By Saba Saeed and M. Afzan Munir, two of six GEM Report 2021 fellows, who will be presenting their work at the CIES Conference on 21 April
Early childhood care and education (ECCE) are recognized as crucial for attaining the education targets of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. And yet it has been placed in a very precarious position as a result of COVID-19. As 2021 GEM Report fellows, our paper assessed the role that technology has played in helping pre-primary learners access learning in Ethiopia and Pakistan. It assessed the extent to which teachers and head teachers transferred the knowledge and guidance they received from governments to students and their families and whether and how they relied on technology-enabled mediums in doing so. It is helping contribute to the ongoing research towards the 2023 GEM Report on technology and education.
Even before the pandemic, the pre-primary education gross enrolment ratio was 20% in low-income countries. But the COVID-19 pandemic delivered a shock to education systems without historical precedent. There is now a growing recognition and concern that early childhood care and education was at a particular disadvantage in the context of school closures and distance delivery.
The context for many countries in the Global South has also meant that school closures had particularly adverse consequences for young children in poor countries. Firstly, there is a lack of access to technology and quality internet services, making it difficult to implement standardized distance learning programs across the board.
Secondly, while poverty was already among the prime contributors towards children being out of school in the Global South, the pandemic pushed even more families into the vicious cycle of poverty.
With this background in mind, the extent to which early learning has been affected by COVID-19 is an open question, as countries rebuild their education systems after the pandemic, Our research adopted a mixed methods design with both quantitative and qualitative instruments. The study benefits from data from Ethiopia and the Punjab province of Pakistan, which are both part of the Early Learning Partnership (ELP) systems research initiative.
Our findings suggest that:
- Usage of technology-enabled modes of learning by ECCE students was low, given limited access to distance learning opportunities in Ethiopia and Pakistan during the school closures.
- There exists a digital divide by gender, socioeconomic background and ability. Building on the 2020 GEM Report on inclusion and education, our research brings new evidence on the differences in learning modes which were available to children with and without disabilities.
- Children were more likely to engage in technology-enabled modes of distance learning if they had access to more than one technology device at home.
- ECCE workforce had a limited level of engagement with caregivers and students during school closures.
- Government support to the ECCE workforce, including provision of general professional development training and guidance on aspects of distance learning, such as the use of radio or remote assessments, helped increase levels of engagement between ECCE workforce and caregivers.
The study also analyzes policy responses to the education emergency in Ethiopia and Pakistan and will be helpful in redesigning the framing of ECCE on how to help teachers, parents and learners adapt to technology and distance learning during school closures in developing contexts.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that ongoing research on the learning losses and uptake of distance learning measures in the Global South is focusing mainly on primary and secondary education. Whilst the research targeting primary and post-primary levels will generate useful insights for broader education reforms, we argue that the dynamics of the ECCE sector are unique. It is important to contextualize this sector within the challenges posed specifically by COVID-19.
Our analysis helps fill key knowledge gaps in this area and contribute to the literature on the impact of COVID-19 on early childhood education systems in low- and middle-income countries. Complementing quantitative measurement with qualitative data drawn from various perspectives, this study is among the very first efforts to provide a comparative analysis on the impact of COVID-19 on ECCE.