The Covid-19 pandemic prompted an unprecedented level of shock and disruption in education systems across the globe. On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation formally declared the spread of the virus to have reached a pandemic level (WHO, 2020). School closures were the policy measure most swiftly implemented by governments worldwide in response to the unfolding crisis (Hale et al., 2021). By the end of the month, full school closures were in place in more than 180 countries (Jordan et al., 2020; UNESCO, 2020a).
With in-person schooling suspended due to the risk of spreading the disease, attention quickly turned to how technology might be used to help support the continuation of education. While an ‘online pivot’ was characteristic of responses in many countries, particularly in high-income contexts (Vegas, 2020), discussion emerged around practical constraints of the use of educational technology (EdTech) in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) (Jordan, 2020).
In this context, EdTech Hub was well-placed to adapt to the challenges faced by education during the pandemic. EdTech Hub is a global non-profit research partnership, with an overall goal “to empower people by giving them the evidence they need to make decisions about technology in education” in LMICs (EdTech Hub, 2021). Helping to ensure that policymakers receive practical guidance on the effective use of EdTech, supported by rigorous research evidence, is a key part of the Hub’s remit. The events of March 2020 both shifted the operating context of EdTech Hub and increased the urgency of its cause.
The rapid evidence review approach
EdTech Hub rapidly responded to the unfolding crisis in education by refocusing part of its activities on Covid-19 responses (EdTech Hub, 2020a). Although the scale of the disruption to education was unprecedented, key questions emerged around how existing evidence and experiences from previous crises and periods of school closure could help to inform an effective response to the pandemic. Policymakers and education practitioners urgently required research-informed and practical guidance on topics of relevance to supporting education during school closures.
The rapid evidence review (RER) format was developed as an effective way to help address this need, and provide evidence-based guidance in a timely way. The RER format draws on guidelines published by the Cochrane Rapid Reviews Methods Group in March 2020, setting out their definition of ‘Cochrane Rapid Reviews’ (Garritty et al., 2020, p.2).
“A rapid review is a form of knowledge synthesis that accelerates the process of conducting a traditional systematic review through streamlining or omitting specific methods to produce evidence for stakeholders in a resource-efficient manner.”
This definition and guidance provided the starting point for the reviews undertaken by EdTech Hub; the methodology will be discussed in further detail in the next chapter.
The RERs produced by EdTech Hub were part of this broader trend in Covid-19 responses from the research community. Relevant evidence reviews undertaken by other organisations include reviews on remote learning (EEF, 2020), mass communication (INEE, 2020), distance education during previous emergencies (Morris & Farrell, 2020), strategies used to mitigate disruption to education during previous disease outbreaks (Hallgarten, 2020a), and accelerated education (Shah & Choo, 2020). However, significant gaps remained in relation to topics within the Hub’s particular focus on school-level education in LMICs.
To address this, eight RERs were undertaken by EdTech Hub across a period of six months in mid-2020. These focused on a range of topics that were prominent issues in relation to the continuation of education in LMICs as the Covid-19 educational crisis emerged and developed. The topics were identified in response to key issues being discussed in the wider field as the pandemic unfolded and the extent of disruption to education became apparent.
Initial questions focused on what could be learned from the experiences of previous crises, which were the starting point for reviews on education in emergencies and refugee education. Girls’ education was also selected as a focal point, as previous crises — such as Ebola — suggest that girls are more likely to be subject to a range of risks due to being out of school, and less likely to return. As education systems began to tackle the practical questions of how to reach learners at home, questions of how to use more frequently available and low-tech modalities to support learning, including broadcast media and mobile devices became urgent. This was identified as a particular concern for LMICs, where lower levels of internet connectivity precluded a shift to online learning (Dreesen et al., 2020). Relying on EdTech risked exacerbating inequality and widening digital divides. Two of the topics — personalised learning and accelerated learning — came to the fore as focus began to shift towards the uneven gaps in learning that were emerging, and towards looking ahead to returning to school.
The topics selected for reviews broadly fall within one of three categories, reflecting the need for EdTech use to consider not just technology and modalities, but also pedagogical approaches and context. This volume is structured according to the three categories:
- In Part 1, the focus is on different contexts that may have transferable insights for the pandemic context. First, education in emergencies; second, refugee education; and third, girls’ education.
- In Part 2, the two RERs that addressed different applications of EdTech — personalised learning and accelerated learning — which could be useful to help ensure that learners needs are still met from a distance, or to help ameliorate unequal gaps in learning that have developed as a result of the pandemic.
- Multimodal approaches emerged as a strategy to try to reach as many learners at home as possible (Dreesen et al., 2020) and this is reflected in Part 3, which focuses on communication media, including radio, television, and mobile-phone-based messaging.
