Struggling under lockdown, schools worldwide relearn the value of TV
By Benjamin Mueller and Mitra Taj
In a hillside shantytown of Lima, Peru, Delia Huamani’s school day starts not with the bustle of classmates, but with the flicker of a television. With physical schools closed indefinitely, she gets her lessons at home, from the country’s brand-new library of slickly made educational broadcasts.
As a substitute, it’s far from perfect. Delia, 10, says her parents cannot afford books — she misses reading about animals in the school library — and she has no one to check her work. She leans on her friend Katy Bautista, 12, who wishes she could ask the television presenters to slow down during difficult lessons.
“When we go to pick up food from the soup kitchen, we talk to each other and explain things to one another,” Delia said of Katy recently. “Or sometimes she explains things to me; I don’t explain anything. But she does, and that’s why she’s a good friend.”
Yet for all its limitations, televised schooling has one enormous advantage for Delia, Katy and many more of the 1 billion children worldwide who are shut out of schools by the coronavirus pandemic: It can reach them.
In wealthy countries, the debates over how to deliver education remotely have focused on how to make online classes engaging and interactive. But such talk is sheer fantasy for many of the world’s students, including millions in affluent nations, who do not have broadband connections or computers.
After decades of declining relevance in the face of heavy investment in internet learning, educational television is again having its moment. Educators and governments scattered around the world, desperate to avoid a long-term setback for an entire generation of children, are turning to the older technology.
And they are calling on the charm and glamour of locally known actors and news hosts, as well as teachers, to try to hold the attention of students from preschool to high school. They say they are heeding the cardinal lesson of the YouTube era — the shorter and snazzier, the better.
“Ideally, one would have, like, laptops and all these super fancy things at home,” said Raissa Fabregas, a professor of economics and public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, who has studied educational television in Mexico. “But if you don’t have them, this is better than nothing.”
While television lessons are not as valuable as online interactions with teachers and other students, experts say, educational broadcasts do pay dividends for children’s academic progress, their success in the job market and even their social development.
To make lessons less passive and more effective, many of the lessons being broadcast now use all the tools of professional studios, like eye-pleasing sets, script writers, 3D animation, multicamera shoots, graphics and even related smartphone apps.
In the United States, where education varies widely because it is handled at the local level, some places have paid little attention to developing remote learning, focused instead on an ill-fated effort to reopen schools. Others have worked hard to develop robust online programs. But that is of no use to the 4 million schoolchildren who do not have internet access at home, a difficulty especially prevalent among Black, Latino and Indigenous students.
Television holds promise as a low-cost complement to online schooling and a lifeline for students with few other resources. A vast catalog of educational programming exists, but analysts say policymakers have mostly missed an opportunity to make use of it.
“How many parents right now are just trying to figure out how to get through the day while their kids are just watching TV or on the iPad?” said Melissa S. Kearney, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland, who has published research about “Sesame Street.” “We could do a lot of good if people who are in a position of trust with those families could point them to some of that positive content.”
Since March, many parts of the world have resorted to televised schooling, with an array of strategies. The programs range from recordings of classroom lessons to educational cartoons, and from local efforts to national ones. Some focus on one age group, while others, like Peru, have adapted the national curriculum for all grades.
Many parts of China offered a blend of online and televised classes, but Sichuan province chose to broadcast all of its lessons on television because the government said it worried about students spending too long on their computers.
In Tanzania, Ubongo, an organization that makes popular educational cartoons aimed at younger children as well as parents, decided to offer its programs for free to television stations across Africa.
“Outside of Africa, there’s been a push for internet-based learning,” said Cliodhna Ryan, head of education at Ubongo. “But in most African countries, the majority of children just do not have that access. At the end of the day, the best educational tool someone has is the one they already have in their possession.”
New Jersey’s public television station, NJTV, began working with the state’s teachers’ union to produce school programs after learning that 300,000 of the state’s children had no internet access, said John Servidio, the station’s general manager.
In Indonesia, too, the pandemic has helped revive a state-owned television network, TVRI. In a country where nearly a third of people are not connected to the internet, TVRI began broadcasting ‘Belajar Dari Rumah’ — Studying from Home — in April to children of all ages.
Parents have not been entirely receptive. Many Indonesians, for example, say they do not have enough education themselves — or enough time — to take on teaching responsibilities at home. Many are demanding that more schools reopen, despite only a portion of the country having been deemed safe for in-person classes.
Analysts say it is too early to know how effective televised schooling has been during lockdown, but there is scattered evidence that past efforts have been effective.
In Mexico, a long-running program of broadcasting lessons to students in rural areas led children to stay in school for longer and earn more as adults. Kearney and a colleague found that children in the United States with access to “Sesame Street” programming were more likely to be at an age-appropriate grade level.
To solve the biggest drawback of televised learning — the lack of interaction and feedback from teachers — some places have designed ways for teachers to monitor students’ progress. Many of them rely on cellphones, which are far more common in poor regions of the world than broadband hookups, though even access to a phone can be a barrier.
The state of Amazonas, in Brazil, offers a smartphone app to supplement televised schooling, allowing students to ask their teachers questions in real time.
“The students watch the TV, and we have one teacher on-screen and another one off to the side mediating the comments that come in through the chat room,” said Sabrina Emanuela de Melo Araujo, a high school biology teacher.
Ubongo, the Tanzania-based cartoon maker, has paired its programs with a smartphone app offering support to parents and students. And teachers and students around the world use messaging services like WhatsApp to stay in contact.
Peru, a poor nation of 32 million people, has suffered one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, with an official count of more than 500,000 cases and 25,000 deaths — figures that experts say do not capture the true toll.
In a country where only 15% of public school students have access to a computer at home, broadcast lessons have become the dominant mode of learning during the pandemic. In a government survey in June, three-quarters of parents said their children used the televised programs, compared to a quarter who used the government’s educational website. Nearly all sent homework to teachers through WhatsApp.
Early broadcasts addressed virus-related topics like good hygiene and avoiding disinformation. More recent ones have combined traditional lessons with made-for-television twists: For a high school math class, a real teacher calls in to correct a presenter’s faulty grasp of statistics.
“It’s advantageous for students who know how to learn on their own,” said Heli Estela, a high school teacher in the Andean region of Cajamarca in northern Peru. “And we have students like that, with initiative, who figure it out on their own. But there aren’t many of them.”
He has seen the effort stumble, repeatedly. Early in the pandemic, he said, he paid his internet provider more than $100 to install an antenna because his own connection was so slow. Estela messages students over WhatsApp to supplement television and radio lessons, but trying to explain concepts individually has been difficult.
In a district where many parents are subsistence farmers, some of his 47 students have lost access to televisions when their families had to move around the countryside for work. A dozen have failed to report back at all. Others seem to be cheating on their homework.
“To really start remote education, first you have to make sure everyone has internet,” he said, “but this disease didn’t give us any warning.”