Friday, August 21, 2020

Bringing sense to EdTech: 5 pillars of an Edtech intervention

Author: Shravan Jha (Co-founder, i-Saksham)

It was the year 2014. As the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellows, we were working with the local district administration in Jamui district, Bihar to improve learning opportunities for students of three residential schools. Our experience of working with government schools over the past two years had reinforced our belief that teachers were simply a resource in the school system; and an easily replaceable one at that.

The answers lie in technology, or so we thought

Our initial belief was that educational technology (EdTech), was the solution, and would work independently of the teacher’s role in ensuring quality education to the students. We saw both the teacher and the tech simply as platforms for disseminating information. So, we designed our programme based on these assumptions. The two were compared on metrics such as the quantity, quality, and delivery of information, and on the way in which a student might benefit from the design advantage that technology offers--variety in type and use of content. For instance, ‘What information should I watch?’ (type of content), and ‘How should I engage with the information?’ (use). 

We pitched this idea to our friends, and though many of them were skeptical, they donated 60 tablets to us. Once the tablets were in place, we searched and partnered with a quality content provider, who provided us content free of cost. Then, we mapped the content with the state government’s syllabus, created groups of students who would be using them, installed apps that would monitor content use, and placed these tablets in three government residential schools. This intervention was designed based on our initial hypothesis that an EdTech platform will function independent of the teacher’s participation, as we thought factors associated with teachers (quality of instruction, lack of interest, absenteeism) were the major reasons that learning was not happening. 

However, once the initial euphoria and the real work set in, we started to realise that our intervention had several loopholes. This resulted in almost 50 percent of the tablets breaking in the first four months of the intervention, and the EdTech platform being used poorly by the students. Our learning from this intervention made us realise how our assumptions stopped us from considering what we now see as the five fundamental pillars of designing an EdTech intervention.

1. Information is not knowledge

The idea was to use technology as a platform for disseminating information which would be of a better quality, and would therefore help overcome the limitations of a teacher and the boredom of a textbook. We thought this would give students a chance to learn better, and at their own pace. However, we failed to realise that information is not knowledge. For information to become knowledge and be valued by the child, it has to go through processes of reasoning, dialogue, questioning, and sharing. A teacher, not technology, is best placed to facilitate this.

2. Forming a learning group doesn’t ensure accountability

Our intervention was built around the idea that a group of five students would share and learn from one tablet. These students were grouped based on their grades, and we assumed that since they shared common spaces, they would be more likely to support one another. This assumption turned out to be wrong. We realised that until a strong common identity, shared purpose, and regular reinforcement of values are built in, merely bringing people together and forming a group doesn’t lead to accountability.

3. Technology doesn’t automatically create agency for users

One of the central ideas of the intervention was that giving tablets to a group of students will ensure agency to all members of the group. This, however, was not how things panned out. In many groups, we found that certain members had emerged as decision makers, and they would decide what content would be watched, when, and how. This created a hierarchy within the group.

While we measured access to tablets at a group level, we ignored lack of access within these groups. We also ignored the importance of reinforcing the common purpose. What we failed to do was envision the influence a peer group leader could have and think of ways to identify and engage them in the intervention.

4. EdTech is a system, not an individual platform for disseminating information

Our intervention was focused on the platform and content, and all our energy was spent putting a tempered glass and a leather cover for protection, coding, and adding quality content to the tablets. We paid very little attention to understand our EdTech intervention as a system, with many components linked to each other.

We failed to ask, for instance: How many charging points were there in the schools? For how many hours did the school get electricity? What were the voltage fluctuations? How could we link speakers and audio splitters, which were necessary for some aspects of the content? This ignorance led to many of the tablets becoming dysfunctional within a short period, mainly due to high voltage fluctuations and using very poor-quality chargers to charge the tablets.

5. Teachers and EdTech are collaborators, not competitors

Throughout our intervention, we ignored the role of a teacher, believing we could circumvent them and link students to what mattered the most—a good content platform. This was our biggest failure. We failed to build on the possibility of bringing teachers and technology together. Doing so would have allowed the teacher to use EdTech as a powerful tool to expand their capabilities, and envision a learning ecosystem that breaks the limitation of textbooks or other resource constraints, creating endless possibilities

We believe the power of EdTech lies in creating and expanding these possibilities, not only for the students or the teacher but for all stakeholders. This is possible only when stakeholders have a stake and a voice in the intervention design.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Didis and Mothers taking the baton of education in villages of Bihar during Covid

Sangeeta, a young girl from Daniyalpur village in Munger district of Bihar, is making phone calls for 2 hours every single day, to tell stories to her children, and share learning activities with mothers. These activities are designed using daily objects  and can easily be understood by women, irrespective of their literacy level.

