PROVO — The LDS Church has launched pilot programs that are bringing education to children in Vanuatu, Samoa and Papua New Guinea.
The first pilot is called "extra class" by students in Vanuatu who meet in two meetinghouses of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said Stephanie Allen Egbert, associate director of the faith's new Global Education Initiative.
The program provides homework help and study sessions for students in grades 7 through 10. They meet two days a week for two hours with church service missionaries who tutor them. The missionaries also provide a religious lesson and English skill development.
All three pilots were approved by the LDS Church Board of Education in May 2016. They are the result of a brief new policy statement the board approved in November 2015:
"The Church Educational System will seek to provide opportunities for education to the members of the church wherever the church is organized."
The goal is to help Mormons both temporally and spiritually, Egbert said Monday during a presentation at the 28th annual conference of the LDS International Society at BYU's Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center.
"Illiterate members struggle to learn the gospel and participate," she said. "Church members with poor education struggle with self-reliance."
Elder Kim B. Clark, the church's commissioner of education, announced the CES Global Education Initiative in June.
The Vanuatu pilot launched in August and serves 45 students.
The pilot programs in Samoa and Papua New Guinea began last month.
The effort in Samoa provides novice-level English language learning to 33 students for one hour two days a week. The students range from ages 12 to 60. The program asks them to study an additional 10 hours a week.
In Papua New Guinea, the program is focused on helping 33 teenage dropouts return to school. Tutors supervise classes five days a week, providing lessons and activities in math, English, study skills and religion. Of the 33 students, 22 are from a single LDS congregation.
"That shows you how stark the challenges are," Egbert said.
Lessons are derived from the curriculum of the country where each pilot program is underway. The meetinghouses have Wi-Fi access, so technology can be used.
So far, Egbert said the pilot tests have encountered logistical and personnel challenges. In some areas, it is difficult to schedule time in church meetinghouses used frequently by missionaries and translation services. Transportation, technology and material storage are also issues.
More than 200 people attended the LDS International Society conference. This year's theme was "Learning in a World Church." Presentations included an expert on innovation in education, college students from France and Denmark and church service missionaries and students in the BYU-Idaho Pathway program.
Rhode Island's chief innovation officer, Richard Culatta, made a plea for "tequity" in education around the world — the use of technology to provide equity in education opportunities for all people.
"Thirty-two million Americans lack basic literacy and numeracy," the BYU graduate said. "Do we have a responsibility to do something about that? We are a religion based on a book. Do we have a moral responsibility to make sure people can read?"
He described five opportunities to use technology to close equity gaps — increase access to high-quality, affordable learning materials; increase access to expertise; adapt learning to student needs; support for navigating the education system; and increase accessibility.
Pathway is a three-semester program that prepares students for higher education. It combines online classes with a student gathering one night a week.
Culatta praised that dual approach.
"The amazing part is students don't learn well in isolation, and a lot of online learning is incredibly isolated," he said. "Pathway takes a great hybrid approach."
Pathway is designed to address the "higher education canyon," Elder Clark said.
The value of a college education in the global economy is rising, he added, but the costs are rising, too.
Pathway is inexpensive, $69 per credit hour in the United States and as low as $10 per credit hour in poorer countries. Students who complete Pathway can enroll in BYU-Idaho's online degree programs for the same price or continue their education at a local college. Overseas, many find jobs or better career opportunities simply because their English is improved.
On Aug. 1, Pathway will be folded into the new BYU-Pathway Worldwide. Pathway has grown from an annual international enrollment of 3,390 students in 2012 to 24,286 in 2016, Elder Clark said, and will be available at 500 international sites by the end of 2017. He said the program will add locations in Asia this year for the first time, adding sites in Japan and South Korea as well as India.
BYU-Pathway Worldwide will include Pathway and all Church Education System higher-education certificate and degree programs, including online degrees, technical and skills-based certificates and English-language certification.