Adversity drives Innovation: Learning in the time of COVID-19

I rejoined the Delhi office of Pratham Education Foundation on March 2nd after a hectic 10-day schedule of shooting a film about the organisation. The team at our Delhi office had just begun to brainstorm on how to use the extensive footage we had shot. Little did we know that within a couple of weeks, life would come to a screeching halt. 
 
As early as March 5th, 2020, the organisation suspended work-related travel and by March 17th, a week before the nationwide lockdown began, all our field operations were halted as the threat of COVID-19 started to get real in India. For most people at Pratham, working in the field with communities and children was a fundamental element of their jobs. We were more concerned about the millions of children and youth we were directly engaging through our learning camps, library groups, and educational and vocational programmes. The sudden interruption could undo much of the progress made by us.
 
Two things helped us tide over this crisis. One was, of course, the deep penetration of mobile phones and wireless data. The other was the rapport and relationships we had cultivated through our work at the grassroots level over the past two-and-a-half decades. Our nationwide network of Pratham team members and volunteers sprang into action almost immediately to ensure continuity in our interventions in the times of physical distancing. 
 
Sharing our repository of digital learning content containing 3,000 videos, 300 educational games, and 3 learning applications in 11 languages was the first step, but there was a challenge. Despite widespread use of smartphones in India, there were many in our target group who had feature phones. Our teams burnt the midnight oil to convert and adapt the learning content into SMS texts. We are calling this daily engagement and remote learning activity with children and parents – Karona, Thodi Masti, Thodi Padhai. Under it, we share project-based learning activities with children in more than 12,000 communities across 20 states. Our field teams then follow-up with the children’s families through video conferencing or phone calls for further engagement. This helps us in keeping our ear to the ground and get quick feedback straight from the field. The most heartening bit is that children send us pictures and videos of them working on projects and doing activities with their families. We hear straight from parents and grandparents, who are now deeply involved in their children’s journey of learning. This engagement is critical not just for improving learning but also to reduce stress and anxiety caused by COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions. The daily tasks have provided a routine and structure to the days of thousands of children. 
Our focus is on sharing engaging learning content so that children look forward to their daily tasks. We also try to ensure that these tasks and activities are designed using things found easily at home. For instance, we shared a Whatsapp video titled ‘Tring Tring telephone’ to teach children how to make a phone using paper cups and some string. Many children immensely enjoyed the activity and the sheer joy of creating something from scratch. 
To engage pre-school children, we share SMS and Whatsapp activities with their parents. For instance, we asked children to use number cards and set up a shop using wrappers, vegetables, or anything found at home to sell to the grown-ups who acted as customers. Children learnt social interaction, counting, object identification, and the basics of shop keeping while having fun when doing the activity.
 
It is interesting that before the COVID pandemic, we were working in 5,000 – 7,000 villages but today, our remote learning content is being accessed by more than 12,000 communities. Nothing stopped us from exploring remote learning options earlier, but COVID-19 caused a disruption that motivated us to innovate and adapt. This has also created opportunities for forging long-term collaborations with other organisations and government departments to strengthen foundational learning for children. So far, we have collaborated with 14 state governments, more than 200 NGOs and other partners to enable remote learning across the country by sharing our digital content and SMS learning content mapped to grades and subjects, along with IVR and radio content.
 
Our team in Maharashtra has collaborated with All India Radio’s Nagpur station to broadcast a programme titled ‘Shale Baherchi Shala’ (A school outside school) twice a week. The programme is broadcast in six districts of Maharashtra. And the villages where there are limited radio devices and smart phones, loudspeakers that are already in place in public spaces are used. 

When schools reopen, the children will return after having experienced remote learning and virtual classrooms, parents would be much more involved in their child’s learning, and teachers will have experience of teaching remotely. 

It is time we start preparing for this new normal and aim for an amalgamation of best practices of classroom and virtual learning so that the lessons learnt are not lost when “normalcy” is restored. A recent report by the World Bank Group titled ‘The COVID-19 Pandemic: Shocks to Education and Policy Responses’ shares some insight. “The school closures will necessarily drive a lot of innovation in the use of learning technology, as discussed,” it says. “Once schools have reopened, systems can shift from emergency remote-learning systems to more sustained models that blend remote learning and other uses of technology with teacher-led instruction. Systems should have a sense of what is working so far, in terms of technology; the most effective methods can be integrated with classroom teaching to drive learning and keep students engaged.”
 
Even in these dark and difficult times, we chose to be optimists. We believe that adversity can drive innovation and our experience during the lockdown makes us believe that the future of learning in India is brimming with opportunities.
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