Lessons Learned from Distance Learning

A typical  screen from class . I’m listed three times because I join from my screen share, computer, and phone, so that I can see students messages in the chat as I teach. We don’t use video to save data and keep classes limited to less than an hour when using Meet. Other times we hold classes on WhatsApp using a mix of texts, audio, and video messages!

It’s been nearly two months since I began teaching for Yuwa School as a remote Economics and English teacher as I was completing my AIF Clinton Fellowship project. As I documented in a recent blog post, I was quite apprehensive at the start. I lack formal TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training and have never taught more than a few students at a time before. Luckily, with a supportive team of trained teachers and enthusiastic and innovative students, I think I’ve been able to create an environment where my students are able to learn (and hopefully, grow!) during this weird pandemic moment in history.

Unsurprisingly, as a distance learning teacher I’ve confronted many of the same challenges as an in-person teacher. Take differentiation, for example. Distance learning requires the student to possess a great deal of motivation, ability to collaborate with classmates, and access to reliable internet. A student’s motivation, communication skills, and internet are all highly connected to her home life – students with the smart phones often have the most supportive parents who are encouraging their studies, and are highly motivated to complete their assignments under minimal supervision. Other students lack the tech and support at home, and struggle to complete assignments.

In this environment, how do I create an environment where children who are already ahead continue to thrive, without leaving other students behind?

The answer to this question lies both in designing education materials that are universally accessible (something I’ve become quite familiar with thanks to work by my co-fellows Pallavi Deshpande and Anant Tibrewal) and in differentiation among students. Yuwa colleagues have developed many strategies to appeal to both principles over the years. Yuwa’s goal is to ensure that all materials are equitably accessible for every student. I say equitably because it’s actually not equal – while some students receive hard copies of their work packets, check-in calls every week to make sure they are keeping up with their work, and/or socially-distanced home visits and parent calls,  others do not. In a recent teacher meeting, for example, teachers discussed participation of high-risk students across their classes and developed intervention plans for getting them back on track. Not every girl needs those resources – and that’s okay. For students who need additional challenge, teachers add bonus questions to assignments, or extra assignments to be completed over and above the week’s work. Students are still challenged, while all have the opportunity to participate if they choose.

What I have also learned throughout this pandemic is that the creativity of my students knows no bounds. For a recent English assignment, I asked students to choose from a list of 10 projects to complete over a 3-week period (after reading their independent reading book). Some students completed all 10 projects; others submitted beautifully illustrated project anthologies, complete with cover pages (that I absolutely never specified!); others still got creative and incorporated drama, set design, poetry, and art into their work. Creating projects that compliment their artistic skills gets them off of their phones and engaging critically with the class materials.

In a similar vein, engaging activities that do not require intense EdTech, but lots of creativity and critical thinking, have been great in the classroom. For example, in my English classes, we’ve held debates over India’s recent TikTok ban, created alternate endings for assigned reading chapters, used household materials to create scenes from books, taken an in-depth look at India’s New Education Policy, and mimicked Rabindranath Tagore’s legendary poetry by writing “Where the Mind is Without Fear” poems. These assignments are not so different than what we might do in-person, but the delivery, deadlines, and checkpoints are more flexible, and keep in mind that students do not have consistent internet access. The  pandemic has forced students and teachers alike to innovate and create, inspiring new projects with the materials right in front of us.

A final lesson I’ll share is the importance of community engagement and learning. Each day, Yuwa shares a “Challenge of the Day” for students and teachers to participate. Challenges can involve anything from creating artwork, completing a small task or exercise, speaking to someone in their household, or participating in school wide competitions and games. Recently, several girls submitted songs, artwork, and compilations for a school-wide celebration of Independence Day. I’ve included a shortened version of the video below.


In closing, I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue to be involved with my host organization as I begin the daunting task of figuring out my next steps, and to AIF for the opportunity to publish my learnings and perspectives on this blog. Signing off. 🙂

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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