Reimagining Classrooms To Tackle Challenges Brought By The Pandemic
While the COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives and brought about abrupt changes in the status quo, nowhere is this more evident than in the education sector.
“We knew going online would be the way forward, but we didn’t have a lot of experience. We were stumped in the ‘how’ of it all,” says Ghanshyam Solanki, who heads the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme – India (AKRSP(I)) centre in Mangrol, Gujarat.
Educational institutions closed virtually overnight and went online for many students. Though daunting, these changes allowed an opportunity for educators to rethink how we can build systems that equip students for the jobs of tomorrow and address systemic inequalities, including the digital divide.
The pandemic put enormous strain on educators, forcing them to adapt and make big changes in a very short period of time. The amount and type of changes differed from state-to-state.
To equip educators with the tools and skills to transition to an entirely digital medium of teaching, we organized numerous short programs and initiatives across projects. One such initiative is anchored for our Vocational Training Institutes (VTIs).
MyQuest’s Virtual Learning Pilot was initiated to support VTI trainers in the states of Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the North-East region. More than 90 trainers from the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme – India (AKRSP(I)), Assist, Careship, Cedra, Centre For Development And Empowerment Of Women (CDEW), Human Development and Research Centre (HDRC), Janvikas, Navjeevan, Salesian Sisters, Sama Foundation, Sparsha, and St. Thomas Trust are part of this pilot.
The pilot built capacities of trainers for online delivery of lessons and virtual student engagement. Trainers demoed various digital tools like PowerPoint, Google classroom, Webex, Zoom etc. to create and conduct engaging sessions. The pilot also supported e-mobilization activities, and drew up methods to facilitate industry engagement and student placements remotely.
Ghanshyam Solanki from Gujarat’s Junagadh district was part of this initiative. His AKRSP(I) centre would accommodate 60 students on a regular day. When the government announced a nation-wide lockdown to control the spread of COVID-19, Ghanshyam was forced to think of an alternative strategy to continue training his students. Luckily for him – though this is not the case for most of India – mobile phone access and internet connectivity was not too bad in that locality. Students had a mobile phone, in some cases borrowed one, and decent enough internet; so online classes seemed doable.
But the inexperience of having done something like this before loomed large in the days that followed. “We were stumped in the ‘how’ of it all,” he says. The Virtual Learning Pilot helped Ghanshyam navigate some of the challenges. With steady support, his centre was able to launch three online training batches for youth in the district, while mobilization for the fourth batch is nearly complete. The centre is proud of their close to 90% attendance for their three-month training module. Ghanshyam hopes to make online sessions a regular feature at the centre, even after the pandemic recedes. “One key difference we have seen is the participation of women in our trainings, which has gone up from 40% to 55%,” he adds. Women who were previously not allowed to leave homes and venture to campuses to pursue training are now able to enroll online.
While parts of Gujarat have tided over the disruption by going online quickly, our VTI partners in the North East have not had that luxury. In Meghalaya, when the lockdown began, Lyntiborn Marngar, a facilitator at Grassroot, suddenly found herself disconnected from her students. Spread across six villages in the east Jaintia hills, most students didn’t have access to the internet.
“Poor internet connectivity and general chaos during the pandemic, stalled all our training-related intervention for a period of five months.”
-- Lyntiborn Marngar, a facilitator at Grassroot, Meghalaya
As of today, Grassroot has resumed in-person training in the region. Lyntiborn made it a point to introduce some of the tools and knowledge she gained at the Virtual Learning Pilot in her classroom sessions. “Computers and mobile phones are now the norm in our sessions; which adds a good mix of activity-based and tech-based learning,” she says. Her students now understand and engage with digital learning. Trainers like Lyntiborn have been able to demystify technology for the communities they work with, thereby helping them adapt to the disruption and bridge the digital disconnection.
It might be easy to think of the North East as disconnected in some ways, and the digital divide seemingly understandable. But amongst the numerous things the past 9 months have taught us, is the fact that India's digital divide is stronger and more common on gendered lines than on lines of socio-economic or geographical disparity.
In the heart of Bangalore, Karnataka, our partner Careship's centre in JP Nagar struggled to transition to online classes. It is a centre exclusively for women; most of whom didn’t have access to phones or a computer. Their batch after the lockdown was announced had only 10 students. The learning curve for trainers as well as students was rather steep -- they had to take students through the basics like logging into an online meeting and creating an email account.
They organized online parent and family meets to emphasize on the need for online devices for learning, and ease any qualms they had about allowing their daughters, sisters and wives access to the internet. "In some cases, we provided spare phones to our students", says Asha K., a facilitator at Careship. Some of their students are mothers and therefore preferred their children use the household phone for their classes. Trainers had to urge them that sparing even an hour for their own learning is bound to help them in the long run.
Of course things got easier for subsequent batches as students got accustomed to using online tools and households found their balance within the sudden disruption. "While I personally miss physical classes, the pandemic did help me realize that online facilitation can be an alternative to ensure learning in these difficult times", Asha K. adds.
A very real concern for us was that young people – especially young women – who are digitally disconnected and isolated are likely to drop out of their courses, and therefore MyQuest’s Virtual Learning Pilot focused on helping trainers reach out to vulnerable youth all through the lockdown. The pilot has thus far impacted 3,560 learners in Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the North-East region, implementing a steady learning strategy through Quest App, Google Classroom + meet and even WhatsApp. This pilot was supported by Accenture, Bank of America and HSBC.
Since the pilot, our trainers across 51 centres have been able to effectively conduct classes despite the pandemic and have also managed to secure placements for their students in this difficult time. For us, the pilot allowed us a view of the digital divide that was now magnified, and helped us leverage the power of partnership and ingenuity to address the learning needs of youth across the country.
As we consider what education may look like after COVID-19 recedes, we understand that now is the time to collaboratively build on these micro-innovations and rethink the classroom.
Read more about the MyQuest program.
Lyntiborn MarngarFacilitator, Grassroot Meghalaya
“Computers and mobile phones are now the norm in our sessions; which adds a good mix of activity-based and tech-based learning.”