The COVID-19 crisis has presented the world with unprecedented disruptions to business-as-usual. This is especially true in the education space, where in-person learning has stopped for over 90 percent of students around the world. Moreover, the disruption will likely persist for some time.

“Even after lockdown ends and schools officially reopen,” explains Binayak Acharya, 2017 YouthActionNet® fellow and founder of ThinkZone, “many children won’t return right away because parents will be hesitant, wanting to keep their children safe. Organizations in the education space will need to put on their design-thinking caps to make sure we can fulfill our missions and objectives.” Below, Binayak discusses how his organization is responding to the unprecedented challenge of COVID-19, and what a pandemic teaches us about the importance of education.

Explain what ThinkZone does in India’s education space?

The mission of ThinkZone is to improve the learning experience and outcomes for children from under-resourced communities across India. The basic goal is to make sure that students, from an early grade, have the required foundational skills they need to do well in their lives. We train, assist, and support community educators, public childcare workers, and school teachers to use our activity-based methodology, technology, and learning resources to implement quality education programs. Using our mobile application, educators are provided with a standardized, activity-based lesson plan that tells them what to do—and what not to do—to effectively engage the children in their respective childcare centers, schools, and learning centers. The best part of technology is that it does not require continuous internet connectivity. Once an educator has downloaded the content on their mobile application, they can lose internet connectivity but the app will be running and they can view training modules, lesson plans, worksheets, and activities. ThinkZone uses a Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) approach wherein children are educated not on the basis of their grade or age, but on the basis of their current learning level.

How has the COVID-19 crisis impacted education in India, and how has ThinkZone responded?

ThinkZone officially started in in 2015. Since then, we have been working across 500+ villages, directly reaching out to more than 5,000 children and training 400+ educators. This is basically what we’ve been doing until the COVID crisis in March 2020. During the lockdown, the first places to close were educational institutions. So, all our partner community educators, childcare centers, and schools closed. Suddenly, from the third week of March, there was no way that we could directly engage with our students. We worked with our existing network of educators to check-in with students personally, calling them at home, but this had a limited effect. So, we decided to scale up an existing voice-based parent engagement program that uses phone calls and SMS messages to deliver content and support to parents. Our mission hasn’t changed, but the mechanism and implementation model has switched from educator-to-children to parent-to-children. Parents have now become teachers, and we’re supporting them.

Describe how the Parent Engagement program works.

Not all families have access to smartphones, data, and the internet. In India, the rate of smartphone penetration is only about 25 percent, and in the rural villages where we work, it’s even lower. So, for families that have limited smartphone and internet access, we offer voice-based and SMS-based delivery for content. We can call parents in our communities directly, or they can call a number to listen to new content—activity-based lessons for children aged 3-10—every day. And, of course, there is no cost to the parents. Similarly, we have also partnered with a local radio channel to broadcast our activity-based learning modules daily.

How has the scale-up gone—what have been some successes and challenges?

Simply put, we’d like to reach more parents. In the past month, we’ve reached over 8,500 families with our voice-based education program. This is a big number, but the reach rate for voice-based products is in the range of 50 to 60 percent. That means if we call 100 parents, only 50 or 60 will pick up the phone. Ideally, we’d like to reach a much larger part of the population to make them aware of our platform and the opportunity for them to access wonderful content for their children. One way to address this could be partnering with the government to get the message out—to say here’s the number you call. If we were able to do that, the scale of impact could significantly increase. ThinkZone’s radio-based education is a massive hit among communities and the scale at which we have been able to reach out to children is huge. The number of new families calling to our interactive voice response (IVR) number has significantly increased after we started broadcasting our home-based education program via radio.

What lesson should we learn from the COVID-19 crisis?

In any crisis, education is almost the last thing we focus on. I absolutely understand that healthcare, food security, and nutrition are all essential, but we should also put education in the same critical category. To address the challenge a crisis like this poses for education, something needs to be done at scale. And this will require civil society, elected government officials, and international organizations working together to ensure that education is given priority.

 

Photo courtesy of ThinkZone.