher Omar Morales tells CNN about filming his lessons. "It's no longer 40 kids in a class where I know their names, passions, their favorite games. Here, I'm locked in a set, but I know there's millions of kids out there who still need that knowledge."
• Aprende en Casa does have serious limits, particularly in rural communities and for female students, many of whom might not return to school after the pandemic. Some students have also found the education boring and want more engaging material, according to Reforma. But hopefully, the program will provide a strong and much needed push toward using distance learning to reach underserved populations.
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