Community Help for Inclusive Learning and Development (CHILD)

A study of how mobile phones were used to recruit and equip community volunteers to support children’s learning during Covid-19 school closures in Zimbabwe.

Introduction and context

During the global Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, governments instructed schools around the world to close their doors to learners. By mid-March, 107 countries had implemented national closures (Viner et al. 2020) with many others following, and still more closing clusters of schools in particular areas (UNESCO 2020). Record numbers of children found themselves ‘out of school’, and UNESCO predicts ‘devastating’ impacts from long-term disruption to education (Giannini and Albrectsen 2020).
An equitable educational response to the Covid-19 pandemic must recognise that, in low- and middle-income countries, most children are offline (Haßler et al. 2020; Kim and Rose 2020). In sub-Saharan Africa ‘for many of the most marginalised school-age children — i.e. those in very rural settings and or from very poor households — even radio and TV may be inaccessible’ (Bell et al. 2020). How then to support alternative arrangements for learning?

Early in the pandemic, IGATE-T Project partners — World Vision, CARE, and The Open University — realised that most children in their target communities did not have household access to online learning, mobile-internet, TV, or radio. The project couldn’t even distribute print materials during the lockdown. They wondered if it might be possible to remotely recruit and support a small number of ‘Champions’ of girls education, via their mobile phones. If daily learning activities could be shared with the Champions via WhatsApp or SMS, Champions might find ways to help as many learners as possible use the activities. The activities themselves would not be ‘mobile applications’ but brief written instructions for literacy or numeracy activities, that could be shared or carried out with or without the use of the mobile phone. The project team imagined Champions could use the activities for ‘Learning Circles’ (small informal learning groups facilitated by the Champions) or share them with caregivers for use with children at home. The daily learning activities were not an attempt to replicate school but a temporary crisis-response, to mitigate loss-of-learning during prolonged absences from school and help children maintain their identity as learners.

The IGATE-T project began exploring this approach, developing WhatsApp support networks in four of their nine project districts. The project approached a range of people to take on the role of ‘Champion’. Most already had some engagement with the IGATE-T programme and a smaller proportion were recruited through callouts in communities. Some were teachers who were not able to work during school closures or who had retired. Others were involved in formal community volunteer roles. At the time of this study, August to September 2020, 110 Champions were reaching over 1,200 learners. This study examines the experiences of those involved to address the overarching research question: 

In the context of pandemic-related, widespread school closures across Sub-Saharan Africa, how can young people in disadvantaged rural communities be supported, locally and from a distance, to maintain engagement in educational activities? 

Learning about the work of these Champions is crucial to understanding more about the diverse ways children’s learning can be supported and maintained during school closures. Along with sporadic, unpredictable, and uneven returns to school, such disruptions are likely to be features of education for millions of children for the foreseeable future.

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