Distance Learning and the Future of Education post COVID-19

AIF Alumna Maitreyi Nandhakumar’s presentation on Re-Imagining Education post-COVID-19, a part of the AIF CFP “Navigating COVID-19” series a few weeks ago, left us with several important questions about the future of education in low-income, low-resource communities. After schools and NGOs pivot their programming to the immediate needs of children and their families during this crisis, what’s next? With the re-opening of school in India still uncertain, how will schools design and implement socially-distant online learning in low-resource, low-tech environments ? And–more personally–as I prepare to start teaching high school English at my host organization, Yuwa School, how can I learn from best practices in this difficult and changing space?

A slide from Maitreyi's presentation on EdTech.
A slide from Maitreyi’s presentation.

One solution is through Education Technology, or EdTech. EdTech refers to using the power of technological innovation to improve education. Some familiar examples in India and the U.S. are online platforms like BYJU’s, Khan Academy, or the Govt of India app DIKSHA with high-quality lessons on a variety of subjects, test prep companies such as Toppr that prepare students for exams, or the integration of technology into the learning environment by using laptops, tablets, and smartphones.[i]

While EdTech has absolutely transformed the education space for the better by making high quality resources accessible and low-cost, there are still significant barriers to access for low-resource, low-income students by requiring internet and substantial investment, such as owning a laptop or smartphone.

Although smartphones and internet access have become more widely available in India than ever– industry statistics indicate that there are over 400 million smart-phone users in India, a 100 percent increase since 2015–a household survey conducted by Intermedia found that only 17 percent of Indian households own a smartphone. [ii]  This finding suggests that ownership is still quite limited among poor families. Other studies on the digital divide in South Asia have observed particularly low smartphone ownership in rural or remote areas relative to urban.[iii]

Yuwa Students and I gather around one of the school’s laptops to edit an essay. There are six working laptops serving all 100 students.

So how can EdTech, from an education policy standpoint, be accessible for children who may not have access to a smartphone with reliable data? One strategy is by relying on technology that, while not as snazzy as a new tablet, is already widely available: public television and radio. Schools and partner organizations around the world have already begun experimenting with broadcasting classes over public channels.

During the West Africa Ebola crisis in 2014-15, an evaluation by UNICEF estimated that over 1 million children were reached through radio education alone, students who may not have had any lessons otherwise.[iv] One such program, ‘Pikin to Pikin Tok’ (Child to Child Talk) in Sierra Leone created content in 3 languages that was administered to listening groups on radios. The final assessment showed high levels of engagement from both children and their caretakers that contributed to children’s learning.[v]

In India, Quartz India reports that television could be a promising option for broadcasting lessons during lockdown and beyond. The latest NFHS and IHDS surveys suggest that televisions are much more accessible than smartphones, with an access rate of 33 percent among poor households and 66 percent of Indian households overall. [vi] But so far, the Punjab Department of Education is the only department using TV to resume school for all grades. Educators created content broadcast on TV through publicly accessible channels, containing videos, interactive content, quizzes, games, exercise, and feedback—in both English and Punjabi.[vii]. 

It’s definitely worth noting, though, that television and radio programming are not nearly as effective as in-person teaching in improving learning outcomes in children. But during a crisis, with schools indefinitely shut, they are feasible options worth pursuing.

On a more local scale, Yuwa, my host organization, has stepped up to the challenge of distance learning. School leaders launched Operation Distance Education (ODE) in late April to hold summer school as planned for nearly 100 students from Standards 3 through 12. To connect with students, Yuwa teachers relied on Yuwa’s Communication Map, which connected each child to a smartphone of a parent, sibling, relative, or close neighbor. The Communication Map was certainly not created overnight—years of careful relationship building and community engagement helped parents and relatives to feel comfortable letting a girl child use their smartphone for a few hours daily or weekly. Teachers then held classes and distributed assignments over WhatsApp and Zoom, and connected with girls daily or weekly to check-in and meet their individual needs, supported by Yuwa’s school counselor. To support students, Yuwa also subsidized data and internet use by refunding school fees, as well as providing additional food aid through their existing programming.

