Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities

Contributed by:
Jonathan James
Guidance on distance learning modalities to reach all children and youth during school closure.
Focuses on low-and no-tech modalities to reach the most marginalized.
1. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
for every child
Focusing on low- and no-tech modalities to
reach the most marginalized
2. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia
Lainchaur, Lekhnath Marg
Kathmandu, Nepal
Telephone: +977 1 441 7082
Facsimile: +977 1 441 9479
Cover photo: © UNICEF/UNI45507/Noorani
© United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Regional Office for South Asia
Rights and Permissions
This work is available under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 IGO license
(CC BY 3.0 IGO)
3. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
Focusing on low- and no-tech modalities to
reach the most marginalized
4. © UNICEF/UN072727/Latif Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
2.1. Use a combination of learning modalities 6
2.2. Establish a one-stop portal with key resources and guidance 6
2.3. Encourage school leaders to take an active role 7
2.4. Ensure teachers’ continued engagement with their students 8
2.5. Engage parents and caregivers 8
2.6. Build the capacity of teachers, parents/caregivers and children 9
2.7. Develop and implement strategies to reach the most vulnerable
children in times of school closures 10
2.8. Explore ways to provide free Internet access 10
2.9. Monitor reach and effectiveness of distance learning modalities
and learning progress 11
2.10. Continue distance learning modalities when schools reopen 12
4.1. Challenges and constraints when learning through basic mobile phones 16
4.2. Opportunities for learning through basic mobile phones 18
6. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
This guidance on continuity of learning during school closures draws on the key lessons
learned from the COVID-19 education response around the world. It was developed for
government policymakers and education staff of national and international organizations
involved in the education response during school closures.
This is the first edition of the guidance.
7. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
he COVID-19 pandemic has exposed Many governments have therefore rolled out
large inequalities in access to technology, multiple learning modalities, including those
such as between rich and poor, rural which require no technology or technologies
and urban, girls and boys, across and within that are more commonly available. When
countries. Online platforms have often been planning such initiatives, it is helpful to
the first to be rolled out to enable children to
continue learning from home; indeed, they are
generally the most effective learning modality
in getting some form of learning up and
running. However, they have the lowest reach.
In some countries, online platforms reach
less than 10 per cent of the population. This
is because they require electricity, reliable
Internet connectivity, as well as sufficient
devices for children in the household:
particularly, devices with good functionality and
capabilities, and large enough screen sizes.
Moreover, another element of the digital divide
© UNICEF ROSA/2015/Nybo
concerns the digital literacy gap, a barrier that
can be even harder to address. There is also
a significant gender digital divide, with girls
far less likely to own or have access to digital
devices, and fewer opportunities to gain digital
literacy skills.
8. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
Home Learning Modalities Matrix
high tech versus low/no tech and self-learning versus teacher-guided
Self-learning* Teacher-guided
Low/no tech,
offline 1. Printed materials, books 4. Home visits
Main focus 2. Radio 5. Calls
Interactive Voice
for reaching Interactive Radio Response (IVR)
disadvantaged Interactive SMS
3. TV 6. SMS (RapidPro)
children and Interactive TV
youth HOME
High tech, 7. Digital (audio) books 10. Digital classrooms
8. Feature phone apps 11. Video conferencing
9. Other apps/platforms 12. Social Media
*Ideally supported by parents/caregivers
distinguish between high-tech modalities (like those which are teacher-guided. During school
online platforms and apps) and low- or no-tech closures, it is important that teachers continue
modalities (like TV, radio, SMS and printed to engage and interact with their students,
learning materials), which have the potential for provide assignments and, importantly,
much higher reach. provide timely feedback. This can be done,
for example, through calls and SMS, or social
Another useful distinction is between one- media for those with connected devices.
way modalities, requiring children to study
independently – though possibly supported by Different learning modalities – a total of
parents/caregivers1 or even older siblings – and 12 – are summarized in the Home Learning
Noting that vulnerable and disadvantaged children and youth are more likely to be ‘first-generation learners’, and thus are
less likely to have parental education support during school closures.
9. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
Modalities Matrix, across the four learning The following sections cover some of the key
classifications (the four corners in the learning modalities and how they can be used
matrix):2 for self-learning or teacher-guided learning
1. Low/no tech – self-learning during school closures, with a focus on low-
2. Low/no tech – teacher-guided learning and no-tech modalities to reach the most
3. High tech – self-learning disadvantaged and marginalized children.
4. High tech – teacher-guided learning
During school closures, it is important that teachers
continue to engage and interact with their students, provide
assignments, and, importantly, provide timely feedback.
See also the UNICEF Remote Learning COVID-19 Response Decision Tree
10. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
his section summarizes key wealth quintile and in rural areas. Section 4 of
considerations and recommendations for the guidance focuses specifically on learning
ensuring continuity of learning through basic mobile phones.
during school closures.
Self-learning modalities on their own (e.g.,
2.1. U
 se a combination of learning radio, TV, paper-based learning kits and even
modalities online platforms and mobile apps) are unlikely
to be very effective in ensuring learning
To address differential access to technology, continuity if they are not complemented
multiple learning modalities are required, by teacher-guided modalities. Teachers
particularly those that are low tech or no tech should continue to be involved to guide their
– the top half of the Home Learning Modalities students as well as support parents/caregivers
Matrix. For planning and prioritization, it during school closures (see section 2.4). A
is important to understand the extent of combination of self-learning and teacher-
technology reach, including at subnational guided modalities is therefore required (see
levels, by rural/urban, by gender and, if possible, section 3). When there are multiple learning
by wealth quintile.3 Such an evidence-based modalities being rolled out (and ideally there
analysis is an important component of a national are), it is important to integrate them within an
plan or strategy for the education response and overarching education strategy, anchored to
continuity of learning during school closures. the curriculum.
For example in Bangladesh, for school-age
children in the poorest wealth quintile, less than 2.2. Establish a one-stop portal with key
6 per cent have a television but over 92 per resources and guidance
cent have a mobile phone in their household.4
Across countries, the penetration rate of mobile It is useful to have a single, regularly updated,
phones is consistently high, even in the poorest national (government) portal or website that
UNICEF has analysed technology reach for 127 countries based mainly on household survey data; another source for Internet/
social media reach is
Bangladesh MICS6, 2019
11. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
provides comprehensive one-stop guidance Consider also establishing a virtual support
and information on the COVID-19 education helpdesk (call centre) to complement the
response, as well as subnational websites portal where users (students/teachers/
if relevant. It may include guidance and caregivers) can troubleshoot any difficulties
information regarding the different learning in accessing or using these materials. In
modalities being rolled out and how to access addition, collaboration and partnerships with
them (e.g., TV and radio schedules by grade), key stakeholders (such as NGOs, EdTech
general guidance and advice for parents/ companies/start-ups and ICT ministries) are
caregivers,5 guidance and advice specific to important for the rapid development and scale
different age ranges – including young children up of remote learning modalities.6
and adolescents, training resources (such
as online digital literacy training), links to key 2.3. Encourage school leaders to take an
online resources, platforms and apps, and active role
policies and guidance on school reopening.
School leaders are a vital ingredient in terms
Rather than providing a large repository of teachers’ continued engagement with their
of resources, which can be confusing and students (see section 2.4).7 School leaders
overwhelming, provide a curated and organized need to be encouraged to take an active
list of resources in relevant languages, ideally role in determining and supporting teachers’
aligned to the curriculum and grade-wise new ways of working with distance learning
educational objectives. It should include modalities, and helping build their capacity to
educational websites and resources, which can do so (see section 2.6). School leaders play
run on low cost mobile phones, and any new a key role in quality assurance of distance
resources being developed should take the learning modalities and in monitoring their
limitations of such phones into consideration effectiveness, as well as student well-being
(see section 4). (see section 2.9).
When there are multiple learning modalities being rolled
out, it is important to integrate them within an overarching
education strategy, anchored to the curriculum.
