Activating local study-groups for children’s learning—an equitable EdTech response?

By Tom Power, Open University

An equitable educational response to the COVID school closures must recognise that, in low and middle-income countries, as shown by UNICEF data most children affected by such closures do not have access to the internet. Policymakers and educators must then find ways to provide learning opportunities offline. Learning does not happen just by giving children educational materials—children also need time, space and support. 

For example, examining the educational response to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, PLAN International found that ‘study groups provided much-needed space and time for girls—in fact, it was often the only time girls got to study outside of the school’. Without such support, most children did not have sufficient literacy and numeracy skills, confidence, motivation, or time for self-study. Without the help of adults or peers, children struggled with the language and pace of educational resources. Can we activate similar support for children’s learning, through local educators and caregivers, using available technologies and building upon existing relationships?

IGATE-T is a Girls Education Challenge project, funded by UK Aid and developed in collaboration with the Zimbabwe Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, to improve literacy, numeracy and life skills for over 70,000 marginalised girls from 318 schools across Zimbabwe. While schools are closed during the COVID crisis, IGATE-T project partners—World Vision, CARE and The Open University—are exploring how they can use adults’ mobile phones to activate local study groups for children. 

Building on existing relationships, they are using WhatsApp to recruit and support local Community Learning Champions who can share Daily Learning Activities with children and caregivers. This approach, developing support networks for the informal study of basic literacy and numeracy skills, is currently being trialled in four of the nine project districts with approximately 100 champions reaching over 1,000 children. In-depth research is about to begin.

The Daily learning activities were set up as simple games or challenges for use by community volunteers. Activities are made to benefit a wide range of learners—being ‘low threshold and high ceiling’—and to prevent regression by actively maintaining existing knowledge and skills. 

Figure 1, Example numeracy activity—Imagine you only have 1c, 5c, 10c and 25c coins. Can you find 3 or more ways to make the amount of money below? 88c…

Identifying the right community learning champions

To explore what was possible, field staff identified volunteers with strong ties to the local community who were known to the programme and were reachable through WhatsApp—people who were literate and numerate, passionate about learning, and willing to help. The first group of 46 champions—including teachers, school committee members, community educators, and girls’ education champions—were identified from 8 schools in 2 districts. They were given ‘airtime’—a 220MB monthly data allowance—and formed into support groups, all accomplished remotely through their mobile phones.

Disseminating activities

Over the last five weeks, daily activities have been shared with the community learning champions. Champions have used their community networks to share activities with parents and caregivers via WhatsApp, SMS or by copying out small handwritten notes for those without phones. Some have posted notes in public areas like boreholes and other meeting spaces. Older siblings have also been encouraged to help support children who are unable to read and write. Additionally, champions are doing daily activities with children who live nearby—particularly supporting children who don’t have literate parents to help them. Group sizes have been limited to four or five children and champions are identifying solutions for reaching more learners within the constraints of the lockdown.

Figure 2, Example literacy activity—Choose an animal or bird. Imagine that you are that animal or bird. Write about your day. What do you do? What do you like…

This approach is one example of how The Open University’s International Teacher Education for Development (ITED) programme is working towards Retention of children as learners. The ITED programme is helping frame an international education response to COVID-19 around five interlinked priorities: Retention, Relationships, Refocussing, Reflection and Resilience.  We are sharing ideas and ways of working that might be helpful for other education initiatives moving into–or adapting–Open and Distance Learning modes of delivery through the COVID-19 crisis

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