Bright spots in remote learning: lessons from India and Sierra Leone
26 March 2021
Astrid has 13 years' experience in policy formulation and multi-sector strategic planning across health, education and social development. She uses her blended background in consultancy, solution design and capacity building for public, private and not-for-profit organisations to lead on business development for the research and consultancy team at Education Development Trust. Astrid also carries out short-term technical assignments in the UK and overseas. She is focussing on harnessing and building expertise in teacher-led randomised controlled trials (RCTs) as a way of increasing the evidence-base on what works and as a powerful tool to unleash voice and agency for teachers.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted many challenges for teaching and learning around the world. Following our recent report highlighting lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic, here we highlight two particular bright spots – organisations from India and Sierra Leone – and consider what they can teach us about school leadership practices, teacher training, access to technology for remote learning, and harnessing parental and community resources.
Our latest rapid review of the impact of Covid-19 on education around the world, Learning Renewed: ten Lessons from the pandemic, uncovered bright spots of promising practice and potential contributions to help the ‘build back better’ agenda. We found systems, school groups, school leaders, teachers, caregivers, health workers and community members doing incredible work, taking their own initiative and collaborating to meet the needs of all children throughout school closures and during re-opening. In many cases, these examples existed before the crisis, but have come into their own in the difficult times of the pandemic, showing promise of supporting the longer-term recovery of learning that needs to follow. Here, we dive in for a close look at two of organisations demonstrating good practice that we investigated in report: Rising Academy Network and Peepul.
Rising Academy Network is a school network serving over 50,000 students across more than 160 schools in Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone. They were founded in Sierra Leone in 2014 to provide emergency education for out-of-school children as a result of the Ebola epidemic. They run a chain of low-cost private schools in Sierra Leone and Ghana which allows them to test new ideas and innovations which they then share and scale in partnership with governments and other partners to improve the quality of education across the system. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, they also operate through public-private partnership with the government.
Peepul is a not-for-profit organisation in India that works deeply with government school systems to improve student engagement in order to improve student learning outcomes. This happens through four interventions at the level of school networks, state systems and national policy support. Their four interventions are: a core high-engagement classroom practice toolkit that enhance learning, supported with timely teacher upskilling, academic mentoring, and aligning incentives and accountability across the government school system. In the Exemplar Government Schools they run in Delhi, during the Covid-19 pandemic, they innovated the ‘Reach & Teach’ methodology to continue student learning in a low-tech, low-resource context. They also run three scale programmes to strengthen public school systems: ‘Sitara’, a teacher training-coaching model that supports 2,500 government schoolteachers in Delhi; a holistic ‘System Transformation programme’ that works with 550 schools in Delhi; and the ‘CM Rise’ programme in the state of Madhya Pradesh, supporting over 300,000 teachers in their professional development.
Leadership, structure, and guidance for the teaching workforce
During the pandemic, Peepul re-organised their Exemplar School workforce to deliver efficient online learning and minimise stress and workload for teachers, under their ‘Reach & Teach’ methodology. They organised themselves into three groups when schools closed: community outreach, content development and teaching. Community outreach focused on reaching out to parents and providing emotional and financial support. The content development group carried out an initial scoping exercise to see what learning materials were already developed that could be repurposed for their learners, and identified a strong need to create new content.
Once initial capacity had been built and teachers were familiar with good practices in remote learning (specifically as regards content development and delivery), the leadership team shifted staff back to a model in which teachers supported their own cohort of students. This aligned well with Peepul’s views of the importance of teacher-student interactions for effective learning.
Throughout, the leadership team provided teachers with guidance and a structure for remote learning. The school leaders knew that providing children with too much to do, without sufficient support, would have a negative impact on their learning. They therefore adopted a ‘light but right’ approach, deciding to only give students learning content three days per week, to ensure sufficient time for them to complete the work around other responsibilities and to receive feedback from teachers. This approach paid off: students showed considerable progress in all three subjects taught – Hindi, English and Mathematics – based on a rigorous pre-post analysis. For example, three months into the programme, they saw a 48% increase in students scoring above 70% in Reading Comprehension in Grade 4 Hindi (37% to 96%). Seeing the impact of the ‘Reach & Teach’ methodology, the approach was scaled to the 581 schools, reaching 250,000 students, in the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (the school network the Exemplar Schools are in).
"If you want a resilient system, the strength comes from the teachers.” Girish Ananthanarayanan, Chief Operating Officer, Peepul
Engaging teachers in supportive, effective and adaptive professional development
Peepul’s ‘CM Rise’ programme across the state of Madhya Pradesh was designed to provide teachers with the skills and knowledge required to provide remote support to children, especially the most marginalised, throughout the Covid-19 crisis. Initially, Peepul aimed to reach 40,000 teachers with recurrent training (i.e. training for which they logged in for more than one session), but the organisation has, at the time of writing, reached 300,000 teachers across the state of Madhya Pradesh, serving a student population of 9.5 million learners. Additionally, they have had 55,000 teachers from other states across India completing the CM Rise digital courses. This has added to a cumulative 16 million teacher learning hours.
Peepul’s success in engaging teachers can in large part be attributed to the way in which the content and focus of its training evolved over time in line with the priority needs of teachers. In developing CM Rise, Peepul first needed to identify the priority topics for training and the most effective approaches to help teachers engage, learn and put their learning into practice. The initial focus of training content was on psychosocial support for learners, in addition to techniques to support students with remote learning.