See for example UNICEF’s COVID-19 information centre
World Bank Guidance Note: Remote Learning & COVID-19
UNESCO, TTF and ILO - Supporting teachers in back-to-school efforts. A toolkit for school leaders
12. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
It is also important for school leaders to in adapting and delivering the curriculum and
monitor teacher mental health and well-being lessons for home/distance learning, and in
– and provide support and changing strategies supporting student and parent uptake of
when needed. They are also responsible for these modalities.
contingency planning when strategies do
not work. Various methods for teachers to continue to
teach, guide and interact with their students
Furthermore, school leaders need to be during school closures are further described
aware of the additional risks faced by girls, in the following sections. It is also important
and the gender digital divide, so that they to build teachers’ capacity on technology
can effectively address this. Strategies to supported learning modalities, whether schools
address such issues include awareness are closed or open (see sections 2.6 and 2.10).
raising with teachers and parents/caregivers,
open discussions, conducting trainings, and 2.5. Engage parents and caregivers
establishing referral mechanisms (see also
section 2.7). The importance of continuity of learning needs
to be communicated to parents and caregivers,
2.4. E
 nsure teachers’ continued along with guidance on home learning modalities.
engagement with their students Firstly, it is important to raise awareness of the
learning programmes being rolled out and how to
Children and youth need continued interaction access them (e.g., which TV channels, for which
with their teachers, including guidance and grades, and at what time), for example, through
feedback on their work. Continued teacher a combination of multiple strategies, such as
involvement is important for learning continuity, phone calls by teachers, newspapers, TV and
for students to feel supported during school radio broadcasts, social media campaigns, the
closures, and to help establish a sense of above-mentioned ‘one-stop website’, or even as
routine and normality for students as well as for part of monitoring surveys (see section 2.9).
Secondly, for parental buy-in it is important to
For teachers, continued interaction with their communicate that these learning modalities are
students is equally important. Connecting with legitimate, free of charge and endorsed by the
students regularly provides a sense of routine government.
and purpose and helps them maintain their
professional identities amidst uncertainty. Thirdly, messaging can reinforce parents’/
These connections will help both students and caregivers’ role in supporting their children,
teachers to re-establish relationships, once including allowing girls and female learners to
schools reopen, and will also provide teachers access any/all forms of technology available at
a better sense of how much their students home, and provide practical guidance on how
have learnt while being away from school. It is to do so (see UNICEF’s parenting tips).8 For
also important to have teachers’ involvement example, suggest that parents/caregivers plan
13. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
a routine for their children; encourage children caregivers and children in how to effectively
to ask questions and express their feelings; if learn and engage through such modalities.
they have access to Internet, establish rules Teacher training can be done remotely
and be aware of risks to children’s safety, through video conferencing or through an
protection and privacy; and stay connected online platform, provided teachers have a
with their children’s school and teachers. suitable mobile and are provided with Internet
It should be taken into consideration that many
children are first generation learners, whose During times when schools are open,
parents did not complete their own education teachers can prepare their students for
and may be illiterate. Written guidance may potential future closures through practical
therefore not always be helpful. Many families sessions involving various distance learning
will also have minimal resources to work with. modalities. For example, for a radio
When resources are required for learning programme, teachers could explain how to
activities, they should focus on those that are tune into the right radio station, provide a
widely available – like stones, sticks, common radio schedule of educational programmes,
cooking ingredients (e.g., rice) – or are non- and provide exercises linked to the radio
specific (e.g., “find triangle-shaped objects”). programming to be completed at home. Note
that children are often more tech savvy than
2.6. B
 uild the capacity of teachers, their parents (and adults in general, including
parents/caregivers and children their teachers!), so parents may learn from
their children and vice versa.
Distance learning modalities are new and
often unfamiliar approaches for students, One of the greatest supports that can be
parents/caregivers and teachers, so they given to parents/caregivers is to prepare both
need to be supported. Teachers require teachers and their students to work with
training aligned with the learning modalities distance learning modalities. This includes
they are engaged in. Even the use of familiar providing a strong structure and routine, as
technology – mobile phones and SMS – well as designing and organizing activities
requires training: not necessarily in the use and interactions to support students to work
of the technology, but in the pedagogy of with relative independence as is appropriate
teaching through these methods. for their age. Facilitating home schooling
for parents and caregivers will help them
Teachers trained in these new learning manage all their other commitments, such as
modalities can better support parents/ household and work.