In two weeks, I will join Yuwa’s ODE team as a temporary high school English teacher as Yuwa looks for a permanent teacher to fill the position. While I am excited to take advantage of the EdTech resources available to me, I’m planning to carefully abide by some of the guidelines put out by organizations like Save the Children and World Bank. The main lesson learned from using EdTech in rural and low-resource settings is that the provision of hardware alone is not enough to improve learning; teachers must use technology to adapt to the learner’s level, instead of using a software or videos as a substitute for teaching. I also plan to modify existing resources to develop more contextually appropriate content. Look for an update on my progress in my next blog post.


Works Cited:

[i] Sankaranarayanan. “The Indian EdTech Market — 240+ Startups That Are Building the Future of Education.” Medium, 4 Apr. 2019, medium.com/@sankara2514/the-indian-edtech-market-240-startups-that-are-building-the-future-of-education-f76dff30490c.

[ii] Johnson, Doug, and Rob Sampson. “India’s Coronavirus Lockdown Has Put the Spotlight Back on Television as an Ed-Tech Tool.” Quartz India, Quartz, 14 May 2020, qz.com/india/1856636/tv-better-than-smartphone-laptop-for-indias-lockdown-ed-tech/.

[iii] Sylvester, Gerard. “USE OF MOBILE PHONES BY THE RURAL POOR. Gender perspectives from selected Asian countries.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2016. http://www.fao.org/3/a-i5477e.pdf

[iv] Hallgarten, Joe, et al. “4 Lessons from Evaluations of the Education Response to Ebola.” Global Partnership for Education, 20 Apr. 2020, www.globalpartnership.org/blog/4-lessons-evaluations-education-response-ebola.

[v] Bash-Taqi, Regina. “Final Evaluation: Increasing Awareness, Retention, and Focus in Primary Education.” Child-to-Child UK, Institute for Development, 21 Apr. 2017, www.childtochild.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/FINAL-Evaluation-Report-21April2017-Institute-for-Development.pdf.

[vi] Johnson, Doug, and Rob Sampson. “India’s Coronavirus Lockdown Has Put the Spotlight Back on Television as an Ed-Tech Tool.” Quartz India, Quartz, 14 May 2020, qz.com/india/1856636/tv-better-than-smartphone-laptop-for-indias-lockdown-ed-tech/.

[vii] Kumar, Vinod. “Doordarshan in Loop, Punjab Students to Take Lessons on TV.” Times of India, 20 Apr. 2020. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chandigarh/doordarshan-in-loop-punjab-students-to-take-lessons-on-tv/articleshow/75241380.cms

Jane is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Yuwa in Ranchi, Jharkhand. For her Fellowship project, she is developing a life skills curriculum for adolescent girls from vulnerable backgrounds around sports-based training to enhance education, build confidence, and improve health. As a student of economics and politics, Jane has been captivated by the beauty and complexity of India throughout her college years. She first traveled to India in the summer of 2017 to work with a social enterprise in Delhi. She has participated in a variety of India-based projects, including working as a research assistant at her university’s Delhi Jal Board Yamuna River Project in New Delhi, co-launching an apparel brand with young female entrepreneurs in rural Uttar Pradesh, and working for a Delhi-based environmental action group to evaluate sustainable solid waste management practices. She interned with the United Nations ESCAP to research women’s entrepreneurship in the informal sector, and participated in the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship to study Hindi in Jaipur. She is ecstatic about better understanding localized approaches to gender equity and development by serving on the AIF Clinton Fellowship. Ultimately, she hopes to become an expert in poverty alleviation in South Asia and to work in policy implementation by identifying best-practices, promoting accountability through monitoring and evaluation, and collaborating with governments to improve social protection for the most vulnerable.

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