From the dry, wind-burned Andean villages where the altitude thins the air and turns the land to dust to the lush Amazon jungle regions of Bolivia, the educational story is often the same: the opportunities for learning are reduced by isolation and the demands of daily life. Thirty-eight percent of children under five suffer from malnutrition, which is associated with four out of five deaths in young children. Ninety-four percent of rural households live in absolute poverty, much of the population does not speak Spanish, and 55% of the population is functionally illiterate in any language.
Look inside a classroom in rural Bolivia and the scene is equally discouraging, according to Michael Laflin and Andrea Bosch of EDC’s International Development Division (IDD). There are still few textbooks, the teaching method of choice is still whole-class rote instruction, and teachers provide little positive feedback. Many teachers are untrained and ill prepared, or too uncertain of the material themselves to provide a solid learning foundation. As a result, instruction in core subjects is inadequate and student repetition and drop-out is high, especially among rural girls.
Radios Provide an Opportunity for Change
However, in its decade of work in Bolivia, EDC has discovered and capitalized on some hidden opportunities for learning. Take, for example, this statistic from the United Nations report, State of the World’s Children (1997): Nearly 7 out of 10 Bolivian households have radios, a proportion far greater than any of the other eighty poorest countries in the world.
Recognizing radio’s potential to overcome educational, economic, and geographical obstacles, EDC—in partnership with the Bolivian government and other NGOS—began developing and piloting radio-based curriculum materials. Where they are used, the radio lessons enliven the classroom atmosphere through the imaginative use of stories, songs, physical activities, and role plays which invite the active participation of the student in the learning process. The strategies began as an experiment, but have been institutionalized and adapted to meet the needs of Bolivians across the country.
“Radio instruction is just one example of an amalgam of interwoven educational approaches that we call multichannel learning,” explains Laflin. The use of multiple channels—whether they be a variety of teaching strategies or an array of different media and delivery systems—takes account of the fact that many people in developing countries do not have access to good opportunities for learning. Resources are scarce, educational approaches tend to rely exclusively on traditional rote learning, and teacher and parent training is often limited by obstacles such as distance, language, and cultural barriers.
Multichannel learning approaches tap the educational potential of interpersonal relationships by engaging teachers and caregivers as well as children. And they expand access to learning by providing opportunities outside of schools and within homes, villages, and communities.
Some Examples in Bolivia:
- Between 1988 and 1995, more than 600 Radio Math and Radio Health lessons were developed within Bolivia, and close to a million students and teachers benefited from them. Evaluations of learning gains showed that the children who used the programs far outperformed their counterparts in control groups.
- In 1992, the success of three grades of radio mathematics lessons led IDD to apply similar strategies to health. Children learned the rudiments of illness prevention (from getting vaccinated against disease to personal hygiene safely), first aid, and reproductive health and passed their learning on to their brothers and sisters through a child-to-child method. The teacher played a much bigger role in this series than in the more proscriptive mathematics programs. Evaluations of learning gains showed that the children who used the programs far outperformed their counterparts in control groups. Between 1988 and 1995, more than 600 Radio Math and Radio Health lessons were developed within Bolivia, and close to a million students and teachers benefited from them.
- In 1993, EDC began to pilot a new application of interactive radio instruction for women with young children under the age of six, meeting in caregivers’ homes. The programs, funded by USAID and carried out in Spanish and two local indigenous languages, were designed to serve simultaneously two purposes: (1) to guide the caregivers through the basics of early childhood development by having them engage in hands-on activities while the programs were on the air; and (2) to engage the children in age-appropriate educational games and lessons. A recent impact evaluation of this model in Bolivia analyzed the effect of the program on caregiver behavior and child development indicators over four months. It has shown that the programs are effective at improving the knowledge and behaviors of caregivers as compared to a control group. It is also having a positive effect on the overall child development indicators as measured by UNICEF in the Andean region, including indicators of psycho-social development, physical growth, care, language, and cognition. This approach was so successful that five other countries have since asked EDC to collaborate with them on similar programs.
- Since 1997, IDD has worked with World Education and Harvard University to apply and build on successful strategies to provide literacy instruction for women and girls. IDD is also assessing the impact of literacy programs on other social and economic behavior such as finding new ways to generate income, participation in community activities, and health-related behaviors.
- Finally IDD is working to integrate multichannel approaches into national and municipal systems, into local community learning and decision making processes, and into the lives and opportunities of Bolivian learners. These ongoing, multifaceted efforts promise to keep EDC’s commitment and involvement in Bolivia strong.
Originally published on September 1, 1998