See 5 tips to keep children learning during COVID-19 and Coronavirus (COVID-19) parenting tips
14. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
2.7. Develop and implement strategies to pregnancy. Being confined at home also has
reach the most vulnerable children in psychosocial impacts and can increase the risk
times of school closures of violence including gender-based violence,
which disproportionately affected women and
The most marginalized children – including girls during the Ebola epidemic.
those with disabilities, struggling learners,
poor children, children from ethnic minorities, Many households are also confined to a small
children on the move (migrant, refugee space, which not only makes it difficult to
and internally displaced children), children learn (due to lack of space and a quiet space
in the most rural hard-to-reach and poorest to study), but also compounds stress and
communities, and girls tasked with significant anxiety and the risk of domestic violence.
household responsibilities (such as caring for During lockdowns and school closures, efforts
siblings or ill family members) – are least likely should therefore be made to establish referral
to be able to access and benefit from distance mechanisms as well as psychosocial support
learning opportunities.9 services, for example through helplines. In
addition, distance learning should include social
Approaches to reach the most marginalized and emotional learning activities.
children include rolling out low- and no-tech
learning modalities, translating and adapting Teachers can also play an important role, if
materials to a diverse set of mother tongues, they are trained in child abuse identification
closed captions and live signing interpretation and intervention. The continued engagement
in video/television lessons for children with of teachers with their students (see section
hearing impairments, and ensuring materials 2.4) is especially important for the most
are culturally appropriate and do not reinforce marginalized girls and boys, as they can play
negative gender stereotypes. Communication, an important supporting role in times of
sensitization and media campaigns on the need; moreover, they can also encourage and
value of girls’ education can be effective help ensure children’s return to school once
to encourage communities and families to schools reopen.
support girls’ participation, and for this, it is
important to work with women’s organizations 2.8. Explore ways to provide free
and community leaders.10 Internet access
The economic impact of COVID-19 has hit Consider working with Mobile Network
the poorer families harder, putting vulnerable Operators for free online access to key
women and girls at greater risk of child educational websites, platforms and
marriage, sexual exploitation and abuse, and applications, including the Internet of Good
See All Means All – How to support learning for the most vulnerable children in areas of school closures
See also Brookings & UNICEF – 5 actions to help bring the most marginalized girls back to school after COVID-19
15. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
Things website, which provides educational The quality and effectiveness of distance
and lifesaving information across a range learning modalities can also be improved
of topics. based on feedback from the key stakeholders:
learners, parents/caregivers and teachers.
Another option is to establish free Wi-Fi Surveys may inquire about their perceptions,
hotspots, for example in urban slums and preferences and level of engagement with
refugee camps, as well as boosting and different learning modalities. During the
providing free access to existing Wi-Fi COVID-19 pandemic, typical survey methods
hotspots in schools to cover surrounding that avoid face-to-face contact are phone
areas.11 Wi-Fi hotspots should consider the surveys, IVR (Interactive Voice Response)
limitation of signal radius as well as maximum surveys and SMS-based surveys.13 Online
number of users that can connect before surveys, while inexpensive, can only reach the
network performance degrades. Restricting online population and are hence not generally
Internet access to key websites/resources can recommended except when complemented by
prevent overstretching of network capacity as other survey methods with better reach among
well as help ensure children’s online safety the less advantaged, offline population.
and ensure they are not accessing age-
inappropriate content.12 In addition to national or subnational monitoring
of the reach and effectiveness of continuity
of learning modalities, there is also a need for
2.9. M
 onitor reach and effectiveness
school and classroom-level monitoring of
of distance learning modalities and student learning and well-being. It is the role
learning progress of school leaders to monitor this at the school
level, and for teachers to monitor their students.
Monitoring is important to determine and
improve the reach and effectiveness of In a classroom environment, teachers are
distance learning modalities. Prolonged school normally expected to monitor children’s
closures have long-term implications and affect learning progress, whether it is on track and to
some population groups more than others, identify strengths and weaknesses. Teachers
especially those without access to technology. do so through a process called formative
Monitoring is required to determine which assessment, and its main purpose is to enable
population groups and areas of the country teachers to make informed decisions about
learning modalities are not reaching. This how to best support their students’ learning.
information can be used to develop plans and It is also important for motivating students by
strategies to improve reach. providing feedback on their learning progress.
UNHCR - Considerations and options for connected education: COVID-19 response; see also Giga, launched by
UNICEF and ITU (International Telecommunication Union) in September 2019 with the aim of connecting every
school to the Internet.
