COVID-19 has upended everything in Timor-Leste, but it has also been a catalyst for experimentation and rethinking how the education system works. It’s been the most exciting time of my career, to seize the opportunity to do so much to transform how the education system works in just a few short months. I feel like the country has skipped ahead a few years. Things happened so fast.
Timor-Leste was one of the first countries to try the Learning Passport, a global online learning platform developed through a partnership between UNICEF and Microsoft. The platform acts as a digital library of teaching and learning resources covering the entire primary and secondary education curriculum as well as teacher training materials. Although it was originally intended for refugees and internally displaced children, the Timorese Government quickly saw the opportunity to use it to keep children learning while schools were closed in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the first 48 hours of its launch in early May, nearly 1,000 learners had registered. By September, the numbers had grown to 23,454 users. Of these, approximately 15,000 are teachers – virtually all the country’s teaching workforce – who have taken online courses on the platform to prepare for schools’ reopening.
The challenges, particularly at the start, were daunting. Internet connections are not always good. Many families have only one mobile phone to share amongst the children. Data is expensive, and neither teachers nor parents were necessarily well versed in accessing online learning platforms using their phones.
If you get all the players on board, you can make it happen.
Yet, they found a way. Teachers helped one another learn to use the platform. The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports and UNICEF became a single team sitting at the table, dividing up tasks. Children helped their parents figure out how to access the Learning Passport on their phones. Education partners, including non-governmental organizations, offered their tablets and internet access for quickly arranged trainings for teachers on how to use the platform. Families found data plans offered by the day and downloaded materials so that their children could use them offline to keep costs in check. Everyone came together and made it work.
There were some very long days, but when colleagues sent me videos of their kids using the Learning Passport, it was so rewarding. Seeing real people using it warmed my heart and kept me motivated. All the extra hours were worth it.
Now that the Learning Passport is well established in the country, I want to focus on impact. I want to locate more devices so that more children can access digital learning. It’s a small country. If you get all the players on board, you can make it happen. I want to challenge people’s beliefs that digital learning is only for high-income countries. I want to continue to work with partners like Microsoft to decrease data costs. I want to keep expanding the resources on the platform so that it serves more and more children, including by uploading more accessible materials, both for children with disabilities and learning difficulties but also for those who speak different local languages. I want to continue helping education authorities to plan longer-term investments in digital learning, including the ability to create new content. In short, I want to inspire people and spur them to action to bring digital learning to all children in Timor-Leste.
Maria Lujan Tubio is an Education Specialist, UNICEF Timor-Leste.