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The COVID-19 pandemic has produced a universally unanimous consensus on being the great disruptor that has dramatically changed the conventional social dynamics and approach to developmental practices.

This impact has been particularly pronounced in the area of primary school education, where the long-term knock-on effects exponentially affect the future of the children, their families and their communities.

The Indian Context

In India, the onset of the pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns directly impacted the education of nearly 320 million students.

While the government’s response to these developments was swift – with classes quickly moving to the digital medium and teachers equipped with appropriate training and tools to facilitate the transition in the education process – the persisting digital divide and pockets of intergenerational poverty across the country have gone on to undermine the gains made towards universal education through these progressive steps.

With only 12.5% of the households of students in India having internet access, the online-only model of education risks proliferating the existing inequity in access to education.

“For primary school students from resource-poor homes, technology is not a long-term, standalone solution,” says Snorre Westgaard, CEO, Humana People to People India (HPPI), while addressing a webinar on ‘The Role of Teachers – redefining how teaching and learning happen in response to COVID19 and beyond’.

“It is important to get back to some kind of organisation of children in smaller groups with physical interaction with teachers.”

HPPI Education Interventions

HPPI education initiatives see the teacher and the student as co-creators of knowledge and skills where the student, to the extent possible, takes the driver’s seat in the process of learning.

This pedagogical approach has been the key enabler of a seamless transition from classroom-based teaching to online-only education during the recent lockdowns.

Access to digital hardware, however, is only a small part of the solution for ensuring access to good quality education.

“During the lockdown, nearly 30% children we work with had access to mobile phones since their parents were at home,” says Snorre.

“But immediately when they were able to go back to work, the children were left with no phones making online education not possible.”

HPPI’s Kadam Programme for out-of-school children uses elements inherent within the programme to ensure that the children continue to learn wherever they are, at their own pace. This is primarily achieved through the workbooks provided to the Kadam students that engage them in various exercises and help them build on their existing competencies and reach their age-appropriate learning level. Secondly, the peer-learning model followed under the programme, where the students are divided into groups of three called trios, that helps them learn from each other while driving the learning process forward.

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“It was interesting to notice that since most of the Kadam students come from the same community and residential areas, they were able to continue learning as part of their trios even during the lockdown and continued their education seamlessly,” says Snorre.

The role of teachers in such a context becomes increasingly crucial, where they act as facilitators of the learning process. HPPI’s Necessary Teacher Training Programme (NeTT) trains teachers to assume such roles as a facilitator of learning and creating a conducive environment for children to progress in their education.

And the way forward towards universal access to quality education lies in ensuring that teachers, who are the cornerstone of the foundational learning for children, are well-equipped for future challenges.

“It is important to continue to provide support to teachers in terms of required tools and training, so they keep learning from each other while putting the children in the centre of the entire learning process,” says Snorre.

The recording of the webinar, including a presentation by HPPI and the Q&A session can be accessed here.

After three decades of following the same National Education Policy (NEP) which was formulated in 1986, the new NEP was released on July 29 this year. One of the most significant changes envisioned by the latest policy is at the very beginning of a child’s educational journey — early childhood care and education (ECCE). NEP 2020 has given the highest priority to building strong foundations early in a child’s life, a vision which can be found to be reflected in HPPI’s work in the field of early education.

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According to UNICEF India, more than 70 million children attend pre-primary school in India. In a world which is increasingly becoming global, students need to be equipped with the right set of knowledge and skills to make them competent by global standards and be up to speed with new ways of learning. In India, Anganwadi centres or any pre-primary education centre plays an important role in providing children with a kickstart to holistic education.

With the latest NEP, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) will develop a National Curricular and Pedagogical Framework for Early Childhood Care and Education (NCPFECCE) for children up to the age of 8. ECCE will be delivered through a significantly expanded and strengthened system of institutions including Anganwadis and pre-schools that will have teachers and Anganwadi workers trained in the ECCE pedagogy and curriculum. The planning and implementation of ECCE will be carried out jointly by the Ministries of HRD, Women and Child Development (WCD), Health and Family Welfare (HFW), and Tribal Affairs.