See also UNICEF - 5 ways you can help keep your children safe online
See also Using SMS- and IVR-based surveys during COVID-19
16. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
Formative assessment can take many forms enhance digital literacy and blended learning
– such as observations and questioning, skills for teachers and learners alike.
in addition to more formal quizzes or
assessments – but possibilities are more COVID-19 has led to a global widening of gaps
limited in an online learning environment, and between those with opportunities to learn,
extremely limited when the only option for in particular those who could access online
interaction is through basic mobile phones (see lessons and resources and had continued
section 4). At the same time, it is of critical engagements with their teachers, and those
importance especially during school closures with few or even no opportunities to learn
to have a well-planned routine formative during school closures.
assessment or monitoring component, for
teachers to continue to monitor and support The unprecedented roll out of distance learning
their students during these difficult times.14 approaches combined with innovations in this
When schools reopen, it will be important space provide an opportunity for countries to
for teachers to identify learning gaps and transform how they reach out-of-school girls
address them through accelerated learning and boys,16 as well as for blended learning to
and remedial education strategies, especially improve the quality of education, especially
for vulnerable groups who are at higher risk of for the most disadvantaged. Blended learning
having fallen behind.15 is an approach that combines face-to-face
interactions between students and teachers
2.10. C
 ontinue distance learning m at school, with technology-supported learning
odalities when schools reopen opportunities at home and/or
at school.17
Distance learning modalities ideally continue
to run even when schools reopen. This is When opting for technology-supported learning
important for four reasons: (i) to provide solutions, consider in particu lar (i) equity
learning opportunities to children and youth issues, including potential barriers to uptake
who will remain out of school, even when by disadvantaged children and youth and how
schools have reopened, (ii) to complement to address them, (ii) cost-effective scale up
teaching at school with support for learning and long-term sustainability, and (iii) value
at home (e.g., through radio, TV and mobile added over business-as-usual approaches,
learning programmes), (iii) for planning and for example, how it can reduce learning gaps
preparedness in the eventuality of future between less advantaged children and their
school closures, and (iv) to maintain and more advantaged peers.
See also World Bank - Are students still learning during COVID-19? Formative assessment can provide the answer
UNESCO, TTF and ILO - Supporting teachers in back-to-school efforts. A toolkit for school leaders
Brookings & UNICEF – 5 actions to help bring the most marginalized girls back to school after COVID-19
Blended learning typically refers to the use of traditional classroom learning combined with online learning; however, in
the context of South Asia, where online learning is still out of reach for the majority of children and youth, it is referred to
in this guidance note as face-to-face combined with technology-supported learning.
17. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
s described in section 2.1, both self- Explanatory video or audio clips can
learning and teacher-guided modalities be linked to specific exercises (for
are important and can complement example, a video on fractions followed by
each other. During school closures, it is corresponding exercises), and especially
important for teachers to continue to guide for the early grades, should be quite short
their students, to monitor their learning and to hold learners’ attention.
provide feedback, to encourage, and to inquire
about their well-being and progress. They play • Some platforms – in particular virtual
an important role in supporting their students classrooms – also support several types
not just with their learning, but also emotionally of two-way communication between
during challenging times. teachers and students, for example,
video conferencing, recorded audio and
A key advantage of an online learning platform
is that self-learning and teacher-guided
modalities can be combined within the same
© UNICEF ROSA/2015/Nybo
• For self-learning (supported by parents/
caregivers), the platform may provide
various options and activities for learners
to study, such as video and audio clips,
reading materials, assignments, puzzles,
educational games and quizzes.18
See also The Learning Passport: a self-learning platform that can run offline and on mobile phones, which is a
collaboration between UNICEF, Microsoft and The University of Cambridge. UNICEF and Generation Unlimited are
also planning an ambitious initiative – called Learning Unlimited – to connect learners globally to high quality online
18. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
video, typed responses, and submitted facilitator to elicit responses from listeners.
photos of student work (e.g., drawings, In the context of school closures, parents
writings and comic strips). Due to such and caregivers can be encouraged to watch
flexibility and potential for a high level of the programmes as well, and potentially
interaction and teacher feedback, online facilitate and make the activity interactive.
platforms can be quite effective, with This requires that the instructions for doing so
approaches to suit different student needs are clear, simple and in a language they can
and preferences, according to different understand. These kinds of learning modalities
ages (e.g. voice recording for younger ages, could continue to be run once schools reopen,
typed responses for older ages), as well as for example outside of school hours, and at
possible adaptations and technologies for times convenient for children or youth who have
children with disabilities. dropped out from school and may work during
the day.
