SCHOOL IN THE STEPPES: In rural Mongolia, keeping kids learning while at home
When COVID-19 shut down schools in Mongolia, kids still had to learn. Here's what the government and the UN did.
“I have 20 students in my class, and 13 of them are from herder families,” said Byamba, the fifth-grade teacher in a Tsagaannuur soum, Khuvsgul province of Mongolia, located more than 1000 km from the capital.
This is a vast country, where nomadic herders are scattered through steppes and mountains, grazing their animals. Many herder children attend remote boarding schools.
When COVID-19 hit Mongolia in January 2020, all schools nationwide were closed, sending 900,000 children into remote learning. Classes were broadcast on the national TV channels on topics such as Mongolian language, mathematics, and science. Different channels were geared to different age groups. Later, the classes were also made available online.
But it was harder for some kids to keep up than others.
“It’s not easy for herder children to keep up the tele-lessons while they are away from school,” says Byamba, the teacher. She explains that many herder children travel long distances with their family and livestock during the harsh winter.
Schools reopened in September 2020, only to close again two months later when there was a local outbreak. As the months wore on, more and more students were falling behind in their classes.
While solar panels or small generators are increasingly being used by herding families to produce electricity, they are not a reliable source of power. Power outages meant no tele-lessons. For some such families, internet access is a luxury.
No opportunities for some children
There were other shortcomings to the tele-lessons for some families. A recent study led by UNICEF revealed that five per cent of the children and parents surveyed had no TV or electronic device to access the lessons; sixteen per cent of the children did not attend the TV lessons even when they had devices to use. Among those most lacking access were children from low-income herder families whose parents were working and could not oversee their schooling.
Other complaints emerged: teaching on TV is one-way, and the contents are not interesting for young learners. In addition, the lessons weren’t meeting the needs of children with special needs or from ethnic minorities.
To address these concerns, the United Nations worked with the Ministry of Education and Science to improve online educational resources with more interactive and accessible models.
A joint project by UNICEF, UNFPA, and UNESCO addressed the immediate needs of providing e-learning, enhancing e-content development of core curriculum subjects including health education, and improving education policy in Mongolia, adapted to remote and online learning.
UNICEF’s helped create high-quality e-learning contents and introduce technologies for e-learning. As a result, pre-primary and primary school children now have access to e-lessons with animated cartoons that double as a problem-solving activity. After the lessons, children can take quizzes or do other interactive work.
“Most children in the countryside weren’t watching the lessons on TV but were using smartphones and other electronic devices,” says Alex Heikens, UNICEF representative in Mongolia. “That makes quite a difference in the way you present the content.”
Playing while learning
“My son has a form of autism, and it wasn’t easy for him to follow the TV lessons,” says T. Odtsetseg mother of a third-grader. “However, the lessons on the e-learning platform make it a lot easier for him to understand the subjects and work independently.”
Another mother echoes that sentiment. “My son gets excited when I call him to take his online lessons,” says B. Uyanga, mother of a 4-year-old preschooler. “He particularly liked the activity where we made paper planes. Pre-school children feel they are playing while learning.”
Educators are on board as well. “My students are more interested in the new content,” says one teacher, Ms. Javzandolgor.
The joint UN project has already created 86 of the planned 104 lessons and made them publicly available on the econtent.edu.mn. The rest of the lessons are to be completed soon. Since its launch on 25 November, the lessons have gotten over 100,000 pageviews.
UNICEF is now working to make the educational contents even more widely available. The content developers are working to create audio lessons, and families who do not have devices to listen will also be given radios.
The project also sought to make the remote learning accessible to children with disabilities and children from ethnic minorities to receive the lesson in their mother tongue. Kazakh and Tuva children are now able to receive lessons in their ethnic languages, while all contents are supported with sign language. Meanwhile, UNESCO is working with the Mongolian authorities to harness the potential of ICT to ensure equitable and inclusive learning opportunities for all.
Beyond the pandemic
“Our aim is to make sure that no one is left out,” says Kaori Ishikawa, Head of Office of the UNFPA in Mongolia, which also supports health and sexuality education through the e-learning platform.
“The United Nations is supporting Mongolia in its fight against COVID-19,” says Tapan Mishra, UN Resident Coordinator for Mongolia. “This initiative could serve as a catalyst to new innovations in the education sector in Mongolia—during the pandemic and beyond.”