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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Scholz

#COVID-19: Learning in times of pandemics

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, EPIB has set up a rapid research team consisting of our project manager Abhishek Anand contributing from Ranchi, Digital Fellow Anisha Jain based in Delhi, Digital Fellow and former project manager Rakesh K. Rajak based in Bihar and advisory board member Martin Haus based in Germany. We are gathering information from the ground, local, regional and national governments up to global advisory bodies like the WHO, UNESCO and Unicef. We then aim to compile the information tailored to Bihar to provide advice to policy makers, bureaucrats, school leaders and communities in times of crisis and short news cycles. We try our best to provide accurate information from trustworthy sources. If you find any error, please contact us immediately. 

With the Prime Minister announcing an India-wide lockdown that includes schools, education has come to a standstill.  In Bihar alone, close to 2.4 crore students have been affected (Source: UDISE, Bihar school enrolment 2018-19).

Source: Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

What are central and state governments doing?

Before looking at what international organizations and researchers suggest to bridge the time of school closures, here is an overview of Indian States that have announced initiatives and strategies:

  1. Assam: teachers were asked to provide classes on WhatsApp using phone-based learning materials (including homework), free tools.

  2. Gujarat: the Gujarat education department will broadcast lessons through a private TV channel; 1.5 lakh government primary teachers to reach out to individual students, hand over worksheets, weekly tests [hint: this might be outdated after the PM's announcement]

  3. Central Government: the HRD Ministry has launched e-classes on Swayam Prabha DTH channels for students (classes 9-12)

UPDATE 31. March 2020

4. Chhattisgarh (this is not a government program): Radio Mirchi together UNICEF has started "Mirchi Ki Pathshala", a radio-based education campaign running daily from 5 to 6pm. It covers mathematics, science besides the languages of  English and Hindi according to this report.

5. Delhi: The Delhi government has published a circular lining out their plan during the pandemic. It entails different measures for different age groups and includes the use of mass SMS facilities and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems to provide access for students without smartphones. For High School students, a Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) of Rs. 200 for those who attend live classes regularly is announced for offsetting data package costs. Teachers are asked to stay in contact with students on a regular basis.

UPDATE 07. April 2020

6. Bihar: The Bihar Education Project Council (BEPC) has announced that they will start to broadcast educational programs via All India Radio in collaboration with UNICEF according to this report. It will cover educational content for class VIII to XII students. Furthermore, according to this report, for class I to VIII, activity lessons under the e-Pathshala model will be used and broadcasted on radio while for classes IX and X, Unnayan model material will be used. TV (Doordarshan) will also broadcast educational content. In addition, the government is sending weblinks for e-books to parents. Furthermore, BEPC has launched a mobile app "Unnayan-Mera Mobile Mera Vidyalaya" for students of VI to XII in the government-run schools according to this report

7. Chhattisgarh: The State Council for Educational Research and Training has asked District Education Officers (DEOs) to register all teachers in telegram groups to select subject experts among them for the production of video lectures, supporting material and assignments. Furthermore, teachers were asked to have mobile numbers of students and parents ready. If these are not available, they shall be gathered during the rice distributions as per this report.

8. West Bengal: According to this report, the government will televise lessons for class IX to XII students via ABP Ananda. To make these lessons interactive, students can ask questions through email, WhatsApp or over the phone. For pre-primary to class VIII, "model activity tasks" have been made availabe via the education department's website and by a help-line number. Schools were also asked to send these tasks to students via SMS, phone or WhatsaApp.

9. Uttar Pradesh: According to this report, the Basic Education Department together with All India Radio and community radio platforms is disseminating educational material via radio. There is also a plan to start a "Aao English Seekhein" program for government school students via radio. Furthermore, under Mission Shikshan Samvad, various resources are being developed.

10. Maharashtra: According to this report, online learning is set to roll out from April 15 including mobile applications, television and radio.

Is Ed-Tech the cure?

Much attention in the media is given to Ed-Tech solutions and Distance Learning. However, this often ignores ground realities of government schools and home characteristics of their students.