HPPI, through its early education programmes such as the Pre-School Children of the Future (PoF) and the Nand Ghar Project, implemented with support from Vedanta, has already been working to maximise the potentials of young children in Anganwadis or PoF centres.

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Teachers at PoF Centres are trained to cater to the cognitive and psychosocial enhancement of children in the 3-6 years age group. Mostly linked to HPPI’s educational or Community Development Projects, or organised in cooperation with local Anganwadis, HPPI provides quality education to pre-school children and special focus is given to developmental needs of a student through four elements – Use your Brain, Use your Body, Use your Hands and Use your Imagination.

The PoF Centres also create a foundation in language and comprehension and provides young children a head start into primary school. Currently, 457 children are enrolled across 19 PoF centres of HPPI.

Nand Ghars are state-of-the-art Anganwadis which is a vision undertaken by Vedanta Foundation together with the Ministry of Women and Child Development to offer integrated education for children in the age group of 0–6 years while providing nutrition and hygienic sanitation facilities. HPPI is managing the Nand Ghar Project in partnership with the Vedanta Foundation with an aim to provide Early childhood development support to minimum 18,000 children in 0-6 years and health and nutrition services to minimum 36,000 pregnant women and mothers. HPPI is responsible for the Operation and Maintenance of the Nand Ghar Project across 13 districts of 4 states with 1,200 anganwadis/ Nand Ghars. Some of the many facilities at this modern Anganwadi include safe drinking water, mobile health vans, nutritious meals, clean toilets and awareness on practices that promote a healthy atmosphere for the mother and child.

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The Project provides good infrastructure in the anganwadis/Nand Ghars and equips them with good facilities, training to the service providers who in turn provide quality services on early childcare & education, nutrition, the health of mothers, skill development etc.  HPPI along with implementing best practices of pre-school education and community engagement also looks after the on-ground monitoring of nutrition and education thematic areas and supervises monitoring for skill, health and training component and builds the Nand Ghar into a resource centre for the community.

With the new NEP, our efforts in the areas of pre-school education and childhood care have become more pronounced and show a promising quality of education being imparted right from the beginning of a child’s educational journey.

The inclusion of environmental education and awareness among students from a young age helps them make better choices in their everyday life and encourages students to conserve the environment. Under HPPI’s education initiatives, environmental education is incorporated in schools for students as well as for future teachers training under the Necessary Teacher Training Programme.

During the ongoing lockdowns across the country, when schools are closed to stop the spread of the COVID19 infection, Shahil Kumar, a Grade 6 student of Government School Andhra Chauki in Bihar took it upon him to visit his school with his brother and water the saplings that were in the garden set up by him and his classmates. The school being a stone throw distance from Shahil’s house is readily accessible. The garden set up in Shahil’s school is part of the Improved Nutrition through Fruit Garden (INFG) Project implemented in his school along with 83 other schools and 5 District Institute of Education and Training across 4 districts (Patna, Nalanda, Vaishali and Arrah) in Bihar and one district (Ranchi) in Jharkhand.

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The aim of the project is to instil awareness in students about the importance of plants, how to take care of them and how planting trees is one of the easiest ways to combat global warming. The students are learning to take care of the trees they have planted and enjoy the fruits the trees bear helping them develop a habit to protect the environment.

Shahil who is is also a member of the water committee and Bal Sansad (Child Parliament) at the school, took the initiative to take care of the plants and kept them alive in spite of the school being shut for months. His motivating efforts prove that our efforts towards holistic education go a long way in instilling a sense of responsibility from an early age.

In 2019-20, 2400 trees were planted and 12 kitchen gardens were set up under the INFG Project, contributing to the 163,539 trees planted this year across various project initiatives of HPPI.

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On March 24, as she heard the news of the world’s biggest lockdown being announced in India, Shreya Singhal, a primary school teacher in Gorakhpur in the state of Uttar Pradesh was deliberating immediate measures she will need to take to ensure that her students’ education does not suffer.

“It was clear that the classes will have to move online. Smartphones with an internet connection and video conferencing apps will be needed. Motivating introverted students online will be a challenge,” she says, recalling the thoughts running through her head at the time.