What are the possibilities for effective
learning with low or no-tech modalities, and Another way of adding interactivity to TV and
combining self-learning with teacher-guided radio is through use of mobile phones. An
approaches? Unfortunately, while there are example is the ‘Shaale – Baharchi – Shaala’
creative solutions, there is no doubt a large gap initiative by the Maharashtra state government
in what low- and no-tech modalities can offer in India, which first introduced a topic through
compared to high-tech and online modalities. a radio programme, and followed-up with SMS/
However, for self-learning, well-designed WhatsApp messages linked to the session to
TV and radio programming can be quite registered parents’ phones.20
effective.19 It is important that they cover not
just traditional subjects but also, for example, RapidPro and IVR are also ways of introducing
guidance for parents, student mental health interactivity through mobile phones.
and well-being, arts and music. RapidPro21 – an open source messaging
and communication system widely used by
TV and radio can also introduce an element UNICEF – allows for the creation of SMS-based
of interactivity. When interactive, they are interactions, surveys or chatbots. It can provide
referred to as ‘interactive TV’ and ‘interactive multiple-choice options (pathways) to navigate
radio’. Radio and TV can be made interactive through, for example, learning materials
by introducing pauses, and ideally, having a organized by grade and topic. Similarly, IVR can
See the Guidance on radio/TV programming during COVID-19; and coming soon, the UNICEF ROSA Guidance and
Reviewing Matrix for Optimizing the Effectiveness of Video and TV lessons
India Development Review (IDR) - Connecting the disconnected
19. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
provide the same kinds of options or pathways, SMS – though some possibilities are explored
but using voice, through an automated in section 4. But the importance of emotional
telephone system. support and encouragement should not be
discounted. Teachers may feel that their role
Teacher-guided modalities are certainly and influence in these areas is more achievable
challenging in the absence of high-tech when the only means of communication
solutions. Teaching and monitoring learning with their students is through such low-tech
can be difficult when limited to phone calls and modalities.
For self-learning, well-designed TV and radio programming
can be quite effective. It is important that they cover not
just traditional subjects but also, for example, guidance for
parents, student mental health and well-being, arts and music.
20. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
basic mobile phone (or feature phone) is This is an important issue to address in
by far the most common technology a communication, sensitization and media
household has access to. For example, campaigns reaching parents/caregivers
in Afghanistan, a country with one of the and other key stakeholders (see also
lowest Internet penetration rates globally, 94 section 2.7).
per cent of households in urban areas and 85
per cent in rural areas own a mobile phone.22 Low-cost mobile phones have very small, low-
resolution, non-touch screens, which make
These sections cover the key challenges to it much more difficult to engage and interact
consider for learning through mobile phones, with educational content, if not impossible
followed by potential solutions to leverage its (see box Key Features and Constraints of
high level of reach vis-à-vis other technologies. Inexpensive Feature Phones). This is an
important design consideration for websites/
4.1. C
 hallenges and constraints apps/learning platforms. For example, if
when learning through basic there is a government information portal,
mobile phones how readable and accessible is the website
on a mobile with a 1.8-inch screen? Website
There are a number of key challenges and accessibility for children with disabilities is
constraints, which need to be considered for another important consideration, and there are
any strategy around the use of mobile phones special apps and educational games designed
for learning. for children with disabilities (see section 4.2);
• Girls, especially adolescent girls, are much however, these apps and games will generally
less likely to have access to a mobile.23 not run on basic feature phones.
Based on data from the Afghanistan Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) 2015; the actual rate may now be higher.
See Societal prejudice restricts girls’ access to mobile
21. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
• For basic phones with small screens • Mobile phones often need to be shared
and no Internet connectivity, what can between parents/guardians and multiple
be communicated via SMS is extremely children. Therefore, when developing
limited. However, there are innovative lesson plans/activities, ensure (most)
ways to work within such constraints, as activities can be done offline and offscreen.
