School, interrupted: 4 options for distance education to continue teaching during COVID-19
Take a look at the four most common distance technology for contractors, donors and educators who find themselves needing to explore distance-learning options, with a particular focus on sub-Saharan Africa.
April 01, 2020 by Mary Burns, Escola Superior de Educação de Paula Frassinetti
8 minutes read
Students in Juba, Sudan, prepare to participate in Interactive Radio Instruction programming. Credit: Education Development Center
Students in Juba, Sudan, prepare to participate in Interactive Radio Instruction programming.
Credit: Education Development Center

How can educational systems across the globe, and international donor-funded education projects, continue ongoing education for students amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic? The logical answer right now: distance education. Fortunately, most countries have some form of distance education technical infrastructure, which they can immediately use to provide ongoing educational opportunities.

This post examines the four most common distance technology for contractors, donors and educators who find themselves needing to explore distance-learning options, with a particular focus on sub-Saharan Africa.

    1- Radio

    Even in our mobile, digitally saturated age, radio is still the most commonly available and accessed technology across the globe. UNESCO reports that 75% of households globally have access to radio and in sub-Saharan Africa between 80% and 90% of households have access to a working radio set.

    Broadcast radio

    Currently, for many countries, broadcasting radio lessons would be the quickest option to continued schooling. Most countries have state, private and community radio stations that can potentially be used (and probably are being used) to educate students who suddenly find themselves out of school. A number of countries use broadcast radio for educational purposes, none more robustly perhaps than the archipelago of Cabo Verde, which uses radio dramas, lessons, tutoring, and other educational broadcasts to reach students on its 10 islands.

    Interactive radio instruction

    No one can predict the trajectory of this pandemic, but assuming it continues over the next several months, education systems may wish to shift to Interactive Radio Instruction. IRI is an instructional approach that uses one-way radio to reach students and teachers (or in this case, students and their parents) via prerecorded, interactive lessons. IRI has been used successfully across the globe (Honduras, Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea, Guinea, Liberia, Somalia, Cape Verde, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Zanzibar, São Tomé e Principé, Mali, South Africa, India, and the Democratic Republic of Congo) to help students learn content so both the infrastructure and radio program development know-how exists in many places. I’ve written about IRI previously here and here.

    For 30 years, EDC, the predominant group designing and implementing IRI, has produced IRI programs for more than 25 countries in multiple languages and content areas. They maintain a catalogue of past programs, which they are opening for public access in response to this crisis. For more information, contact Rachel Christina.

    2- Television

    Despite high production costs, television has tremendous reach and enjoys the advantage of being a familiar and engaging visual medium. There is a long tradition of television as a distance education medium in countries that have well-developed broadcasting or satellite infrastructure (e.g., Cuba and the United Kingdom) and that cover a large geographical expanse (Canada, Australia, China, México, Brazil, Indonesia, and the United States) (Burns, 2011).

    As of 2018, 1.67 billion households globally had access to television (including 75 million households in sub-Saharan Africa). A quick scan of the CIA broadcast media list suggests that most African countries have at least one state owned television station and several have both state and privately run stations. Countries like Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Ethiopia have strong technical and human infrastructure and are known for a television industry that produces compelling television programming both for traditional and Internet TV.

    Additionally, sub-Saharan African countries have subscription TV services that provide a mix of national and international channels: RFI and France24 in Francophone countries; RTP in Lusophone countries; and the BBC in Anglophone Africa. Such services could potentially provide scaled educational programming to students in French, Portuguese and English.

    One of the longest and most successful uses of instructional television, and well worth a look if considering this medium, is México’s “telescundaria” program. Telesecundaria provides year-round curricula to rural junior secondary schools across México (and more recently, Guatemala) through a combination of in-class broadcasts, combined with text and discussions lead by in-class proctors (not formally trained teachers).