“But my training at the DIET had actually prepared me quite well for what is now quickly turning into a norm,” she says.

Shreya received her pre-service teacher training at the District Institute of Education and Training (DIET), the district-level teacher training institutes established across the country by the Government of India. As a young and motivated private school teacher who is well familiar with digital tools, Shreya has ensured that her students continue to learn under her guidance during the lockdown.

This, however, is not a norm across the country.

According to the data released recently at the UNESCO Teachers of the World Unite virtual summit, nearly 2.7 million teachers in India who have been impacted by the COVID-19 lockdowns are untrained in remote teaching methods.

Blended Learning Model

Among the school-related factors, teachers play a critical role in building competencies of children and enhancing their learning levels. Hence, as classes increasingly move to the online environment, the urgency to train teachers in the effective use of ICT in teaching is becoming clearly evident.

“It is expected that when the schools reopen, they will have to operate with curtailed strength to ensure that proper physical distancing is maintained. This means education through digital means will have to fill the gaps due to staggered or reduced classroom hours,” says Dr. Rohen Meetei, Associate Professor at Government of Haryana’s Prarambh School for Teacher Education, Jhajjar.

“This blended learning model of education can be seen as the new normal in school education,” he says.

The lockdown experience has already set in motion educational reform frameworks that emphasise such blended learning models more than the hitherto conventional in-school education model. In the area of teacher training, the NISHTHA programme launched by the Department of School Education and Literacy and Ministry of Human Resource Development’s ‘experiential learning’ initiative recently launched on the DIKSHA portal, are welcome moves that aim to improve the quality of school education through integrated teacher training, incorporating abundant resources for conducting remote classes.

These frameworks and platforms, however, while significant policy-level initiatives, need to be complemented with hands-on technical guidance and pedagogical innovations to translate to any meaningful action on the ground.

Experiences from Government teacher training institutes during the lockdown can be a good indicator of what works and what does not in this regard.

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The DIET Experience

“Initially, our approach was kept simple to ensure that students and faculty members adapt to the digital environment with relative ease,” says Prasoon Kumar Akela, senior faculty at DIET Noorsarai in Bihar.

To transition from the classroom environment to digital, the starting point was to use the technology and platform everyone is familiar with.

“Two separate study groups were made on WhatsApp for each batch of pre-service student-teachers. Digital study content in the form of scanned copies and videos was shared in these groups along with a list of related questions that the students had to answer,” he says.

“While the process did help students and the faculty orient towards the digital medium, in a few weeks there was a clear need felt for live and synchronous learning both by the faculty and the students. Hence, the classes were shifted to the Google Classroom and Google Meet platforms.”

While the use of ICT has been integral to government teacher training institutes for several years now, it has almost always been rudimentary.

“Previously, the use of ICT in training by the faculty members at the DIET was mainly limited to the use of a computer and a projector to make digital presentations. It was broadly accepted to be a non-critical skill as we could always fall back on the traditional methods of training,” says Prasoon.

“But today, that is just not an option.”

For the tech-friendly students, while the transition has been much smoother, the lockdown has revealed the limitations of their training and they will quickly need to adapt to the changing realities of education transaction.

“Practical components of e-pedagogies and remote teaching need to be added to the DIET curriculum in order to make it more relevant to the new requirements,” says Sushmita Patrichi, a second-year student-teacher at DIET Ranchi.

“Disaster Management and internet safety are other elements that teachers will need to be proficient in as classes move the online mode,” she says.

Pedagogical innovations

Remote learning requires teachers to possess distinct skill sets that go beyond successfully navigating the digital environment. Use of digital systems to effectively conduct classes that result in enhanced learning levels among the students requires a dextrous mix of subject knowledge, relevant pedagogy, engaging content and digital know-how. Pedagogical innovations reflective of local realities play a pertinent role in this regard.

“Following the pattern of training received at the DIET, I have divided the entire curriculum of the grades I teach into 50:25:25 ratio of Self-study, Courses and Experiences or Activities, respectively,” says Shreya.

