It is very clear that the lockdown forced by the coronavirus pandemic has impacted schooling, especially for children in early grades in government schools. Children whose parents could afford the cost of online learning were enrolled into online classes but the bulk of the children in India, and more so in rural India, did not have the luxury of online classes. Almost two-thirds of our children were excluded from any sort of schooling last year. In Karnataka, a report this week by the Department of Education revealed that more than 31 lakh children had no access to any kind of digital device. 

Everyone's focus has been on covid protocols etc. and recovering from the pandemic. But learning must continue, despite the health disruption. While we may have been totally unprepared for such large-scale deprivation, that cannot be the end of the matter. Merely waiting it out, as most states have done, is unfair to the students, and expensive to the country. A World Bank report quantifies India's loss on future earnings due to school closures for the year at US $440 billion. We need the national will to say "We will not let this happen again to our children", and this should spur us to think of alternate solutions. 

At Akshara Foundation, we decided that we could not see our children being deprived of schooling and had to do something. And we came up with a solution and implemented a pilot of it. We called it The Alternative Learning Project; it is based on 'dual lesson plans', and we implemented it for teaching mathematics as a use-case subject, but we believe this approach will work for teaching other subjects too. The  pilot was implemented in two difficult locations – in Nanjangud, Karnataka and Mendhashal, Odisha from December 2020 to April 2021. 

Alternative Learning Project

How does the Alternative Learning Project work? We looked at the assets around us to see what we could use, even in a pandemic and lockdown. State governments and the Centre have made investments on the Diksha portal in energised textbooks (ETBs), and there is a fair amount of content available on this portal to create a lesson plan that could be driven using a digital device – a smartphone, tablet, etc. So we broke a class into two parts, – one for the classroom and one via ETBs/Diksha, assuming that even when schools restart, there will be social distancing norms to maintain – and created a dual lesson plan . 

The dual lesson plan ensured that the classroom and technology-aided learning ran in tandem. Since we did not have access to teachers for the pilot, we used qualified and trained facilitators who mimicked the classroom effectively. We believe that with teachers too, this will definitely work well.

Picture: Combining online learning with at-home exercises in small groups ensures children are not locked out of learning during shut-downs.

The Nanjangud pilot was called Paryaya Kalika Yojane, and the Mendhashal pilot was called Bridging the Digital Divide. The Nanjangud pilot had 240 students in grades 4 and 5, selected according to availability and willingness to participate, from 16 villages in Nanjangud Block of Mysuru District. And in Odisha, we enrolled 105 students from the same grades from 9 villages in Mendhashal panchayat in Khordha district. In both states, on one day the children learned digitally from our math app, Building Blocks, which was aligned to the class curriculum, and on the next, they did homework and worked in small groups from their homes - or in community spaces in their localities - with the workbooks formulated by the Departments of Education in the two states – Suvega in Nanjangud and Ujjwal in Mendhashal. 

We conducted baseline and end-line assessments for the children to determine their learning status at the beginning of the pilots, and at the end. We observed that children were making significant gains and learning improvements in both Nanjangud and Mendhashal. The pilot clearly helped many of the children acquire proficiency in math. While our assessments may not have been rigorous enough and our results perhaps not 'perfect' enough, given the limited period of the pilots, the initiative shows the promise of mitigating or eliminating the digital divide that exists today, and creating livelihoods in rural communities. Moreover, parents were very engaged in this learning process.

Some key takeaways from the pilots

a. Our model is out there for adoption and we believe it will have greater resonance even in an era when the pandemic has been brought under control. While an intervention like this is made necessary by a long lockdown, it has implications beyond this period. The digital divide isn't going away, and the disadvantages faced by children in government schools will continue until this gap is closed. States should look upon the current situation as a strong motivation for taking a big step to do this.

b. Of course, we do not claim this will be without pain. Teachers will have to be trained to address the blended learning method. We may encounter reluctance and resistance to new practices of teaching, but many in the teacher fraternity are enlightened enough to want to recast their traditional classroom in a different frame. All it needs to espouse digital tools is a mindset-change, which can be accomplished to a large extent through training and resourcing.

c. While Akshara has shown this model works with math as use-case, it is conceivable that content related to other subjects can utilise this very channel that we have established.

We believe the end result will be a win-win for all: teachers, children and parents. The big question is - how do we get devices into the hands of every child? While we did this by making the devices freely available for the pilot. We recognised, however, that in the longer term and on much larger scale, the unit economics of this intervention has to be understood, and we examined several options for that. We have a simple business model that will keep children engaged better and also create some part-time jobs in rural communities to manage the logistics of device handling, etc. at an estimated cost of Rs.175 per child per month. This is no more than a 10 per cent hike in the per-child cost incurred by most states' Education departments.

The pandemic has exposed how large the digital divide is. Students without digital facilities are at a total disadvantage, and rural children in government schools are more vulnerable than most others. We are in the 21st century, and even the National Education Policy 2020 emphasizes the need for using technology. We would be really irresponsible if we did not think of this as an opportunity to innovate and come up with solutions that will hold us in stead in the years to come. A new paradigm is required; the blended learning model we propose is clearly one way of the future. 

We've compiled a report on the Alternative Learning Project outlining what we did, what we learned, and some of our thoughts for the future. You can read this report here.