detailed in section 4.2. This minimizes screen time and facilitates
Key Features and Constraints of Inexpensive Feature Phones
Common features of inexpensive mobile phones (basic feature phones)
• 1.8 to 2.8-inch screen size • FM radio connection
• SMS & calling • Bluetooth
• Camera (though usually no front • Internet (2G, 3G or 4G) – usually no
facing camera) Wi-Fi connectivity
• Video playback • Applications such as e-mail, text
• Audio for music/ audio course delivery editors, calculator
Features many inexpensive mobile phones do not have that are important for
distance learning
• Audio messaging (sending voice notes, audio playback)
• Video calling
• Language translation
• Support for installing apps/educational games (most apps will not function on basic
feature phones, only those specifically designed to run on such phones)
• Touch screen (especially useful for younger learners, children/youth with disabilities)
• Storage space (which is generally extremely limited on basic feature phones)
• Voice commands and other usability features useful for children/youth with disabilities
Note: The common features of low-cost phones are based on a review of US$10–20 phones in
India and Nepal. In some countries, the cost will be higher, depending on the availability of low-cost
models and due to variations in pricing. Not all phones in the US$10–20 price range could go online.
The minimum cost of mobile phones that have the second list of features (such as the ability to
install apps, touch screen, larger screen size and more storage space) starts at around US$40.
22. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
sharing of one device across multiple assignments and provide feedback through calls
family members. If there is Internet and SMS, while considering the constraints of
connectivity, completed assignments can what can be effectively communicated through
also be shared with teachers as a photo. these methods.
Teachers can also use these options to provide
4.2. O
 pportunities for learning through guidance to students, inquire about and
basic mobile phones monitor their learning progress and well-being,
and encourage and lend support during the
In spite of all the constraints and challenges challenging time of COVID-19.
outlined in section 4.1, basic mobile phones
do have great potential for learning. In SMS
general, the potential of mobile phones has
been underexplored and underutilized during SMS enables two-way communication
the COVID-19 crisis (with some notable between teachers and parents/caregivers/
exceptions), given the fact that they have by far students. In addition, SMS allows for the
the highest reach and are often the only way sharing of guidance and learning activities
of reaching disadvantaged children and youth from any source. A key constraint is the
without access to Internet, television or radio. 160-character limit and the cost per SMS.
Radio lessons Pratham Education Foundation in India
launched a daily engagement activity during
In some countries such as Bangladesh, radio COVID-19, which sends curated SMS for
penetration rates are quite low (less than 10 hands-on learning activities covering different
per cent of households), having been overtaken subjects.24 This initiative started before the
in popularity by television and of course mobile COVID-19 lockdown, and took an innovative
phones. In the absence of an actual radio, turn during the lockdown to reaching children
many basic mobile phones can be used to through Pratham’s existing networks of
listen to FM radio. Communication campaigns volunteers, community members and teachers.
could include awareness-raising of the use of
mobile phones to tune into radio programming. Pratham team members (known to children,
families, and communities) kept regular two-
Teacher-student interactions way communications going throughout the
lockdown period via phone calls, to follow-up to
Teachers and students can interact through activities shared via SMS. It was this two-way
phone calls and SMS. There are creative ways for communication that kept engagement high.
teachers to provide assignments, for students to Learning activities were shared via SMS from
submit assignments, and for teachers to grade the central level to district or block leaders, who
See Pratham – connecting with children during COVID-19
23. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
shared it with a wider network of Pratham field A database of learning activities was created
team members, and onwards to a large number working within the constraints of the SMS
of volunteers who then shared the activities character limit, as shown in these examples (a
with their contacts and directly with children. word game and a mathematics game):
A word game sent via SMS Math SMS activity
,d [ksy [ksfy,A ?kj esa dqy 5 yksx FksA
;s [ksy 30 feuV dk gksxkA gj ,d us 3 ijkBs [kk,A
?kj ds lc yksx [ksy ldrs gSaA fQj 4 ijkBs ekSlh dks Hkst fn,A
,d 'kCn cukb;s tSls dh ?kjA vHkh 6 ijkBs cps gSaA
vc vxyk 'kCn j ls 'kq: gksxk tSls jsyA crk,a] vkt dqy fdrus ijkBs cuk, Fks\
vxyk 'kCn y ls gksxkA
[ksyrs jfg,A
Here is amessage
30 minute game. Everyone at home can There are 5 people at home. Each person eats 3
play. Make a word like home. Next word must start Parathas. Then we sent 4 parathas to aunt. Now we
with “e”. Example elephant. Now make a word with have 6 Parathas left. How many total parathas were
“t” and so on. made today ?
