Tackling learning crisis with innovation and partnership

by Afshan Khan, UNICEF Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia, and Robert Jenkins, UNICEF Global Director of Education and Adolescent Development

Afshan Khan and Robert Jenkins
Children with a laptop
31 January 2022

In our more than 25 years of working at UNICEF, we have known and witnessed major child rights crises in the organization's 75-year history, but COVID-19 has had the most far-reaching impact.

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 635 million children worldwide continue to face school closures and disruptions to health, protection, and education services. An estimated 131 million school children in 11 countries, especially those with little to no access to the internet, received just one-quarter of in-person learning, and 77 million completely missed in-person instruction.

Decades of progress in accelerating children's rights are at risk. Poverty and inequality are spreading and deepening, and vulnerable children are being hit the hardest.

A 'learning' crisis of such epic proportion puts the future of a whole generation of children at stake.

Let us take a closer look at two key challenges, the digital divide and the early learning gaps, which stand in the way of children reaching their full potential.

Early learning at risk

While the world grapples with ensuring continuous learning for school-age students, preschool-age children are being left behind. In Europe and Central Asia, home to more than 14 million children of preschool age, about 7 million children are not attending preschool.

This is of great concern, especially as many of these children are at risk of damaging their long-term educational attainment, and developmental potential. Research and evidence show that the foundations of all learning are laid during the early years, and when done right, it has the power to positively shape a child's future. Investing in early childhood education strengthens education outcomes, boosts economies, and ensures a peaceful, resilient, and more prosperous future for all.

The digital divide

Even before the pandemic, the world was already facing a learning crisis, with millions of children and young people deprived of learning and skills development, and with a critical gap in digital learning, technology, skills, and solutions. Without urgent attention, the digital divide will continue to widen the gap of poverty and inequality in the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that education systems must rethink the delivery of quality education, focusing on the crucial role of technology in teacher training, and starting with the youngest children.

Multiple challenges, multiple opportunities 

Redoubling and reimagining our commitments to education and our investments has never been more urgent.

Bold and innovative solutions are needed to tackle emerging crises, such as the ongoing pandemic, and create inclusive, resilient, and quality education systems fit for the future.

The good news is that we are living in a unique moment in time. We know the challenges, but we also know the solutions, the required tools and approaches. Under the Reimagine Education initiative, we have set an ambitious goal of connecting 3.5 billion children and young people with quality digital learning solutions by 2030.

This ambitious agenda will require allies and partners. We have teamed up with innovative thinkers and like-minded partners to deliver results for children. 

Bridging the learning gap and the digital divide with the Learning Passport

The Learning Passport – the result of a partnership between UNICEF and Microsoft – is a groundbreaking digital initiative named one of Time magazine's best inventions of 2021.

The Learning Passport is browser-based platform – or a mobile app – on which students, teachers and parents can learn online, or download classes and complete them offline. The platform is quickly gaining popularity and its hybrid learning services will soon reach more than 2 million children in 17 countries globally.

The platform also caters to the needs of preschool-age children (age 3 to 6), enabling their teachers and parents to provide them with quality education to support learning when children are in class, as well as in the event of school closures, or lack of access to quality preschool services.

Many preschool teachers are not offered professional development or skill-building opportunities to improve classroom and distance learning. With the Learning Passport, educators can access a consistent supply of short courses, demonstration videos, lesson plans, supplementary readings, and a community of practice. Parents can benefit by improving their parenting knowledge and skills, accessing games, activities, and tips, and using the platform to create a home to school continuity by building on learning at home and in school.

Adapting the platform to national priorities

In Europe and Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan, Montenegro, Serbia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan will each host the digital platform to push forward their national Early Childhood Development priorities and agenda. Each country will have a customized version using local curricula, languages, and target age groups.

In Kyrgyzstan, the platform is called Bilimduu Muun (Educated Generation), reflecting the national plan to focus initially on training and equipping preschool teachers and then gradually expanding to higher-level teachers, parents, and children.

Montenegro’s platform, Digitalna Škola (Digital School) was launched to create a “secure, supportive, efficient and comprehensive digital education system,” and offers learning resources for teachers and other professionals in the education system, children and adolescents, parents, guardians, and caregivers. 

As with all Learning Passport for Early Childhood Education (ECE) initiatives, the comprehensive range helps ensure that children get the best start in life by connecting the support they receive at home with the opportunities they access in early childhood education settings. The Learning Passport can benefit around 200,000 ECE teachers and more than 5 million children of preschool age in the region.

We have the solutions to provide children with the best start in life. It is vital that Governments own and promote innovations and solutions that reduce learning disparities while increasing access to quality early education. We need more parents, teachers, and caregivers to support their children by proactively helping them participate in these lessons.

By working together, we can ensure that COVID-19 does not threaten the gains in the education sector and the dreams and hopes of millions of children, young people, and parents.