In keeping with EdTech Hub’s goal and scope, two criteria defined the bounds for the literature searches for the evidence reviews. First, the literature discussed EdTech (broadly defined) and focused on school-age learners, teachers, or aspects of the educational system relevant to school-age learners. Note that this specifically excluded studies focusing on Higher Education (HE), unless the focus was teacher professional development (TPD). Second, studies were only included if the focus was on a low- or middle-income country (as defined by the World Bank Atlas Calculation; World Bank, 2020a); studies undertaken in high-income countries were excluded.
Once the literature associated with each of the RER topics had been identified and screened, the articles selected for inclusion were thematically analysed and the discussion within each RER was structured around the emergent themes. Although the RERs span a wide range of topics, some commonalities can be traced across the themes identified in the set of RERs. In the introductory section of each RER, the findings were concisely summarised in up to four bullet points. In order to map the common emergent themes in the RERs, the bullet point summaries were extracted, compared, and categorised into overarching themes. These relationships are illustrated in Figure 1.
Four prominent themes were identified through the categorisation shown in Figure 1: Access to education and learning; modalities, content, and pedagogies; supporting teachers and education actors; and equity and engagement with EdTech.
The theme of access to education and learning reflects the impetus for undertaking the RERs, and the relevance of the topics concerned, for supporting the continuation of educational provision during the Covid-19 pandemic. Ownership and the cost of hardware — television, radio, mobile devices — is a key consideration, and the reviews highlight that levels vary in different contexts. It is also important to recognise that access to technology is not simply an issue of owning the hardware, but also one of acknowledging local attitudes to technology and its use. The importance of community participation is particularly highlighted in the RER on education in emergencies.
This theme is also linked to the theme of equity and engagement with EdTech, as access to technology — including its mediation by gatekeepers — can risk deepening digital divides. Examples found in the RERs on messaging and girls’ education highlight that while technology use can have benefits for girls’ education, girls may be less likely to have access to technology. Personalised and accelerated learning approaches can enhance equity, through closing gaps for lower attaining students and for those who have missed out on education to a greater extent through a period of absence.
The most frequently used category in Figure 1 is modalities, content, and pedagogies. This reflects the fact that three of the RERs focused explicitly on technology and communication media — radio, television and mobile-phone-based messaging — but in each case, the technology concerned is closely linked to the ways it can be used to support education in practice. For example, the benefits of the practice of co-viewing are highlighted in the RER on television, and the RER on radio discusses how interactive radio instruction (well-established in classroom settings) can be adapted for remote use. In the RER on messaging, examples move beyond using the medium for delivery of content, to more interactive and group-based applications, and formative assessment. In relation to the RERs with a focus on particular emergency educational contexts, the types of pedagogy that can be supported through the use of EdTech — and the importance of considering context — emerged in the RERs on refugee education and education in emergencies. This theme is also related to the theme of psychosocial support and well-being, which is one of the less prominent themes in Figure 1.
The need for technology to be used to support teachers and education actors was clearly conveyed across all the RERs. The RERs on personalised learning and refugee education explicitly flag that the use of EdTech should support or enhance the role of the teacher. In emergencies, informal actors may be well-placed to take on the role of educators, and all are likely to require support in the use of technology in such situations. Technology can also be used to support the needs of teachers during periods of crisis and uncertainty, both in terms of their own professional development needs (which may include the novel use of EdTech), and their psychosocial support and well-being.
Conclusions and future work
While the main purpose of undertaking the RERs was to help inform policymakers and practitioners in relation to immediate Covid-19 responses, the topics addressed by the reviews remain relevant, both for the ongoing pandemic and beyond. Looking ahead, the work of EdTech Hub will address particular evidence gaps and thematic areas (Hennessy et al., 2021).
Building on the RERs, examples of key topics include girls’ education, personalised learning, messaging to promote participation, teacher professional development, and the use of data to strengthen education systems. The importance of girls’ education as a global challenge and research focus has been highlighted in the recent Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) five-year action plan (FCDO, 2021); the RER on girls’ education (Chapter 4) provides an invaluable overview of key findings and gaps in the existing research (Webb et al., 2020). The RER on personalised learning (Major & Francis, 2020; Chapter 6) was subsequently developed further with meta-analysis being undertaken (Major et al., 2021). Targeted instruction through low-tech channels continues to be an active area for research, following its application during the pandemic (e.g., Angrist et al., 2020a). Similarly, the pandemic has highlighted the need for messaging to promote participation in education — whether in supporting pupils and caregivers at home or to promote a return to school in due course. On this topic, the RER on messaging apps and SMS (Jordan & Mitchell, 2020; Chapter 10) provides an essential overview of previous work in LMICs on this topic. While the topics of data to strengthen education systems and teacher professional development were not directly addressed through specific RERs, both emerged as cross-cutting themes (Figure 1).
The RERs were published open-access, under Creative Commons 4.0 licenses, to promote accessibility and sharing. Each RER is reproduced as a chapter in this edited volume, which itself will be made available online, in full, through the Pressbooks platform, and simultaneously available for download as a PDF and a range of e-reader formats. In the next chapter, we take a more detailed look at the RER methodology.