    Within sub-Saharan Africa, Botswana Television (BTV) offers daily educational programming, primarily in maths and science, which reaches 90% of the country through its terrestrial transmitter and 100% of the country through satellite. Because not everyone in Botswana has the decoder needed for digital television, BTV still uses analog transmission.

    South Africa’s Department of Basic Education also provides educational television programming (Burns et al, 2019).

    A number of countries—France, Kenya and South Africa, the U.S.—are deciding that TV may be the best and most direct way to continue schooling and are doing so via state-run broadcasting services (France 4, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation and South Africa Broadcasting Corporation).

    In the U.S., the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is broadcasting educational programming to middle and high school students at home via the WORLD Channel weekdays from noon to 5 pm.

    3- Mobile phones

    Given high rates of mobile phone ownership everywhere, including in sub-Saharan Africa where the purchase of low-cost smart phones has continued to rise over the last several years, phones should be considered another important educational tool to provide continued schooling during the pandemic. Here are some ways mobile phones can provide students with educational opportunities:

    • Access to content, curriculum, language instruction, lesson plans: In Niger, SMS have been used for literacy and numeracy instruction. South Africa has successfully pioneered the use of serialized m-novels via simple cell phones. South Africa’s Institute for Digital Education offers mobile-based storybooks.
    • Educational apps can help students learn basic skills (literacy, numeracy) but there is a plethora of apps for almost all content areas. Many education websites (Khan Academy, for example) have app-based versions of their web content and many educational apps allow students to not just consume, but also create, content.
    • Social media: Teachers can utilize social media to organize Twitter discussions, push out information, share video, etc. Teachers can organize WhatsApp groups for each class and share digital content and resources through this popular medium (presuming they have it).
    • Tutoring: Sub-Saharan Africa has a long tradition of phone-based tutoring and SMS support. There are a host of commercial tutoring providers throughout the region (especially in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa) that offer real time video or SMS tutoring and whose services might be leveraged.
    • Educational programming: Young children whose families have smart phones can access programming like Ubongo and Akiki and Me on their phones (there are some data showing that kids who watch these shows are “readier” for primary school than children who do not). Text messages are also a proven way to “nudge” people into proactive behaviors—handwashing, reading to their children, etc.

    4-Online learning

    For places that have the infrastructure—technical, human and educational (i.e., digital content, assessment, etc.)—and where students have home access to computers and decent Internet connection, online learning makes the most sense because it most closely simulates the interactive, real-time, multimodal experience we want from school.

    A number of countries and school systems are turning to online learning—through online courses (via a Learning Management System) or  virtual teaching platforms (face-based webinars via Google Hangouts or Zoom).

    Some countries have digital learning platforms that ostensibly offer digital content and instruction to teachers and students. Many exist in theory only but the infrastructure is there and these would be the place to start to get content and instruction to students.

    In the world of massive open online courses (MOOCs), both Coursera and EdX are currently making their courses free to universities affected by the pandemic. Many MOOCs are already free and some content could potentially be used for secondary students. To search, go here and here.

    Online learning offers tremendous upsides but also requires tremendous infrastructure, design and instructional requirements. It may be for now that countries post content and resources online as part of radio or TV-based instruction (or as stand-alone learning) but this “putting content online” and hoping students will learn on their own should not be a medium or long-term strategy.

    I’ll write more about getting started with online learning in the next post.

Planning fast and slow

There’s no “right” distance education choice right now. Every country has to choose the best medium or a mix of media based on access, technical infrastructure, content, the ability to adapt this content to the appropriate distance education medium or mix of media—and make learning opportunities available to students as quickly as possible.

In addition to infrastructure requirements, there are benefits and drawbacks to each of the distance education tools discussed here. Radio and TV are passive media but enjoy worldwide ownership, huge reach, are easy to use, and offer learning via a centralized location.

Phones are “bottom up” technologies, widely used and valued by their owners, but large-scale education specifically designed for phones has not been attempted before and phone-based learning is more decentralized and requires more of teachers and students. Online learning may be the most ideal way to continue learning but it demands time, appropriate content, money, tools to plan and design, and imposes numerous demands on instructors and learners. Even in countries with the most robust infrastructure, the Internet is now being tested as never before.

