Published Sep 9, 2022
In the wake of COVID-19, while on one hand it is being pointed out that there is a rise in dropout, child marriage and child labour, on the other hand those who remain in schools are struggling with substantial learning loss. Almost 90% of children across classes 2 to 6, lost Mathematics abilities and 80% Language abilities (APF, 2021)* - subjects responsible for developing transferable knowledge and skills, and essential for learning in future classes and other subjects.
As is always the case, children with existing vulnerabilities suffer more. Students whose academic levels, particularly in rural and semi-urban areas, were already far below the target feel completely lost.
“When schools were closed due to COVID-19 pandemic, I was worried about my studies. The Utkarsh (Transform Learning in Odisha) books were provided to us by our school. Utkarsh subject videos were shared in our WhatsApp groups. They used different materials and pictures to make the teaching attractive. It was very helpful for us to revise previous concepts and learn new concepts. We could answer the worksheets given in the book with the guidance of teachers.”, says Rohan Tandi, Class 9, Govt. High School Burla, Odisha.
Girls, children from extremely poor backgrounds and those living in remote locations were almost cut off from education for more than 18 months. Learning recession after a long break- such as summer vacations- is a common pain point for educators. The pandemic- related break has resulted in a recession in knowledge, and also in the socialisation and acculturation that happens as a result of schooling.
Learning levels in classrooms are heterogenous - at any given point of time children are at very different learning levels, and these differences are more exaggerated in public schools. Most post-pandemic classrooms are seeing an intensification of this and a very high standard deviation in the learning levels of the children.
The baggage of unlearnt or shaky concepts makes continuity in school and transition to higher grades difficult. Several states are attempting to recover from the learning losses of the last two years. Recognition of this emergency-like situation has led to the inclusion of learning recovery programmes in states’ Annual Work Plan and issuing of guidelines from the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), “Based on the results of NAS schools will have to prepare a focused strategy and re-imagine the teaching-learning process and introduce a suitable method of delivering quality education in this period.”
MHRD recommendations include a tablet for each teacher to support hybrid learning, Oral Reading Fluency Study, ICT facility at the block-level and strengthening of Cluster Resource Centres (CRCs).
In this article, we look at how Transform Schools grappled with pandemic’s impact on public schools, as well as the resulting evolution of our thinking and approach to learning enhancement, including, what we learnt from other people’s experiences.
Transform Learning: A solution to accumulated learning losses
Transform Schools, People For Action, works at the intersection of learning and equity, focusing on the post-primary space, in partnership with State governments. We have a ring-side view of efforts made to bridge learning losses.
As per NAS 2021, students’ performance deteriorated across subjects and in consequent grades. Correct responses were only 59% in class 3, declining to 49% in class 5, and 41.9% in class 8. While this indicates that almost 50 % of concepts are unlearnt or shaky, the subject-wise disaggregation and the standard deviation are likely to show deeper learning slides than perceived by looking at averages.
As an organisation, we have always considered learning level delays as a critical indicator to identify those at risk of drop-outs, and thus a key concern to be addressed. Transform Learning (TL) has been our response to this. TL is a targeted instruction model addressing cumulative learning loss at the elementary and secondary levels. TL has proven impact, adding between 40-200% learning gains in just 50 hours of instruction, by strengthening foundational competencies and prerequisite concepts to make classroom learning accessible. Students have shown significant learning gains across subjects, and all students have seen some learning gains no matter their starting level.
To deepen our understanding and share our experience of working during the pandemic and struggling with the uncertainties of school closures, we hosted a dynamic session at the Global Evaluation Initiative’s (GEI) Evaluation Week 2022, ‘Making Secondary Education Accessible - Going Blended for Learning Gains. Richa Goswami and Shraddha Jha who lead programmes and Neetu Sahu who lead impact and quality assurance delved into our journey to reach children during the pandemic, improvements and pivots we made to deliver quality learning, and our assessment approach to understand and improve quality and impact. MHRD recommendations include a tablet for each teacher to support hybrid learning, Oral Reading Fluency Study, ICT facility at the block-level and strengthening of Cluster Resource Centres (CRCs).
Pandemic pivots: Meeting students where they are
The pandemic presented us with an unforeseen scenario of indefinite school closure and an overnight shift to digital modes, if we were to stay connected to our students. Transform Schools had to reimagine how we worked. We transitioned from a purely teacher-led classroom-based instruction to a blended mode i.e. teacher-guided home-based learning. Mixing physical and digital modes of training, assessment, teaching, learning and quality assurance. We -
Reduced programme duration, to prioritise key competencies and ease the burden on students grappling with a new system
Initiated multi-access delivery, with content on DIKSHA*, via student WhatsApp groups, and teaching via State YouTube Channels; and for those students who did not have digital access, there were printed workbooks and community-based classes
Used WhatsApp for deeper engagement, doubt clarification, feedback on worksheets, and any other additional support
Added co-scholastic content, to provide socio-emotional learning support
The principles behind the pivot were to arrest further learning regression, ensure that need-based or targeted learning resources and instruction were available to all children, and to remain mindful of the field reality where only about 30% have digital accessibility. These efforts led to 3.9 million children accessing education during school closures and seeing learning gains. A blended approach ensured that learning losses were arrested to the extent possible for all children and especially for those who were already lagging behind. The data presented later substantiates the claim. But there were certain challenges too:
Low participation - Government data and other studies indicate that only 35%-40% students have digital access. While govt. orders and follow-ups with students/parents to be part of the WhatsApp groups ensured reasonable participation, but it still remained much lower than pre-pandemic participation Limited engagement - Similar to the offline setting, some students were more active in WhatsApp groups or online classes, but it was a more complex challenge for teachers to elicit response and participation from all students remotely or to clarify doubts
Limited engagement - Similar to the offline setting, some students were more active in WhatsApp groups or online classes, but it was a more complex challenge for teachers to elicit response and participation from all students remotely or to clarify doubts
Lower learning outcomes - Due to low participation and limited engagement in blended mode, the learning gains were reduced. Our learning programmes did not report progress similar to pre-COVID19 years but we were successful in arresting the learning slide
Learnings from our programmes
Our M&E approach, both pre and during pandemic, covered the following broad areas - delivery of cascade trainings, school-level implementation and student assessments.