IVR/toll-free audio lessons to navigate through SMS-based guidance
or learning materials. It can also be used to
Mobile phones can be used to dial a toll-free create interactive quizzes and even chatbots,
telephone number to access audio lessons. This i.e., enabling a chat-like conversation through
could be done through an IVR system, which SMS, with the system capable of interpreting
enables navigation through various lessons or (simple) questions and providing relevant
guidance materials using voice, ideally in multiple responses to those questions.
languages if relevant to the country context.25
Educational apps and games for feature phones
Certain apps such as Ustad Mobile and World
As mentioned in section 3, RapidPro allows Reader digital books are specifically designed
for the development of interactive SMS to run on low-cost feature phones. However,
applications, providing multiple-choice options not all low-cost mobile phones support such
See for example the discontinued BBC Janala service, which unlocked access to English language learning for
millions of people in Bangladesh
24. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
apps. The cost of a mobile phone that can Some education apps and games are less
install and run a much broader range of apps dependent on literacy in a specific language
keeps decreasing, which is an encouraging trend. because they have a highly visual interface
with minimal (or even no) text.27 However,
Multilingual educational apps and games such apps and games are generally limited to
specific areas of learning, such as puzzles and
It is important for educational apps or games maths exercises or games.
to be available in the relevant language(s).
For example, Google Read Along, which uses Apps and games for children with disabilities
speech recognition technology to develop and special needs
literacy skills, is available in nine languages
including Bangla, Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu There are many apps and games designed
and Urdu, as of May 2020. The Pratham Digital specifically for individuals with special needs
app (PraDigi) has digital content in 11 regional and various impairments, such as for hearing,
languages: Assamese, Bangla, Gujarati, Hindi, vision and speaking impairments, and for
Kannada, Marathi, Odiya, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu children on the autism spectrum.28
and Urdu.26
The potential of mobile phones has been underexplored and
underutilized during the COVID-19 crisis, given the fact that
they have by far the highest reach and are often the only way
of reaching disadvantaged children and youth without access
to Internet, television or radio.
See also Pratham Open School
Investigating the effects of unsupervised computer use on educationally disadvantaged children's knowledge and
understanding of computers
See also UNICEF and WHO - Assistive Technology for Children with Disabilities: Creating Opportunities for Education,
Inclusion and Participation
25. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
rinted learning kits distributed during are less likely to be literate, with a large
school closures may include books, proportion of disadvantaged children not
worksheets, guidance notes (for attaining basic literacy even by the end of
parents/caregivers and learners), activity primary education. Paper-based learning kits
booklets, notebooks as well as stationery29
(e.g., pens, colouring pencils, ruler).30 They
are especially important for reaching children
and youth with no access to technology
at all. Moreover, unlike technology-based
learning solutions, well-designed paper-based
materials are in a format most children will Paper-based learning kits need
be familiar and comfortable with. For these
to be carefully designed, age
reasons, many countries included paper-
based approaches as part of their COVID-19 appropriate and consider that
education response strategy (often supported many children who stand to
by UNICEF), despite the challenge of rapidly
designing and producing learning kits and
benefit the most (with limited or
delivering them during lockdowns. no access to technology) may
have little or no parental support.
Unfortunately, those same children who lack
access to technology are also more likely to
have illiterate parents, and they themselves
Stationery is especially important for the poorest families, but should also be a consideration for all families if shops are
closed and supplies may be difficult to obtain.
See also Keeping children learning during the COVID-19 pandemic – PRINTED/PAPER-BASED MATERIALS and the
Adolescent Kit – a package of guidance, tools, activities and supplies to support adolescents aged 10–18
26. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
therefore need to be carefully designed, age may be contacted in batches to pick them
appropriate and consider that many children up at set times.
who stand to benefit the most (with limited or
no access to technology) may have little or no (ii) Delivery of the learning materials to
parental support. For non-readers or readers children’s homes by community teachers.
with low literacy levels, highly visual materials
are important. For visually impaired children and As with other self-learning modalities, the
youth, printed materials need to be in Braille. use of printed learning materials needs to
be part of a broader learning strategy that
Distribution during a lockdown is a challenge, incorporates teacher-guided approaches, as
but creative ways have been found to do so, well as guidance to parents/caregivers on how
such as: to effectively support children in using the
(i) Distribution through designated access materials.
points at schools, where parents/caregivers
© UNICEF/UN08408/Lynch
27. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
28. Guidance on Distance Learning Modalities
For futher information
UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia
All rights reserved
© United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Regional Office for South Asia
May 2020