Despite high school enrolment rates, the learning outcomes of students in Bangladesh are very low, especially in rural areas (Islam, 2019). Approximately 44% of students cannot read simple words after completion of Grade 1 (USAID, 2021). In the National Student Assessment test 2017, around half of fifth-graders failed to meet grade-level proficiency in literacy and numeracy (NSA, 2017). Students show even larger learning gaps as they progress to higher grades. In the Learning Assessment for Secondary Institutions (LASI) 2015, only 44 per cent and 35 per cent of Grade 8 students met grade-specific competencies in English and Maths, respectively (LASI, 2015). This situation is likely to have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, as students missed out of all forms of formal schooling from March 2020 to September 2021.
Schools have reopened from September 2021 after a long 18-month closure, one of the longest in the world (TBS, 2021) Students currently have access to school for one day per week except for grades 5 and 10, who are going every day, considering the competitive public examinations they need to sit for. However, students are likely to endure a major challenge in catching up with their current grades. This challenge is even more extensive for the students in grade 10, i.e. SSC1 examinees. These students suffered more during school closures for several reasons. First, most parents were unable to help the upper grade students at home considering the level of difficulty of the curriculum at that level. Second, students in grades 9 and 10 learn many new methods in both English and mathematics which they have difficulty learning by themselves. Besides, the long school closures also created uncertainties related to timing and format of their public exam, which may have caused inertia and disappointment in learning something new and preparing for the competitive exam. They also will have less time compared to lower grade students to recover from learning loss. Thus, they are at immediate threat of poor performance and dropout. These situations are likely to be more prevalent in poor households and/or rural areas. To mitigate these problems, students could be provided with additional educational input and encouragement in their household settings.
The household environment plays a critical role in education. But, most education policies primarily focus on school-based interventions, as it is believed that it is more feasible to improve schools than to intervene at the household level at scale (Muralidharan and Singh, 2021). The school closure induced by the COVID-19 pandemic has sharply shifted the focus from the school to the household environment. Various distance learning solutions have been developed around the world to facilitate home-based learning. Due to the weak ICT ecosystem of most low-income developing countries, widely accessible basic feature phones have become popular in educating the mass students during the COVID-19 (Hassan et al., 2021a). Existing studies using basic feature phones are limited to SMS reminders or brief calls to the parents to follow up on homework (Angrist et al., 2020, Muralidharan and Singh, 2021). In one of our recent projects, we have extended the existing applications of basic feature phones in education by incorporating the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system to deliver Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI) based lessons (Hassan et al., 2021b).
Building on that recent study, we will develop a set of audio lessons (podcasts) to deliver via the IVR telecommunication platform for this study. We will deliver these lessons via basic mobile phones because the basic mobile phone penetration rate in rural Bangladesh is significantly higher than other one-way technologies such as radio and television.3
These lessons will cover the English and Mathematics subjects of the national curriculum. Students from rural areas and low SES backgrounds usually struggle with these two subjects and therefore, often seek private tuition (tutoring) classes (Hamid et al., 2009). In addition, we will focus on the educational aspirations and hope of the participants (see Section 2 below for a brief rationale). Given that students missed a lot of social interactions during the school closures, we expect targeting positive psychological factors that stimulate internal motivation would also help obtain better educational outcomes. Thus, we will examine whether providing remote learning opportunities through IVR improves children’s cognitive and noncognitive skills.