During COVID-19, our usual process of extensive assessments, pre-post of all activities, in-person observations and stakeholder interviews by trained Quality Assurance (QA) officials were not possible. Instead of scaling back our M&E, we decided to rapidly digitise the assessment tools and administer them through open-source technology, mostly Google forms. QA was done digitally, with trained officials joining WhatsApp groups and online classes for observations. Some of the benefits of the new
M&E approach were -
Real-time participation data: Teachers got access to real-time participation data which helped nudge students for increased participation
Saved time and ensured data quality: Automated data tabulation proved time efficient in comparison to paper-pen evaluations and student scores entry
Gained additional insights: Online tools captured student responses for each question, which provided additional information per learning outcome. This supported teachers to provide targeted instruction and also helped the team understand what were the areas that needed more support
While the QA team did conduct telephone calls with students to get insights on status of worksheet completion by students, student-teacher interaction and get feedback, an online survey was also launched for the same and the scale and speed of response were impressive - ~54K students provided feedback over just two days.
The digital nature of M&E meant that we were forced to keep assessments short, testing only limited competencies (Learnings Outcomes). Also, we believe that poor digital access might have led to underrepresentation of disadvantaged groups. These and other challenges like not being able to test the Listening, Speaking and Reading (LSR) abilities of students in language papers or being unable to check and validate the information with evidential documents e.g. availability of resources in schools or with the trainers at training sites have persisted. Given enough time and planning, these too can be addressed.
What did we learn from other colleagues in the sector?
150 participants joined the session and shared their views via polls conducted during the session and the question-answer session. The participants broadly included teachers, government officials and development sector professionals.
Reach and quality: Realities of the pandemic Respondents’ reach varied from 30 to 3M. 57% of respondents felt that their reach was much lower than usual, but at the same time, it was heartening that 67% respondents were confident of the quality of their intervention even having pivoted to digital delivery.
Digital tools for programme delivery
Respondents used several tools over the last two years to ensure the delivery of their programmes. WhatsApp, YouTube, DIKSHA and Google Forms/Classrooms stood out. WhatsApp emerged as the most familiar tool and thus had the highest usage as a pivot for reach. This could perhaps be attributed to its ease of access and expansive reach across the country, which was established much before the pandemic. Similarly, YouTube, as a familiar platform, made learning accessible by delivering high-quality content across geographies.
Digital tools for programme measurement and monitoring The most prominent tools for M&E were - Google Forms, WhatsApp, YouTube, DIKSHA and printed resources. Google Forms being a highly user-friendly tool with easy access to post-survey results, made it a powerful tool to collect and analyse data.
Potential of blended learning With a range of participants, in different roles but associated with the field of education it was an opportunity to understand what potential was perceived for a blended learning approach. More than half of the respondents found interest-based learning as the most exciting possibility within blended learning. 16% mentioned that they look forward to the possibility of adaptive learning and about 14% showed about real-time assessment.
Desire to join hands An overwhelming 98% of respondents resonated with Transform Schools’ desire to join hands and work together in ensuring that the journey of ed-tech and blended learning is inclusive. This is a new venture and working together, we can all leverage each other’s efforts and learning.
Conclusion: Blended learning as a step forward
Blended learning approaches have been used in higher education for many years. The pandemic made its use more widespread. However, it is an evolving approach, and there is a need to adapt it well to the realities of public education in India.
Over the last two years, with state investment in school ICT labs and resource creation, the possibility of working with a blended learning approach has become more feasible. Real-time deepening of targeted instruction to students’ level and interest, real-time continuous and comprehensive assessments, and building resilient learning to tide over future crises are some of the aspects of blended learning that excite us at Transform Schools.
As a first step towards this, Transform Schools is developing an inclusive blended learning platform called Accelerated Learning via Tech (ALT), which will take Transform Learning and its proven gains to more students, teachers and schools across the country extending both its reach and gains. ALT will include a pedagogy for blended learning, adaptive and personalised content, dashboards for improved instruction by teachers, and improved learning management by school leaders.
Education is a multi-stakeholder engagement. It is essential for the individual and their family as a personal good, but it is also valuable and one may say indispensable for the community and the nation. Thus, it is imperative that any such platform or system should include teachers, head teachers, parents and state systems as users with a focus on embedding it in state systems and processes.
Collaboration for shared goals is the way forward. Alongside more state-level partnerships as well as research and pro-bono partnerships, we will leverage the country’s large network of grassroots organisations- building their capacities to manage and implement quality and equitable learning programmes within their communities.
Towards this, we are in the process of creating communities of practice around community-based learning programmes on one hand, and tech-based, open-source solutions for digital learning on the other. We look forward to seeing what partnerships and insights develop in these spaces, and invite interested individuals and organisations to reach out to us.
*APF - Azim Premji Foundation
*DIKSHA- Digital Infrastructure For Knowledge Sharing