In Sierra Leone, the radio teaching program is helping children receive education during and after the outbreak.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, my new role as the Minister of Education of Sierra Leone was only a few months away. At the height of the crisis, as many as 1.6 billion children worldwide found themselves unable to attend school in person. Many countries are caught off guard, trying to find a way to keep children at home with their education. However, in Sierra Leone, we are prepared for school closures caused by such epidemics. The interactive radio teaching program that we established during the 2014-16 Ebola crisis means that we are ready to provide distance education to millions of students.
During the Ebola outbreak, the students did not go to school for most of the nine months. That was a few years before the Zoom phone and the school’s online learning platform. In addition, very few families in Sierra Leone have access to Internet technology. It was decided that radio programming would be the most effective way of teaching because it is cost-effective, fascinating and easy to adapt to the local language.
Using funds from the Global Education Partnership, 80,000 portable radios were distributed to learners in 2014. The best teachers were selected to present fascinating courses to 1.8 million learners. It works well. After the Ebola crisis ended, the radio teaching program ended, but the Ministry of Education kept the education radio station alive.
When COVID-19 becomes a new threat to face-to-face teaching, we know that we can rely on radio programs to teach and prevent students from falling behind in their education. We retrained teachers and adjusted the curriculum, so in March 2020, when Sierra Leone recorded its first COVID-19 case and schools closed, we were ready to start distance learning. The children in Sierra Leone listened to classes on the radio from March 2020 to September 2020, and then they began to return to school for face-to-face learning (students who took the exam returned in early July).
Since I became the Minister, we have formulated and started implementing a new radical and inclusive policy to ensure that every child in the country has access to a quality education-especially those who are traditionally excluded from mainstream schools. Last year, the Institute for Governance Reform and Oxfam Sierra Leone conducted a nationwide survey to identify defects in the education system. The data they collected showed that certain rural areas (such as Pujehun and Falaba) were unable to obtain radio teaching programs due to the lack of continuous FM radio transmitter coverage and limited receiver availability. Disappointingly, not all students were helped.
We approached GRID3, a project focused on georeferencing infrastructure and demographic data to use geospatial modeling to map the location of radio transmitters and the objects they reach. Analysis published this month indicates that about one-third of school-age children may not be able to receive broadcasts under current programs.
In order to expand coverage and cover most (if not all) children, additional radio transmitters need to be added to the plan. In areas where there are no transmitters, they must be installed. The optimized algorithm designed by Flowminder’s GRID3 team was deployed to provide data-led guidance on where these transmitters should be built-providing us with the data we need to ensure that no children are left behind.
There is no doubt that the pandemic has made our education system more difficult. But it also provides us with an opportunity to think about how to do things in a different way and more fairly. Why can’t we use radio programs to continue teaching the most disadvantaged students—those who cannot attend classes in person and those who are lagging behind?
Despite Sierra Leone’s progress, the poorest children still struggle to attend school due to cross-cutting disadvantages such as poverty, social norms and stigma. Poor rural girls are particularly disadvantaged, most of whom cannot complete a year of secondary education.
The exciting news is that we can reach more children. GRID3’s analysis shows that adding 14 alternative transmitters to the program will expand the coverage of 90% of children in the country. Building three more launchers will allow us to cover 96% of children, an estimated 2.8 million children in total. In addition to the other two transmitters purchased by NGO partners, the Ministry has pledged to purchase the first set of three radio transmitters through a GPE COVID-19 grant to Sierra Leone. This means that we are very close to achieving universal primary and secondary education in Sierra Leone.
There is no doubt that COVID-19 has disrupted the education system. The learning gap between the richest and poorest students is facing serious risks of widening. But the pandemic has also prompted the government to innovate to reduce learning losses. We have unprecedented opportunities to use the power of technology and data analysis to build a more inclusive and fair education system. The ability to reach the most disadvantaged students through geospatial data innovation can be transformative. Technology is not an end in itself, but it can help us find the solution urgently needed to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 4: to ensure that all people are provided with inclusive and fair quality education.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.