Like millions of mothers around Latin America, Liliana Domador was forced to juggle a job, with the raising of and even teaching of her child as the Covid-19 pandemic closed down schools and afflicted the greatest interruption of in-class education in the region’s history.
So Domador, a 34-year-old Peruvian mother, was delighted when a group of research, development and government institutions came together to implement a learning platform known as Conecta Ideas that uses computer-assisted instruction to teach math skills aligned with the public school curriculum.
Her 11-year-old daughter Alessandra, she recalls, was thrilled to log into her laptop every Thursday to download the platform’s math-oriented games and exercises. She relished the competition of earning points through the platform and comparing her progress with her friends. That freed up Domador to do more of the other things she needed to do even within the limitations of lockdowns and school closures. “Children like challenges and a bit of competition; they like to win,” she said. “As Alejandra began to work really hard and look for solutions through the platform, she became more independent, and that freed me up some.”
Extended School Closures
The July 2020 release of Conecta Ideas to 15,000 primary school students in 59 of Lima’s public schools comes as educators become increasingly attuned to the effectiveness of digital platforms that incorporate gamification, the use of games and competition to stimulate learning. It also arrives as educators are increasingly concerned about the effects of pandemic-related school closures on education and growing inequality between those who have access to learning materials and educational support at home and those who don’t.
The initiative is an effort to vaccinate children against learning losses, much like the innovative new vaccines protect people against infection. The danger is that extended school closures—Peru didn’t have a single day of in-class learning in 2020—could affect students’ long-term employment possibilities, earning potential, and perception of fairness, as well as productivity on the national level.
Those collaborating on the project—a group consisting of the IDB, the University of Chile (which developed Conecta Ideas), the private research center Group of Analysis for Development (GRADE), the International Development Research Center, and the Ministry of Education of Peru—responded by trying to make remote education during lockdowns more effective. It focused on math, because as revealed in a recent IDB book, that subject readily lends itself to digital instruction, given the importance of visualization and automatic feedback to math learning.
Significantly, it used a system that was readily accessible across socioeconomic strata, as it requires only a one-time-per-week connection via cell phone to download the material.
A Heroic Response by Teachers
Teachers have emerged as heroes of the rollout. Despite a historical lack of access to advanced software and training in the use of computer-assisted learning, they have invested extra effort to receive training provided by the group. They have helped children log on to the new system, used the reports on individual students provided by the platform to sharpen their teaching and been eager boosters of it to parents.
Students appear to relish entering a new world beyond the often stale memorization and formulas of traditional classroom instruction to one where exercises and games lead them to understand abstract concepts and sharpen their math skills. They enjoy learning on digital platforms and put in more effort than when they perform similar tasks in a paper and pencil format. And through the platform they can track their progress relative to their peers.
Among the fourth and fifth grade primary school involved in the study, the percentage of kids using the platform climbed from 1% during the first week of the pilot to 33% four months later, while 90% of students and 95% of teachers said they wanted to use it again in 2021. To date, the accompanying instructional videos have been viewed nearly 800,000 times nationwide.
“My son is enjoying math more than before,” said Hilda Hinojoso, the mother of a fifth-grade student who went from unconvinced at first to hooked on the platform. “He has gotten increasingly excited by earning more points, by knowing he can do better. It’s a game—and a challenge—but he ends up learning.”
Sixty-five percent of 15-year-old students from Latin America and the Caribbean failed to reach a minimum standard in math on the 2015 Progamme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, 41 percentage points above the figure for OECD countries. Conecta Ideas can make a difference. In a 2017 study of low-income primary schools in Santiago, students using the platform improved their math scores by an average of 50% more on Chile’s national standardized exams compared to a control group.
Expanding the Fight Against Learning Loss
The Peruvian government is now asking the institutions leading the initiative to boost the 2020 pilot to a national level, covering all public-school students in grades four through six. The use of an intuitive app accessible even from phones without reliable internet will be emphasized, and the government will distribute 300,000 computer tablets with the app installed. Government TV, radio, and websites will be used to promote and complement the project. The platform is especially useful while the pandemic is forcing schools to remain closed, but it can also support learning both at school and home after the pandemic is over as students try to make up for lost time and learning opportunities.
Ultimately, given the universality of math, the experience can be replicated throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Perhaps it can even be adopted to other areas of study. “This platform engages students’ imagination and their thought processes,” said Domador. “I hope it’s used beyond the pandemic and perhaps even for other subjects, like history.”