4 innovative solutions to deliver on education amid Ebola crisis

A text message sent to inform the public about Ebola in Guinea. Mobile phones are an excellent tool for delivering lessons remotely. Photo by: UNICEF Guinea / CC BY-NC

When government officials in Ebola-hit Sierra Leone and Liberia ordered schools to close over the summer to prevent the spread of the deadly virus, they probably didn’t expect the shutdown would last so long.

Ebola is transmitted through bodily contact, making children crowded onto classroom benches a high-risk situation. Months later, children of all ages are still confined to their homes and missing out on vital education.

As infection rates continued to rise — more than 9,191 across the most-affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, according to World Health Organization statistics available in mid-October — education ministries and nongovernmental organizations considered other ways to deliver education in an such a challenging environment.

Here are our top four innovations to delivering non-contact classes:

1. Radio broadcasts.

In October, UNICEF and Sierra Leone's Ministry of Education, Science and Technology launched radio teaching programs for primary and secondary school children broadcast across a network of 41 radio stations to reach some 1.7 million children. On the shows, teachers deliver lessons on English, mathematics, life skills and hygiene — particularly hand-washing and other Ebola precautions.

UNICEF has worked with the Liberian Ministry of Education to launch a similar set of programs. According to the U.N. agency's Liberia spokesperson Laurent Duvillier, it’s important the shows are engaging.

“We don’t want something where it’s just one person reading,” he told Devex. “The problem is then the next day the children won’t listen.”

UNICEF is considering how to make the programs interactive, and Duvillier explained mobile phones could play a part. “You could have some multiple-choice questions and children can respond through their mobile phones,” he suggested.

Other international NGOs have also been preparing educational radio material. In London, the U.K. Sierra Leone Diaspora Ebola Task Force has worked with Sierra Leone-based nonprofit EducAid to produce recorded material for the Basic Education Certificate Examination, the West African Senior School Certificate Examination and primary curriculum. It has also considered older learners who may profit from math and reading skills. The task force recently signed an agreement to broadcast an essential learning module created by the African Virtual School.

“We’re going to have them broadcast weekly on national radio — there are podcasts and also videos all ready to go,” Khadijatu Mansaray, task force member and founder of Fondiata Global Media, told Devex.

The project was delayed as of mid-October, however, as the Sierra Leonean government approved the material. “It’s a question of time and bureaucracy, but eventually it will be disseminated,” she said.

2. Mobile phones.

Both Mansaray and Duvillier suggested mobile technology could be an excellent tool for delivering lessons remotely. With mobile phones widely owned by both parents and children in West Africa, Mansaray said they could download MP3s of lessons or educational content via applications such as WhatsApp.

Duvillier said mobile phones could support the dissemination via radio, as many people in Liberia and Sierra Leone do not own smartphones or other digital enabled devices, but do have radio receivers on their mobiles. UNICEF is discussing the idea with mobile phone providers, and wants them to create media platforms that help children access radio via phones.

“The private sector can play an active role,” he explained. “It’s time the private sector sees it has a responsibility here — Ebola is affecting its customers. It wouldn’t cost a lot of money, it would just be a case of making the platforms available for an organization like UNICEF so that we are able to tap into those resources.”

3. Solar-powered tablets.

Mansaray has already reached out to manufacturers that could produce a low-cost, solar-powered tablet pre-loaded with educational content and distributed to children across Sierra Leone. Her idea follows a similar launch in September in Ivory Coast, where the Ivorian government provided 5,000 public school students with tablets made by Qelasy, the same firm that created Africa’s first educational tablet.

The tablet could be powered by solar panels on the device itself, or by a stand-alone solar panel powering a battery which charges the device. “This has the advantage that the battery could be used for other items such as to charge phones or create light,” she said.

Mansaray is also hunting for an investor. “Because of the urgency of the situation, we could look into crowdfunding,” she suggested. “Or coming up to Christmas we could ask people to buy a tablet for kids affected by Ebola. It could be a CSR project for a company in the U.K. or anywhere else.”

4. House-to-house dissemination of materials.

By far the most resource-intensive solution, Mansaray and Duvillier agreed that handing out books and worksheets to every child to provide them with home-learning materials would be challenging.

“We cannot just distribute books and not give guidance,” said Duvillier. “We will look at how we can build on the radio program and perhaps if they need materials we can look at the possibility to add to that.”

However, he suggested this approach could be added to house-to-house campaigns already underway in Sierra Leone. In September, the local government imposed a three-day lockdown that saw people kept behind closed doors and visited by teams of volunteers who explained Ebola precautions.

“Why not combine it with some education activity?” Duvillier asked.

In Liberia, the charity More Than Me took a homework approach when it was forced to close its school for disadvantaged girls in July by handed out education packs to 124 students to complete at home.

“We wanted to educate them about Ebola and how to stay safe and to keep them busy by staying home rather than going outside, which could be dangerous,” said the organization’s spokesperson Emily Bell. “The packs contained coloring books for the younger girls and alphabet worksheets, math and reading worksheets for the older girls, and lots of Ebola awareness informational pages.”

Bell explained subsequent monitoring visits to the girls’ homes revealed they had finished the work sheets in just a few days. “We heard feedback that they loved the worksheets and wanted more to do,” she said. However, since large gatherings are forbidden in the country, the charity has been unable to hand out more packages. Bell says such an approach would be hard to scale and, at the moment, is simply not a priority for many previously education-focused organizations.

“All partners on the ground are just doing what they can to get Ebola out of Liberia as soon as possible,” she said.

Are you working for an organization with experience of delivering non-contact education, or have other innovative ideas for educating children in Ebola-affected West Africa? Send an email to news@devex.com or comment below.

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About the author

  • Gabriella jozwiak profile

    Gabriella Jóźwiak

    Gabriella Jóźwiak is an award-winning journalist based in London. Her work on issues and policies affecting children and young people in developing countries and the U.K. has been published in national newspapers and magazines. Having worked in-house for domestic and international development charities, Jóźwiak has a keen interest in organizational development, and has worked as a journalist in several countries across West Africa and South America.

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