Feature story

Learning anew

Zoom calls, libraries on bicycles, open air camps — the Tata Trusts’ education team went all out to extend learning beyond the classroom during the pandemic

Manuel Soy, a class X student at the Government High School in Jate in Jharkhand’s Khunti district, had given up on his board exams. Sugna Kumari, a class VII pupil at the Government High School in Chandela near Abu Road in Rajasthan, was on the verge of dropping out of school.

Manuel and Sugna were two among the vast majority of India’s 250 million schoolchildren for whom 2020 was a lost year. As the Covid pandemic and consequent lockdowns derailed life across the country, some 1.5 million schools shut shop in March and stayed shut for about 10 months. Bringing formal education back into the lives of these children was always going to be a difficult proposition.

Before any methodology could be devised, there was a learning curve to be navigated by everybody involved. For the Tata Trusts, with an education portfolio that has helped improve outcomes for more than 4 million students in different parts of the country, the task was clear-cut and immediate. 

“The long break meant children losing touch with schooling,” says Amrita Patwardhan, the head of the education portfolio at the Trusts. “There was the real risk of older kids from low-income homes quitting school permanently to support the family economically. It was critical to keep the continuity of learning going.”

Kids take their pick at a library book distribution event in Choira village in the East Singhbhum district of Jharkhand
Kids take their pick at a library book distribution event in Choira village in the East Singhbhum district of Jharkhand
Learning goes open air in Kumkuna village of Jharkhand's Khunti district
Learning goes open air in Kumkuna village of Jharkhand's Khunti district

The scale and urgency of the problem demanded quick and feasible alternatives. In a matter of weeks, the Trusts recalibrated their approach to deal with the changed reality of schooling. Going digital was, for sure, the straightforward solution but this was never really an option for countless children cut off from the online world due to issues of connectivity or a lack of appropriate devices, frequently both.

The Trusts’ education team has taken a mix-and-match tactic to cope with the crisis. Given that there is no ignoring online education and the advantages it offers in Covid times, schoolchildren, teachers, principals and volunteers have been guided in the shift to the digital lane — via hundreds of online training sessions, and creation and curation of online resources for learning.

Quick surveys showed that the reach of smartphones in areas where the Trusts are active was only around 10-40%, which meant the vast majority could not be reached by online mode alone. The team, therefore, made all efforts to take learning into the villages where the children live.   

Imparting education in the village milieu was not a far stretch for the Trusts, thanks to the strong community relationships they have built over the course of executing their multi-themed programmes (which typically cover livelihoods, water and sanitation, and education). The on-ground implementors are associate organisations of the Trusts with experience, expertise and the essential community connect. 

Local flavour

Himmotthan Pariyojana in Uttarakhand, Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Interventions (CInI) in Jharkhand and the Centre for microfinance (CmF) in Rajasthan were among the implementors who drove the restart education initiative. Each has, in its own manner and in the context of local conditions, contributed to the cause.  

In Rajasthan, CmF took the storytelling route to resume learning. Conducted by team members and teacher volunteers, summer camps were set up in open spaces: outside anganwadis (childcare centres), in school courtyards, verandahs and temple halls. While the initial thrust was on engaging children through stories, reading, art and games, other learning activities were added gradually. Schoolteachers were convinced to join in and take classes. To increase reach, the Trusts inducted and trained a large number of village volunteers to work with children.

To assuage health concerns, the team engaged with education department officials, school principals, teachers, panchayat (village council) members and parents to make safety the priority. Covid protocols were followed, over 20,000 facemasks were provided and student groups were restricted to 10-15 children.

By end-2020, there were about 300 such improvised learning centres in CmF’s project areas — Abu Road, Pindwara, Bali and Hindaun — and more than 5,500 children from the pre-primary, primary, middle school and remedial sections had benefitted as a result. 

“We were conscious that not all learners and teachers have access to the internet and technology, or the skills to use learning apps,” says Vijay Singh, CmF’s general manager. “Our education interventions are with the most impoverished communities, especially in tribal and remote areas where families need such support the most.”

