Education systems all across the world have been implementing emergency remote learning solutions on an unprecedented scale since early 2020. What have the last eighteen months taught policymakers and practitioners about remote learning delivery, adoption, and effectiveness? What might these lessons teach us about making plans for the coming months and years? Answers to these questions can be found in a new report. If you're short on time, listen to our podcast instead. Although the epidemic is still affecting schooling throughout the world, and the long-term effects are unknown, this analysis identifies emerging trends and concerns that might help countries plan for the future.

These three elements must be well-aligned if remote learning is to be taken-up and be effective (Figure 1). A teacher with high subject content knowledge, technical skills to use technology and supporting resources, and appropriate pedagogical techniques is likely to be more effective at remote learning than a teacher without one or more of these qualities. Similarly, the availability of technology is a necessary but not sufficient condition for effective remote learning, as technology needs to be suited to the context in which it is deployed. Effective remote learning also requires an engaged user, whose engagement depends on motivation, teacher and technology effectiveness, as well as contextual factors such as their home environment.

Governments deployed remote learning in a variety of ways. Some governments provided multiple options for students to access remote learning, others offered a single option. Often, countries took advantage of preexisting education technology infrastructure to deploy remote learning strategies ranging from paper-based take-home packages to radio, TV, phone, and internet-based solutions. Regardless of which approach countries have taken, remote learning strategies have varied in terms of design, usage, and contextual features.

Governments tried to facilitate use of remote learning in multiple ways. Some partnered with the private sector and/or delivered targeted aid directly to households to facilitate children’s access to remote learning. Others went as far as subsidizing individual tutoring. A number of countries adjusted curricula to accommodate the reduction in school days. Some provided teachers with remote training. Others are providing disadvantaged groups with improved access to remote learning infrastructure – by offering learning materials in minority languages or gearing content towards children with disabilities, or by introducing flexible and self-paced platforms.

Not all approaches were successful in reaching students or delivering learning

Many struggled to ensure participation and some found themselves in a remote learning paradox: having chosen a distance learning approach that was unsuited to local circumstances. For example, some governments provided online (digital) learning solutions, even though most of their students could not access those solutions due to lack of devices or connectivity constraints. This resulted in uneven use or even exacerbated existing inequalities.

Some approaches exacerbated inequalities

What once was a digital divide for some is now a digital chasm for many. Even before the pandemic, access to technology, and the resources and skills needed to utilize it effectively differed widely within and across countries. Parental engagement and support, critical to remote learning, also vary by education and socio-economic background. Household income losses during the pandemic have only deepened these divides. Marginalized children and vulnerable groups, such as girls, students with disabilities and ethnic minorities, are likely to have been disproportionately affected and are at greater risk of falling further behind.

Consequently, the effectiveness of remote learning in this period varied widely

The evidence on the effectiveness of remote learning during COVID-19 is mixed. When compared to in-person learning prior to the pandemic, learning outcomes after remote learning were often low. In low-income countries remote learning was not as widely utilized as in middle-income countries. Consequently, the evidence on the effectiveness of remote learning in these settings is sparse. Even in some high-income settings where take-up was high, evidence suggests that the effectiveness of remote learning during COVID has been low.

Lessons from today, principles for tomorrow

The last eighteen months have provided several lessons that can serve as principles for tomorrow. Here are five that seem particularly relevant for policymakers seeking to build back better:

Establish meaningful two-way interactions. Using the most appropriate technology for the local context along with adjusted curriculum, is critical for enabling effective engagement between students and teachers.

Ensure remote learning is fit-for-purpose. When deciding on modes of remote learning, countries must account for access and utilization of technology among both teachers and students including digital skills. Policy makers must also ensure that teachers have access and opportunities to develop the technical and pedagogical competencies needed for teaching remotely.

Engage and support parents and students as partners in the teaching and learning process. Given the isolation and disconnection caused by school closures, it is imperative that families are engaged and supported to help students access remote learning opportunities and to ensure both continuity of learning and protection of socioemotional well-being.

Socioemotional support is urgent for teachers, students, and parents: Remote learning strategies cannot be simply limited to a supply of lessons and contents. A comprehensive strategy is required for socioemotional monitoring and psychosocial support to ensure well-being and avoid burnout.

Remedial and accelerated learning programs need to be carefully implemented and monitored: Even though most countries have planned to or are already implementing programs to support students in catching up, remedial programs should be carefully implemented, not only by identifying the areas in which students need more support, but also by constantly monitoring how students are progressing.

(This is a slightly modified version of an article originally published in World Bank Blogs. The original article can be found at https://blogs.worldbank.org/education/five-lessons-remote-learning-during-covid-19)