As we rapidly pivot to distance education, we also have to make sure to not get caught so flat-footed again. Education systems everywhere must begin long-term planning and building of distance education systems so we are ready for the next, inevitable, emergency. If there is one lesson from COVID-19, it is that distance education cannot be a “nice to have” parallel to the existing education system; it has to be a “must have,” integrated, essential component of the overall education system.


  • If you are new to the term “Learning Management System,” read about them here and here. Since most webinar platforms involve a cost (Zoom is free for up to 40 minutes) or a limit participants (for example Skype, though it’s not technically a webinar platform), you may want to try two free webinar platforms that are good for scale: BigBlueButton or Open Broadcaster Software.
  • I have been writing, since 2014, for E-Learning Industry. These posts cumulatively focus on “building the elearning system” and can be found here. The entire E-Learning Industry site itself has thousands of free articles about every aspect of online learning.
  • Windows user, since this blog was published, we’ve learned that you should beware of clicking on links in Zoom’s chat window as hackers can steal your Windows credentials and launch programs. Read more information


Burns, M. et al. (2019, November). ICTs in Secondary Education in Sub-Saharan Africa: Policies, Practices, Trends and Recommendations.

Burns, M. (2011). Distance Education for Teacher Training: Modes, Models and Methods.

Related blogs


Very relevant even to the context of countries like Pakistan.

Great piece. I work with Africa Education Watch in Ghana. My organization has just rolled out an interactive web-based school using blackboard. However, we have realised we are unable to reach rural students in Ghana since about 30% of Ghana is without the internet or electricity. That is why i find the IRI bit interesting. The question is, how interactive can radio be? Are we talking of recorded interactive classes played back on radio?

In reply to by kofi asare

Hi Kofi,

There's broadcast radio and radio lessons that can have some interactive if they have kids sing along, etc. But interactive radio is different altogether. Programs are specifically mapped to a national curriculum, and it focuses on promoting child-centered instruction by directing the teacher to do certain activities (for example, put students in pairs and distribute a certain resource) while interacting with students ("Ok, students, do A, B and C with your partner.") Students interact with content, with the teacher and with each other. In some one hour programs there are as many as 100 separate interactions.

It's not as interactive as two-way radio where a teacher and students interact live but most countries (apart from Australia) have used two-way live radio instruction (at least that I know of).

Education Development Center has been a leader in Interactive Radio Instruction and Interactive Audio Instruction. You can read more here: or reach out to my colleague, Rachel Christina, with questions (rchristina [at] edc [dot] org).

I hope I answered your question.


All these options has potential, however, all approaches need to consider reasonable accommodations for reaching learners with specific learning difficulties or disabilities.

Hi all, There's something up with GPE's blog so I will respond to everyone here.

Imtiaz, Great to see your name pop up again. We were in contact when I was co-facilitating the INEE TPD in Crisis discussion series. I hope you are well and yes, I think IRI and radio would be very helpful for Pakistan.

Kofi: IRI is a radio broadcast but it directs teachers and kids in activities. It's actually quite interactive because it varies lessons every few minutes, has songs, games, group work. One study showed 100 interactions between learners per episode.

Sian, Yes, there have to be accommodations for learners with special needs. Technology is good at that (via assistive technologies, text-to-speech, etc.) But I think special needs kids are especially being left behind right now because of the pandemic.

The best to you all. Thank you for reading and commenting. Stay safe!


Hi Mary

What an insightful article...thank you for it.

We are a network of catholic schools from around the world who are developing a website for schools globally to support teachers, parents and students during this time.

Would you mind if we use your article ...with credit of course and links to your page?

Many thanks

Brian Garrone

In reply to by Brian Garrrone

Hi Brian,

Yes, you may and thanks for asking. Your network originated in Ireland! I had no idea.