For the CInI team in Jharkhand, ‘mobile libraries’ became the central facet of lockdown learning. Books were distributed in villages through what came to be known as the jholas (or bag) library project. Team members and volunteer schoolteachers carted books in jholas hitched to bicycles for supply to children at their homes (in December alone, 10,000 books were issued in Khunti, Hazaribagh and East Singhbhum districts).

CInI also organised small teaching camps in villages. It advertised for volunteer-teachers and trained the 650-odd respondents, many of them fresh graduates and college students. The effort has helped in excess of 12,700 children in Jharkhand. “There was such great demand for these camps that we needed more hands,” says Divya Tirkey, who heads CInI’s education initiative.

During lockdown, the Trusts conducted hundreds of tech training sessions for students, teachers and parents
Hundreds of tech training sessions were conducted for students, teachers and parents during the lockdown period

Tech on their side

W hen the pandemic struck and India went into lockdown, a crucial component of the Tata Trusts’ education portfolio came under the spotlight — edtech, which promotes meaningful use of technology by teachers and students for better learning outcomes.

Edtech has some meaty partners, among them the Connected Learning Initiative (CLIx), a technology-enabled learning model seeded by the Trusts and led by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA. Also on board is Khan Academy India, a nonprofit educational organisation.

“It was a hyperactive time for our education technology interventions; we had to very quickly design new programmes that would support the use of technology over the last mile,” says Aryadev AR, manager of the edtech work.

Khan Academy India supported the Delhi education department with lessons in maths and science that were sent to 500,000-plus students via WhatsApp groups of school principals and teachers. Teachers in several states, including Delhi, Punjab and Assam, were trained to teach these micro lessons, which reached an estimated 1 million students.

Teacher training was the focus for CLIx, which conducted more than 250 training sessions in Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram. Another Trusts’ edtech initiative is Integrated Approach to Technology, under which students research school curricula topics and create multimedia presentations. This builds higher order digital and thinking skills.

During the lockdown, the team piloted online WebQuests where students studied topics such as disaster management and communicable disease. They designed presentations, took online quizzes and interacted with experts online.

One big learning from the exercise to promote online education was that children often started lessons in the evening, this being the time when phones were available to them. That meant the Trusts’ teams had to be available for support to parents and teachers at the same time. “We realised that learning was not a 9-to-5 affair,” says Mr Aryadev.

Teacher volunteers

In hilly Uttarakhand, the Himmotthan team swung into action as early as April, mobilising volunteers to start open community classrooms in project villages in Tehri-Garhwal, Nainital, Dehradun, Bageshwar and Rudraprayag. Students without access to smartphones were taught through these community classes.

Himmotthan worked with a group of 150 government schoolteachers in Kotabag in Nainital to target children who could go online. Daily lessons and weekly learning plans were shared on WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages. The intent is to keep this online learning going alongside community-level classes.

For the digitally deprived, Himmotthan team members and volunteers physically circulated books to children and held 75 month-long reading melas (fairs), accessed by children and adults. In Jharkhand’s Khunti district, CInI worked with school management committees to find parents willing to set up mini libraries in their homes — there are 24 such mini libraries in the region — and in Bali in Rajasthan, CmF put children in charge of similar home libraries.

Online platforms were used to cement the learning agenda. WhatsApp became the preferred platform to link teachers and principals with students and parents.

Parag, a Tata Trusts initiative, partnered the Rajasthan state education department and CmF to create a weekly Hindi digital magazine called Hawamahal. This has links to YouTube videos and stories and activities for teacher and student.

In Jharkhand, CInI created local language content from Tidingbaha, its kids’ publication, by converting stories into animated videos in Mundari, Santhali and Nagpuri, as well as English and Hindi. These videos were uploaded on YouTube and shared via school and parent WhatsApp groups. More than 6,500 parents and some 500 teachers have been roped in to help popularise the videos with kids.

The overall learning restart endeavour of the Tata Trusts has enabled students like Manuel and Sugna to look ahead with hope. Manuel and his schoolmates are back in class, this time online, while Sugna has been brought into a remedial learning programme. They are making up for lost education time in a hurry.

Phagwa Munda of Dumardaga village in Khunti with his home library
Phagwa Munda of Dumardaga village in Khunti with his home library