Tackling Learning Gaps and the Digital Divide in Ethiopia

by Yohannes Keliku & Leah Berger

A key insight from the past couple of decades of education economics research is that, in developing countries, there is a wide range of learning levels in each classroom, attributed to many factors including teachers’ competency, parents’ educational level, and access to supplementary learning and teaching materials. Thus, standard curricula are not always suitable for the students. Pedagogical innovations that can identify individual learning levels and gaps, and then can tailor suitable teaching materials have been found to have the greatest impact on test scores.

Teachers are often unable to cater to all the learning levels within one classroom, and it is often the case that classrooms are crowded and have a large number of students, which present even more difficulties. Many schools in developing countries do not have the funds to employ teaching assistants to help with different learning levels and large class sizes, so it is usually up to one teacher to keep everyone engaged. This can lead to students who are competent and ahead being ignored as the teacher focuses on trying to catch up those who are behind. In order to ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn in class, teachers need support, and an accessible way of providing this support is through computer assisted learning.

In recognition of the challenge, Pharo Foundation embarked on a pilot project, the Benishangul-Gumuz Accelerated Education Project (BAEP). Beyond what Paro Foundation does in its own Pharo Schools, BAEP aims to improve the test scores of students in two public primary schools in Assosa town, through the introduction of structured pedagogy that combines teaching at the right level and computer-assisted learning. Ed-tech is something that has revolutionised learning across the globe as students can turn to online resources for assistance. This has enhanced the accessibility of essential learning aid for students who feel they are falling behind or need some extra help. It also gives them more control over their learning as they are able to pick the resources which they feel are truly helpful, such as visual sources like videos and pictures, audiobooks for those who prefer audible learning and extended explanations for those who want to read more about a topic. Therefore, the major components of our pilot project consist of the development and adaptation of the teaching-learning materials, establishment of computer-assisted learning centres to provide ed-tech access, training and mentoring of teachers and provision of after-school sessions.

Commenced in October 2023 the project is already making significant strides towards achieving its objectives. Teaching and learning materials for foundational literacy and numeracy have been developed, through a participatory workshop held 22-24 November in Pharo School Homosha. Education experts from the regional state and Assosa city administration education bureau, Pharo education program staff and Pharo Schools’ leadership participated in the workshop, facilitated by Teaching at The Right Level experts from Street Child UK and Africa Educational Trust. Moreover, sixteen master trainers of teaching at the right level methodology have been trained 9-17 January 2024.

The Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel 2023 report highlights which interventions are cost-effective whilst also supported by a strong body of evidence. By implementing these interventions we hope to achieve high quality affordable education across the board. Some of the interventions we have implemented are: providing access to ed-tech platforms, and quality pre-primary education as this creates a stable foundation for a child to grow their knowledge; administering mass deworming also helps a child's ability to concentrate and prevents fatigue; school snacks or meals are also important as they are huge motivators to keep children turning up to school and learning; finally, we would like to support teachers with a structured pedagogy (a package that includes structured lesson plans, learning materials, and ongoing teacher support) as well as targeted teacher instructions by learning level rather than grade.

On the computer support front, in partnership with Camara Education, two computer-assisted learning labs equipped with 25 computers each were established in both Benishangul and Assosa primary schools. Following the establishment of the centres, high-level, level, regional, and zonal officials including the mayor of Assosa City have been further briefed on ICT in education.

Through this project, we train teachers in teaching at the right level of methodology and we equip them with basic computer skills. We also ensured that all teachers could effectively manage computer-assisted learning labs (e-learning labs) so that they are used to their full potential. Through this management training and continuous mentoring and coaching support we hope that the resources and training provided will elevate the literacy levels in these schools and help them achieve better exam results.  Indeed a study looking at children in middle school in India showed that a personalised ed-tech after-school platform helped the children who used it achieve 0.37 sigma higher in maths and 0.23 sigma higher in Hindi over just a 4.5-month period,  illustrating the power of ed-tech. Over the next three years 2023-2026 the project aims to improve the foundation literacy and numeracy skills as well as Math, English and General science test scores of 4,331 students.