For example,. exploring leaves to learn about different shapes, counting utensils to learn numbers, and so on. 

Sangeeta’s efforts ensure that the children in her community continue their learning during the pandemic. Even though these children have limited access to digital technology.  Following the structured session plans  with learning activities appropriate to the level of each child gives heran  edge against digital solutions, which rely just on dissemination of content. 

 “Education is not only about sharing of information, but also as much about dialogue, debate, and critical analysis of information”, says Sangeeta. The in-person facilitation ensures that her children learn to do that instead of just consuming the animated content on the digital device. 

The disruptions caused by COVID-19 must serve as an inflexion point to recognise the critical role that community initiatives can play in education, especially in rural India.   The challenge to provide education in the deep interior pockets of the country during Covid is a case in point.

“Whom can we rely upon? Who can take the baton of educating our children?”, ask Ravi Dhanuka, Co-founder and CEO of I-Saksham Education And Learning Foundation (i-Saksham), a not-for profit organization working in extremism affected districts of Bihar to transform local youth - mainly females - into community edu-leaders.  

There are 100 edu-leaders like Sangeeta who are trained by i-Saksham go through a 2-year fellowship program. They help in imparting better quality education in remote areas, in partnership with government schools. During normal days, these edu-leaders go to under-resourced primary schools, and assist government school teachers to effectively teach multi-grade classroom through modern-day pedagogy methods. 

They meet school management committees every month, organize learning fairs in villages, and meet parents on an individual basis, to showcase how children have begun to show significant improvement in their learning level.

The forced school closures due to pandemic have affected over 30 crore children, resulting in poor children falling further behind and at risk of dropping out of the system.

In a separate initiative, i-Saksham has formed a collective with 7 educational organizations such as JEEViKA (a World Bank aided Livelihood Project that forms women self-help groups) and Mahila Samakhya (a MHRD run program to create women leaders who work on literacy and gender). The idea is to undertake community-led initiatives related to education in remote villages of the country during Covid-19. 



The project is running as ‘Shiksha Sahelis’ in Bihar, where young mothers, supported by these institutions are coming forward to run community learning centres as long as schools are closed, and undertake project based learning activities.  

“Our core belief has been that the community must demand quality education for any large scale change in the system to sustain”, shares Ravi. This core belief led to the birth of i-Saksham to work with youth, the most active agents of the society and create them into change-makers, the edu-leaders.

Kiran, a young mother, and another edu-leader from Mahgama Panchayat, affected with extremist violence, assists single teacher led schools with 5 grades in 1 classroom. 

“The way she manages her classroom by dividing children into various learning groups, and assigning them activities appropriate to their learning level would make any teacher hold his breath in awe”, shares the headmaster of the school. “She decorates her classroom so well each day based on the theme she is teaching, and uses many child-centric activity-based learning methods… which are generally seen only in training sessions!” 

“My biggest achievement has been that my community members, parents of these kids, have become hopeful of change”, say Sangeeta and Kiran. “They now believe that their children can learn. They have access to the same educational methods that rich kids would pay every month the sum equivalent to our annual income”.

The impact of i-Saksham not only transforms the educational journey of children, but also the lives of youth ie  the edu-leaders. Today, 10 of i-Saksham first batch of edu-leaders are pursuing professional courses in education from prestigious universities of the country like Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai; and Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

Ravi (director, i-Saksham) shares that the fight against inequity in education is huge and cannot be won unless more and more spaces and capabilities are created to support the mainstream public education system. Solely blaming the system won’t help. We must first become the capable community to support the system and then must also learn to hold it accountable. 

Unless we learn to do it, we can’t expect democratic institutions like schools to perform well. They too respond to the need of their clients, based on how vociferous their customers are. It is high time to revitalize the third pillar-the community, one of the critical building blocks of a good society (as Raghuram Rajan argues in his book-The Third Pillar).

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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