All the best,


Very interesting article but in Bangladesh, only 56% of the households have access to television in the country; 95% of the households have mobile phones; 6% households have internet connection; and only 0.6% of households have radios. The government together with other agencies have started on-line learning programs using national TV channels in efforts to deal with the huge risks posed to the education of children in general during the COVID 19 crisis but 44% of the children, generally the most vulnerable, that may not have access to the television and other remote learning facilities, remain out of reach. We are struggling to continue their education and are looking for alternative strategies from around the world.

In reply to by Tahsinah Ahmed

Hi Tahsinah,

It's interesting that the Bangladeshi government is not leveraging phones since ownership is so high. I'm curious to know if the English in Action infrastructure is still available in Bangladesh. Would it be possible to build on that infrastructure and know how to reach students?


In reply to by Mary Burns

Hello Mary. Majority have access to mobile phones but not to smart phones and internet access is quite low. Government and implementing agencies are using mobile phone as a modality but its quite challenging. The concern is more in regard to students from poorer families who cannot afford data packages for on line classes. Those from better off families are attending on-line classes which the government has launched in collaboration with stakeholders for primary, secondary, technical (pedagogy) classes. The government is also negotiating with mobile phone operators for concessions for poorer families but this is in discussion.
The English in Action project ended as far as I know. i am not sure if the network they used remains.

Good day
We have a similar problem here in South Africa. As an NGO, we are planning a two way radio (walkie talkie) based teaching and learning system for distant communities without electricity. The closest example we have found is Alice School of the air in Australia.Can you advise or point us to where we can get more information about these types of schools.

In reply to by Talent

Hello, I know Schools of the Air uses two-way radio (actual radio sets not walkie talkies that I know of--but you could ask about that) for students in Western Australia and NW Territory. It's also supplemented with online learning. I can't tell you who to contact but I'd start with national ministry of education in Canberra. There's a strong Aussie-South Africa connection you could probably tap into.

Good luck!


My concern is about vocational training for vulnerable girls and women who are basically illiterates. Before covid came, we often go to communities to teach these people practical skills, inspirational stories and before we empower them with micro funds. How do we go on from here, knowing fully well that it's one thing to say I learnt something on radio it's another thing to be convinced you learnt and so qualified for micro loans.

In reply to by Mayowa Akinpeloye

Hello Mayowa, This whole pandemic is so tragic, especially for the girls you mention. Vocational education is so presence-based. I don't know where you are but thoughts turn to video--is there a way to create short, segmented instructional videos and push them out via phones, in particular if girls have access to WhatsApp? Interactive radio or even direct radio broadcasts might help to substitute with some parts of vocational education. Or just maybe pushing out documents/images with lots of vector graphics that illustrate processes but keep bandwidth low could be another.

I wish you and the girls the best.



Hi, am a Zambian researcher who assisted in the evaluation of the effectiveness of IRI in our country. The programme was intended very well but it had a number of challenges that were identified, to mention a few; lack of trained teachers into the use of radios, inconsistent time tabling from the broadcasting point, some head teachers had packed and could not see the value of the radios, and most teachers that participated in the workshops conducted were transferred to institutions thereby leaving a gap in those schools.
Therefore, if the programme is to be sustainable this time we need to turn the challenges into realities.


I enjoy looking through an article that will make people think.

thanks For Sharing This List Very Important details.

Best of luck for you success.

Nice posting. These blogs are very helpful Thanks a lot. Keep it up.

In reply to by jerry miller

Hi Jerry, Thank you for all your comments. I hope you are safe and well during this time.


"The inclusion of an 'education slot' in our curriculum is a strategic move towards holistic learning. This dedicated time serves as a focused opportunity to delve deeper into key concepts, providing students with a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter. The 'education slot' acts as a catalyst for critical thinking and encourages active participation, fostering an environment where students can engage in meaningful discussions and collaborative learning. It plays a crucial role in shaping well-rounded individuals, preparing them not only for academic success but also for the challenges they may encounter in their future endeavors."

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