According to the ASER 2018 report, around half of Bihar's schools might have a working electricity connection on a given day. According to the 2011 Census, around 15% of the population in Bihar have a TV, around 7% have a computer and a bit over 50% have a mobile phone (a simple one or a smartphone). While one might argue that the last nine years have changed this, these numbers are averages. Government school students' households are on average poorer. The ASER 2017 report provides some further information. In Muzaffarpur District, around 85% of youth (14-18 years) had used a mobile in the last week, while internet was only available to 26.3%. There is a stark difference between males (39.2%) and females (14.9%) indicating inequity along gender lines when it comes to intra-household distributions. A computer was available to 20.4% in the last week, again showing a massive gender imbalance (male 28.9%, female 12.9%) with 72.7% of sampled youth claiming they had never used a computer. Hence, any tech-intensive bridging solutions have highly limited reach, especially among government school students, with numbers possibly being even lower for elementary school students. The reach of ed-tech solutions might further decline if the health pandemic is accompanied by an economic shock, especially in the informal sector as internet packages might discontinued due to a lack of disposable income.

Investing scarce public funds and manpower in such solutions is hence not advisable.

What do international bodies and research institutes adivce?

The Worldbank has published a blogpost noting that "more creativity will be needed" to find localised solutions. Recommendations vary starkly depending on the local context. If web-based briding material is to be made available, telecom companies can be asked to allow free access to these materials. Yet, as noted above, the availability of smartphones is limited in Bihar.

The Center for Global Development has also published a blogpost. They discusss, among other things, international experiences around school closures during pandemics. Transmissions might only be reduced if children do not visit other public places instead. Some countries also opted for dismissing some classes rather than closing entire schools. Yet, with crowded classrooms in Bihar, this might do little to solve the issue at hand. They further cite an important study that showed that the longer a child is out of school, the less likely he or she is to return.

UNESCO has convened a webinar on equity in schooling during COVID-19 in which government officials, practitioners and experts from over 50 countries participated. It notes some steps of different countries:

  • Italy delivers e-learning devices to the most disadvantaged students

  • Rwanda is using different tools, including online platfroms, radio, and TV broadcasting

  • France is moving online while providing devices and support to the 5% of students without internet access

On the From Poverty to Power blogsite, Prof. Prachi Srivastava notes that States have a responsibility to provide education, even during a pandemic and that temporary school closures are likely to last longer than 2-3 weeks. She also finds that school closures disproportionately affect vulnerable groups.

What should Bihar do?

With the situation developing rapidly, advise is difficult to provide. Nonetheless, we want to provide a blueprint for a program that keeps in mind some of the lessons above.

We suggest a radio-based education and health lifeline for Bihar

Most people in Bihar have access to a radio, e.g. through their simple mobile phones.

We suggest a radio program run by SCERT in Patna.

The program shall not be based on the curriculum and cannot replace remedial classes once schools reopen. Yet, it can keep students connected to education and schools. The schedule can be splitted acrosss different age groups in a multi-grade fashion.

The government can enter agreements with non-profits like Pratham Books with its storyweaver program where audiobooks are published under a Creative Commons license. Cooperation with for-profit entities is also possible, e.g. amazon audible has many English audiobooks which are available free during the corona crisis to stream over the internet. The government can approach amazon and seek an agreement to broadcast audiobooks to children across Bihar.

Such audiobook contents can be combined and blended with more curriculum-related contents. Programs can be high-quality, entertaining and educational at the same time.

In cooperation with mobile network providers, it can be ensured that information about the radio program spreads quickly. Both, SMS and computer-based call-services can be facilitated to advertise for the program. A daily schedule fixed by SCERT can be disseminated in the morning.

Individual segments can also be provided by NGOs, teachers (e.g. trough the Teachers of Bihar network) and other organisations on a not-for-profit basis. Individual segments can be sent in online, screened by SCERT and put into the schedule as required. SCERT shall ensure the quality of the content.

The radio program can have time slots in which the District administration can announce localized public advise. In many villages in Bihar, fear and uncertainty grow and fake news spread. A public radio program could also help in this regard.

A PDF-version of this policy recommendation can be found here.

Further recommendations

  1. Do not bank on high-end ed-tech solutions.

  2. Keep children connected to schools.

  3. Consider making funds more flexible and clearly communicate this flexibility with lower levels (the Central governement's clarficiation on Midday Meals (MDM) is a good example). Consider extending the FY as funds might not be spent during the lockdown period and do not count them towards next year's allocation. Untie them instead to allow schools to spend them on bridge courses.

  4. Apply systems thinking across departments. Do not think in silos and avoid ad-hoc decisions that might have negative long-term impacts (e.g. using schools as places for accomodating people returning to Bihar might be reconsidered).

  5. Have clear responsibilites across different levels of government.

  6. It is yet not known how long school closures will last. Nonetheless, plan ahead for reopenings early on.

  7. Economic stress within families impacts learning and dropout-rates. Consider support for daily wage earners free of administrative burden, e.g. in the form of unconditional cash transfers.

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