On the air: 6 important lessons can be learned from Zanzibar’s distance learning efforts

As education actors scramble during and post COVID-19 to reimagine teaching and learning beyond the classroom, here are six important lessons we can learn from Zanzibar’s distance learning efforts.

June 24, 2020 by Emily Morris, American University and Ahmad Ali Mohamed, Ministry of Education and Vocational Training in Zanzibar, Tanzania
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6 minutes read
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Non formal RISE preschool students listen to a lesson on the radio.
Non formal RISE preschool students listen to a lesson on the radio.
Emily Morris

As education actors scramble during and post COVID-19 to reimagine teaching and learning beyond the classroom, we can learn from government ministries who have been leading innovative distance learning work for decades.

Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous region in Tanzania of nearly 1.5 million people, is one such place. While small geographically, their distance learning work is large in scope and rich in history.

From the onset of school closures in March 2020, the distance learning team at Zanzibar’s Ministry of Education and Vocational Training’s (MoEVT) has been busy broadcasting radio programs that cover literacy, numeracy and life skills from preschool through the end of primary.

They are also producing video programs that target late primary and early secondary school students and address a variety of lessons teachers have identified as difficult to teach like photosynthesis, genetics, or nutrition.

A history of distance learning

Zanzibar’s MoEVT has furthered a deep tradition of distance learning in the region. Educational radio broadcasting has been used across Tanzania since the era of independence in the 1960s.

Early radio programs were used to supplement primary and secondary school instruction and were designed for children and adult learners.

Even with increasing television viewership and internet access, educational radio programs are still used to reach communities where schools are absent and electricity is non-existent (see Global Digital Library for access to programs).

Educational television has also grown in popularity, with Ubongo Kids being one of the most popular educational programs in Tanzania today.

Happy Talk program. Credit: MoEVT Zanzibar
Happy Talk program.
MoEVT Zanzibar

Collaboration with a variety of partners

Zanzibar’s MoEVT has made a notable commitment to distance learning over the past two decades (see the 2006 Education Policy). In 2007, MoEVT began its first steps of forming a distance learning division within the ministry through the USAID Radio Instruction to Strengthen Education initiative implemented by Education Development Center, Inc. (EDC).

A dozen MoEVT educators began designing, writing and producing print, radio and video programming entitled Tucheze Tujifunze. The initial programs used story-based, interactive pedagogical approaches to create roughly 280 interactive radio, audio or video instruction programs for preschool through Standard 2 nonformal and formal classes (as featured on Euronews).

MoEVT even experimented with multi-modal distance learning by blending audio, video and print materials—an example being a distance learning certification program for primary school teachers training to become preschool teachers (see the Early Childhood Advancement Certification Program).

In 2011, the Tucheze Tujifunze distance learning team was institutionalized under MoEVT’s Information Communications and Technology (ICT) Department, and in 2017 this team was named the Kwarara Media Education Center (KMEC) with infrastructural and technical support provided by Seoul Broadcasting Service and Good Neighbors International.

The KMEC team has produced over a dozen 15-minute videos for learners in grades 5 and 6, and Happy Talk, which promotes language acquisition for early grade learners. MoEVT recently opened a new YouTube channel where it houses KMEC produced programs and those produced in mainland Tanzania.

They have also trained student media clubs from secondary schools to produce their own films on the environment, history and social issues in Zanzibar. Additionally, KMEC has collaborated with other distance learning teams, such as the State University of Zanzibar, and serves as a field site for students across Tanzania.

The ICT Department is planning to expand online learning content, which until now has been largely restricted to schools and households that have internet access via smartphones, tablets or computers.

Happy Talk program. Credit: MoEVT Zanzibar
Happy Talk program.
MoEVT Zanzibar

Six important lessons can be learned from Zanzibar’s distance learning efforts.

  1. Plan intentionally, strategically and equitably.
    In response to COVID-19 school closures, education institutions across the world rushed to get distance learning materials into the hands of learners and educators. As we learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Ebola outbreak, hurried responses often lead to amplifying inequities in teaching and learning. Distance education has the potential to close access and equity gaps, but efforts must be intentional and created with a long-term vision. For example, the Tucheze Tujifunze radio programming targeted the most geographically and economically marginalized communities in Zanzibar. A 2008 evaluation and subsequent 2014 post-program evaluation showed that children who started out in nonformal schools because of lack of access to a government school were able to catch up to first graders in formal schools if they had access to radio programs, trained facilitators and education materials.
  2. Create multi-modal strategies.
    A combination of modalities helps reach a wider range of learners in a greater number of content areas. Evidence on distance learning suggests that using the most accessible platforms, such as radio, will help reach the most geographically and economically marginalized learners. However, internet-based programs can reach learners in upper grades and videos can bring content to life. Accompanying printed teaching and learning materials are important for guiding teaching and learning through radio and video. Although mobile phone technology has not been widely for distance learning in Zanzibar, it is an important modality to consider.
  3. Maintain relationships with radio and televisions stations.
    The MoEVT was able to reinstate the broadcast of radio and video programs at little to no cost during the COVID-19 pandemic as they have longstanding relationships with many public and private radio and television stations. In addition to Zanzibar-wide providers, the KMEC has shared radio and video programs with community radio and television stations in Zanzibar’s northern island of Pemba, where educational access tends to be lower. Most sub-Saharan African countries have national radio or television stations, but relationships must be maintained.
  4. Partner to promote inclusive pedagogies and approaches.
    Having multiple partnerships has enabled the KMEC team to provide different kinds of programming, from short public service announcements to curriculum-based content. Partnerships have also ensured that distance learning materials are reflective of and responsive to learners with disabilities. For example, UNICEF and GPE recently provided funding for a two-minute preschool COVID-19 health awareness clip. The Norwegian Association of Disabled provided closed captioning and sign language interpretation. While the programs could do more to promote inclusive learning, MoEVT has made an intentional start.
  5. Monitor and evaluate from the start.
    Although there has been insufficient evaluation and research on distance learning modalities throughout the Global South, the 2008 Tucheze Tujifunze evaluation revealed that first graders who participated in both nonformal radio programming and formal education (a hybrid approach) did not do as well as participants in solely nonformal centers. This led to MoEVT discontinuing the hybrid approach. The KMEC team includes a monitoring and evaluation team that tracks and assesses learning, which is important for understanding access, learning, and equity outcomes as well as what works and what does not.
  6. Be interactive.
    KMEC has experimented with different types of video programming, including short instructional clips, cartoons and public service announcements. What they have found to be popular with viewers is programming that follows the principles of interactive audio (and video) instruction, where content is taught through a combination of stories, activities, songs and rhythms organized into interactive sequences.

In the past two decades, Zanzibar’s MoEVT has made policy commitments to distance learning and sought human and financial resources to build a distance learning team with expertise in multi-modal approaches (radio, video and print materials).

While MoEVT has yet to fully explore online and mobile phone teaching and learning, Zanzibar’s Kwarara Media Education Center is a team to watch as the global education community starts to think about the place distance learning will hold in education systems going forward.

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Sub-Saharan Africa: Tanzania

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