“While this teaching methodology is highly effective in encouraging my students to drive their own learning process, it also reduces the amount of digital study material I need to share with them online. This is particularly helpful for students living in areas with low internet connectivity or who lack access to requisite digital hardware,” she says.

Similarly, classroom management skills as part of teacher training need a relook under the new normal of school education. Peer learning is a proven method of effective, accelerated learning among students. A noteworthy experience from some of the DIETs has been that in the institutes where a batch of students has been sub-divided into smaller peer groups, the transition to online training during the lockdown for students has been seamless and more effective.

The path ahead

The core of teacher training in the new blended learning environment needs to transcend enhancement of ICT skills to include efficient use of e-pedagogies in order to engage students and actually help them drive their own learning process effectively.

Fundamental issues of access to digital infrastructure and internet connectivity, particularly in rural India, continue to beset most foreseeable gains from the policy-level changes being introduced by the Government. It is imperative that the digital divide is bridged concurrently – and urgently – with these changes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it amply clear that the future of education lies in technology-driven reforms at all levels. In case of school education, these reforms are centrally pegged to the crucial pivot of the teacher and optimum, and early investments in their training will decide the curve of learning levels among the children in the coming months. A curve we cannot afford to see flattening.

The sudden announcement of lockdown across the country to tackle the spread of COVID-19 has had a profound impact on everyone. This was even more so for students and teachers at educational institutions who found their daily activities and interactions – all linked to the crucial aspect of transacting ceaseless education – suddenly come to a grinding halt.

The feeling was not much different for me and my student-teachers in the Necessary Teacher Training Programme (NeTT) being implemented at the District Institute of Education and Training (DIET), Nalanda, Bihar.

Improvisation, however, is inherent to human ingenuity. One can say this is even more so for teachers and teacher-educators for whom surmounting a new challenge is almost a daily activity.

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Conducting remote classes is integral to the NeTT Programme. With the announcement of lockdown, the NeTT team of teacher-educators, in consultation with the DIET faculty, decided to leverage the existing technological tools to start the classes and ensure there is no loss to the student-teachers.

The start was made with the most commonly used app: WhatsApp. It was readily available on the phones of almost all our students. We made two groups on the app, one for the first-year students and the other for the second-year batch of students. The interactions slowly began to pick pace with increasing ease of participation and sharing of content and assignments, though, needless to say, we all missed the usual dynamism of a regular class that we were used to.

As the days under lockdown continued and Zoom videoconferencing app started becoming a constant refrain, we decided to use the platform to help with synchronous learning and conduct more interactive classes online. Student participated in these classes with much enthusiasm. As soon as we learnt about the flagged security issues with the Zoom platform, we switched over the Google Meet platform. With the experience of Zoom classes, the students were able to transition to Meet with much ease.

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Understandably, with video classes, we could definitely observe that students’ participation increased substantially. They were asking more questions and were generally more involved in the sessions.

Simultaneously, the NeTT team set up a Google Classroom profile for each batch of students. This platform made the posting of tasks and courses more streamlined while also assisting the team of teacher-educators with an assessment of the tasks completed. The teachers regularly posted subject-specific videos, study material and instructions for tasks which were accessible to all the participating students.

Now, a dedicated evaluation sheet has been made to check the progress of the students. In line with the practice of the NeTT Programme, online ‘Tracking our Progress’ sheets are also made by students to help them check their own progress on each task. 

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One of the most interesting observations from this platform has been the increase in students’ participation in helping each other in their tasks and also during the class sessions. This is a seamless progression of the group learning method followed in the NeTT Programme where smaller functional groups of students take charge of the progress in their learning.

We are as excited as our students with the manner in which they have taken to this new medium of classes and we are sure the process will help them adapt to the new normal as they graduate and engage with primary school students.

About HPPI

Humana People to People India is a development organization registered as a not-for-profit company under section 25 of the Companies Act, 1956 as of 21st May 1998. It is a non-political, non-religious organization. Its mission is to unite with people in India in order to create development in the broadest sense through the implementation of the projects that aim at transferring knowledge, skills and capacity to individuals and communities who need assistance to come out of poverty and other dehumanizing conditions.

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