Back to basics: The case for focusing on caregivers and books during COVID-19

Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Teaching and Learning

This article is part of a collection of blog posts related to the education in emergencies response to COVID-19.

In crisis contexts now impacted by COVID-19, we need trained caregivers and books, not new technology.

Photo credit: UNICEF

Literature on the impact of edtech (education technology) and e-learning (the use of technology for learning outside of the traditional classroom setting) on learning outcomes after decades of investment remains mixed; most edtech unfortunately has proven to be unsuccessful

As Edtech (based on existing published literature) has been primarily used as supplementary rather than primary support for (mostly) adult learners, the discussion of whether e-learning has “worked” is not as relevant for young learners (typically primary and lower secondary learners) in an EiE setting. For this group, two things will likely impact potential learning more than technology: 1) whether or not they have access to structured, simple print learning materials, and 2) how much we prepare caregivers. Therefore, there should not be an overemphasis on multimedia and technology and an over-investment in it - especially as only a small fraction of humanitarian funding typically goes towards EiE programming. This conclusion is based on work in three crisis-affected populations: Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, and internally displaced and impacted Syrians and Yemenis as a result of ongoing humanitarian crises in these two countries.

What education stakeholders need to do (and not do) now

During this difficult time, education stakeholders in crisis settings should focus on the two aforementioned areas: 1) supplying quality (print) learning materials, such as books, and 2) supporting caregivers who will be expected to facilitate children’s learning. We should avoid introducing new, untested technology and new e-learning methods at this time. 

Internet connectivity has increased globally, and crisis-affected families typically do have at least one smartphone per household, with access increasing in Lebanon, Jordan, and Yemen in recent years. While the scene has been set for technology to be more influential, including investment and interest, exclusively “educational” technology has failed to make a strong impression. While interviewing education stakeholders in Yemen, Bangladesh, and Syria responses, none could suggest any familiar edtech platforms which could serve useful for learning at this time (April 2020). During this chaotic and uncertain time, burnt out, crisis-affected communities need simple and familiar, not new, potentially unsuccessful edtech piloting.

It is worth noting that there has been some success with simple, familiar technology used to supplement learning interventions in EIE contexts even if not used directly to deliver content. This includes WhatsApp, Facebook, and YouTube. Facebook has been used to survey caregivers and gather community perceptions and needs, Whatsapp is critical to circulating information widely and in a simple way to both young and older generations. Youtube, of course, has educational programming in several languages.

Distribute print learning materials

As teachers cannot (and should not) be asked to risk their health by traveling to visit students in already-crowded households, caregivers will be expected to support students. They will need students’ materials, such as storybooks and textbooks, to do so. Unfortunately, in some schools, books are either scarce altogether or student-to-book ratios are high, and children do not have their own books. The benefits of access to individual learning materials, such as those accessible at home, are countless; having your own books positively impacts learning outcomes in various subjects, but especially reading outcomes at the early stage. Learners were also found to absorb more when they read books from print rather than screens. Last, but certainly not least, books have also been found to boost positive psychosocial outcomes for children.

As storybooks may be less problematic than official national curricula, distributions can and should be pursued as soon as possible. Meanwhile, stronger efforts need to be made between education donors and education authorities to address shortages and avoid politicized distributions of books. If not, children may continue to report to schools without textbooks. If textbooks are still absent, there are some existing learning materials aligned with national curricula, such as the Self-Learning Program (SLP) in Syria and Palestine, and Curriculum B in Syria. These materials would be fit for home-based learning now, as they have been used with out-of-school children in facilities and in homes with parents prior to the most recent school closures. Familiar efforts like this would be great options to expand at this time.

Source: BRAC
Photo credit: BRAC

Increase support for caregivers

Facilitation matters because even if technology is to be used, it is successful mostly alongside quality facilitation. Caregivers can even make a difference through simple positive feedback, which has been found to improve learner performance.  Therefore, caregivers need to be approached and supported  facilitators of learning moving forward. Sustainable use of education in emergencies (EiE) funding should include developing  a core group of caregivers to act as facilitators at home when schools are not operating, and potentially volunteering their time to assist under-equipped teachers when schools are open. Why? Firstly, given the frequency of interruptions to schooling in EiE settings, caregivers have been and will continue to be expected to facilitate their children’s learning. Even if they have not already done so, many have a strong desire to. A mother in Northeast Syrian province of Deir Ez-Zor, victim to sporadic escalations, once shared that she wished she could just teach her children on her own, but simply does not know how to (Interview, March 2019). 

Secondly, supporting caregivers targets the community level rather than just school level. Caregivers participating in a similar training as teachers can highlight that how learning is facilitated matters, and can improve their own attitudes about learning. Beliefs and attitudes can affect achievement, and research finds that even caregivers’ attitudes about a subject area can impact their child’s achievement and interest in a subject. The more caregivers understand teaching and learning, the more they can be involved and take ownership at home.

Thirdly, a core group of trained caregivers can address skepticism of education interventions implemented by EiE actors. As they are not a monolith, displaced communities do not always agree on how education should be delivered and who is qualified to teach. Moreover, the vast majority of caregivers are not educational specialists themselves and often lack a deep understanding of teaching and learning. This lack of specialization can lead to blanket criticisms of education interventions with the blame falling on teachers, who are members of the target community themselves. This makes teachers feel unsupported, leading to demoralization and burn out. If caregivers are trained, they will see firsthand the efforts required to teach and the challenging yet ongoing process of delivering results. They will then be more constructive in finding solutions alongside teachers, and advocate for other parents to do the same. This becomes increasingly important during the chaos of COVID-19 when community resilience is critical.

In the contexts mentioned in this piece, I have seen that the educational levels of teachers and caregivers are often similar, with neither group being especially experienced with student-centered teaching methods. Regarding subject-based knowledge, crisis-affected students are often learners at the basic literacy and numeracy level, performing below grade-level and what is expected at their age. Many caregivers in the contexts mentioned typically achieve (at minimum) at the literacy levels students are underperforming in, according to data on adult literacy rates in Syria and Yemen. Support to caregivers could build on existing capacity building efforts for teachers in EiE, such as those developed by the Teachers in Crisis Contexts Collaborative (TiCC). Supporting caregivers with basic strategies for developing reading skills and completing basic mathematical operations, for example, can follow. In EiE training initiatives, subject-based knowledge is often overlooked due in part to the complexity of its provision, as it requires trainers who not only deeply understand content, but can teach it to other adults who then teach it to children. Nonetheless, the need is huge, and it cannot continue to be overlooked.


EiE interventions cannot replace education authorities or remove all barriers to learning, but boosting caregivers’ understanding in learning with basic facilitation skills can go a long way. The evidence shows us that this can be done through adequate preparation and ensuring accessibility of the basic learning materials that both caregivers and learners need. 


Author bio: Kinana Qaddour is an educator and EiE practitioner who has worked in the Whole of Syria (WoS), Rohingya, and Yemen EiE responses, including as Save the Children Education Cluster co-lead for the Rohingya and Yemen (IDP) humanitarian responses.


The views expressed in this blog are the author's own.