The remote model and resources were developed based on prior learning about how teachers learn best. Previous interventions in Delhi had demonstrated that training modules needed to be short, bite-sized and easily consumable in order to ensure teachers’ engagement and learning. They also needed to be accessible for teachers with limited mobile phone data, and for teachers with limited or no prior experience in undertaking professional development activities. Peepul therefore designed mixed-media content in the form of videos, quizzes, podcasts and readings. Teachers were also given reading or exercises to complete prior to each module and reflective materials to complete afterwards.
Teachers learn best through reflective, practical and supportive interactions with trainers, mentors and peers. Peepul knew that participation in online training was not enough to ensure shifts in teacher mindsets and practices, and that teachers needed to have discourse and talk about what they had learned and how to put it into practice. Peepul therefore also started to reach teachers through YouTube Live sessions, creating online professional learning communities.
Remote teacher professional development can only take place once teachers have been supported to access and understand the technology required for learning and have adopted a learning mindset. In Peepul’s intervention, teachers who had never participated in digital learning before started with an initial ten-minute tutorial in online learning to overcome any technological barriers to learning. From this point, teachers were guided in reflections on how they could become better teachers, to help them shift towards a learning mindset, ready to engage with and benefit from the training modules. Only then did the training content move on to more practical matters, such as how to reach and support learners who did not have access to online learning materials.
Making the most of low-tech solutions
The Rising Academy Network was one of the first organisations to respond to Covid-19 school closures through a low-cost, low-tech remote learning solution. The Ebola crisis had previously demonstrated the importance of engaging children quickly and Sierra Leone’s prior experience of delivering remote learning meant that they were able to mobilise resources for radio instruction almost immediately. Rising Academies developed Rising on Air, a 20-week programme of free distance learning, using high-quality, structured curriculum content, redesigned for low-tech delivery via radio and SMS. The first lesson was available within just a week of schools being closed. Rising on Air covers literacy, numeracy, languages, and arts across K-12 levels. The content is also available free of charge online, where it can be edited to meet different contextual needs and can be re-recorded in appropriate languages, dialects and accents.
Rising on Air has scaled exponentially throughout the pandemic and at the time of writing is in use in 25 countries, via 35 partners, reaching over 12 million children. Its content and lesson plans have been translated by some partner organisations, while others have adapted them to be used through alternative media of instruction (e.g. WhatsApp voice messages and interactive voice response messages). There have even been reports of organisations in other sectors using the structured approach to develop their own content: for example, myAgro, which provides training for farmers in Senegal and Mali.
A recent study in Sierra Leone found that 47% of students sampled were listening to the lessons for an hour a day, 3.7 times per week on average. 75% of the children listen with other children and 60% of the children listen with a parent present. In the first eight weeks of Rising On Air, Rising Academies sent out 88,177 text messages to around 4,200 parents in Freetown. In a sample survey, 90% of parents said they found these text messages useful and wanted to keep receiving them. Notably, in November, learning assessments for 2,413 students found that reading and numeracy levels had improved through the pandemic, although it was not possible to attribute improvements to a specific aspect of the Rising on Air programme.
Meanwhile, Peepul varied the modalities for its delivery of ‘Reach & Teach’, seeking to make the most of the opportunities offered by technology whilst ensuring a no-tech safety net to maximise equity. For students with access to devices, Google Meet was used to deliver lessons, with paper-based materials provided for students who could not attend online classes. In addition, online classroom observations were conducted to support teachers in the delivery of online lessons. These observations provided constructive feedback to teachers, but also identified good practice that could be shared among teachers in their professional learning communities.
Harnessing parental and community resources to support learning.
Visibility, communication and connection with families with vulnerable children is essential to minimise drop out and maximise equity. For the Rising Academy Network, the fear from day one has been the increased risk of dropout that school closures bring – and the disproportionate effect of these closures on girls. They had experienced this firsthand during the Ebola crisis. The network’s teachers therefore reached out to their communities, supported parents to engage with Rising on Air and allocated home study packs to all students. Teachers also kept meticulous logs of parents’ visits to the schools to pick up their packs and followed up with those who did not.
Meanwhile, Peepul’s CM Rise training for teachers specifically emphasised and supported the role of parents in ensuring learning continuity throughout the crisis. Its courses emphasised the centrality of parents and the wider community to children’s remote education, supported by mediums for learning such as mobile phones, printed material and radio/television. The training emphasised the evolving, more involved role of parents in children’s education and the importance of working with them as partners. It also aimed to equip teachers with practical approaches to support parents and work with them.
Both organisations have big ambitions to grow and strengthen their use of blended models for teacher professional development and student learning (including accelerated and remedial interventions). They advise others who are seeking to do the same to:
- Start small, test and iterate based on what you learn. Be ready to fail but learn from your mistakes. Make improvements quickly.
- Make decisions on how to operate at scale based on testing in your context.
- Make parents genuine partners in their child’s education journey.
- Ensure strong feedback mechanisms that deliver the real picture from the ground.
We would like to thank James Bradley from Rising Academy Network, Urmila Chowdhury, Kruti Bharucha, Priti Vats, Ritu Tokas and Girish Ananthanarayanan from Peepul for taking the time to share their successes, challenges and visions for the future with us.
To read further analysis of lessons drawn from Covid-19, you can read our report, ‘Learning Renewed: ten lessons from the pandemic’ here.