Monday, August 10, 2020

Community’s critical role in education during COVID-19


Covid-19 crisis is unprecedented and has caused severe damage to health, lives, and livelihoods of billions across the world. In education, while those with resources are able to fill some gaps through the plethora of online content and learning services, children of poor are even more vulnerable. Schools are closed (and may remain closed for months), parents have fewer resources and the opportunities to learn are curtailed because of social distancing and related norms. The situation demands creative solutions to ensure children continue to learn and their life chances are not affected. 

Various models of distance learning are being attempted across the globe to deal with the present crisis. The selection of the right technology and right delivery model is important to ensure that poor people with limited access to the internet, or smartphones do not get excluded widening the prevalent educational inequity.  The involvement of parents/caregivers, elder siblings, and community youths who are closer to children becomes extremely critical to provide the last mile assistance. The delivery mechanisms must provide space for their training and capacity building to facilitate the delivery of learning. 

The article describes the experiences of one of such community based learning models, with the aid of technology, implemented by I-Saksham Education and Learning Foundation (i-Saksham) in Jamui, and Munger, two left-wing extremism affected districts of Bihar. The objective is to evoke discussions on possible models of educational response in such critical times, and partner with like-minded individuals/organizations to collectively fight the crisis.

i-Saksham Fellowship Program

i-Saksham provides quality primary education to children by building community edu-leaders (local youths, mainly females or different-abled)  through a 2-year fellowship program. These edu-leaders provide supplementary education in nearby government primary schools as a fellow volunteer to enrich the educational experiences of children and work with the community to enhance their participation and ownership.

Reaching out to parents to assess the ground situation

After the declaration of lockdown, i-Saksham conducted a telephonic survey with 500 parents to understand the prevailing situation and learning practices during the lockdown. The data, interestingly, revealed that 70% of children were engaged in some sort of learning activities at home and were being helped by parents/caregivers. Further, while all surveyed families had basic phones, 50% of children’s’ families had smartphones/ jio-phones which they were happy to share for a couple of hours for learning.

i-Saksham learning model during Covid-19

The insights helped build a strategy that guides parents/caregivers, leverage technology wherever possible but must not leave the have-nots, and make learning effective for children. 

Capacity building of edu-leaders

i-Saksham conducted a virtual training session with edu-leaders for two weeks initially to acclimatize them to the model of distance learning, and prepare them to lead the sessions with children. Following the training of edu-leaders, session plans were designed to guide them on facilitation with defined learning objectives.

Creative session plans

We have based our interventions on the following principles: 
i. The mere transmission of digital content would not serve the learning need. The sessions must be engaging for children along with learning activities.  
ii. The session should build on what children know and deliver content adapted to their context.
iii. The session design must encourage parental engagement and ensure that the child seeks support from her family.  
iv. The edu-leader should facilitate child-child interactions, parent-child interactions.

Considering the above, storytelling and poems were made key ingredients to facilitate sessions on structured themes. The Mathematics session was rebuilt around different conceptual activities in relation to the real world around the children. Basic information and precautions around COVID-19 were also made part of sessions.

Sonam, a fellowship alumna took the initiative to narrate stories to her students through the phone. After narrating stories to them, she gives writing and drawing based homework to children to express their learning.

The right use of right technology

We strongly believe that while technology has the capacity to empower, its non-availability shouldn’t be a constraint for children’s learning. Thus, we distribute digital content wherever smartphones are available, and deliver sessions daily over con-calls to children with access to only basic phones. The session includes story-telling on specific themes, various learning activities, and engaging home assignments that require parental involvement  

Praveen, an edu-leader from the second batch of fellowship convinced parents to share smartphones with children for at least 2 hours/day. He is now making them solve mathematics exercises through phone/video calls. Parents and children are enjoying it.

Engaging parent/siblings in the child’s education

The edu-leaders involved parents/caregivers to provide onsite learning support to children, facilitate handling of the phone, and assist in completing the planned learning activities/assignments. The homework is designed with a focus on engaging parents- for example, children asking parents about names of various aquatic animals, after listening to the story of an alligator.
In addition, i-Saksham seeks regular feedback of parents and their inputs on learning progress or needs of children through periodic phone calls and incorporates them into the session designs. 

Challenges, Learning and way forward 

There have been challenges of engaging groups of toddlers on phone, as well as phone connectivity in certain areas. However, the children, the parent community, and the edu-leaders are adapting fast and are finding their own ways to make the phone calls an engaging and effective learning experience.

The greatest contribution has come from the parents irrespective of their literacy levels to ensure children's participation, follow up on completion of homework assignments, and grant access to phones.

The active role being played by the community in the education of children in such critical times proves their indispensability. Learning from such experiments should strengthen the model of making the teaching-learning processes easy to do, simple to understand, and fun to participate in the community. It is only when the community participates and takes ownership in the educational outcomes of children that any large scale change becomes sustainable in the long run. 

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