How community virtual classes can bridge learning gap, address inequality

A key advantage of CVCL is that self-learning and teacher / peer-guided modalities can be combined within the same model   

By Liju Varkey Jacob
Published: Tuesday 13 September 2022

Every child has the fundamental right to education, yet not many have the access to it. Around 35% of the world’s illiterate population resides in India. Much remains to be done to create a child-friendly environment that nurtures education. 

In India, poor quality of education is rampant and it leads to poor learning outcomes. When children are pushed out of schools, being uneducated leaves them more vulnerable to early marriage, child labour, abuse and violence. 

Children belonging to low-income families often cannot afford to take special guidance sessions, which may directly affect the child's academic performance, leading to an increased chance of dropping out of school and never re-entering the education system.

Peer tutoring, in such cases, can be a blessing for these children where their classmates, who perform well in academics, help them achieve better results. Peer tutoring is a proven technique supported by many areas of research. 

Between 2014 and 2020, the percentage of students in Class 3 in government schools in Karnataka who could read Class 1 text dropped to 24.2 per cent from 41 percent, according to a report by ASER, a research organisation.

The ratio of students who could recognise double-digit numbers slid to 60 per cent from 75 per cent, it added. 

Quality deficiency is not limited to Karnataka. The learning levels of children are an indicator of the effectiveness and productivity of the education system

There is little doubt that poor reading ability in primary schooling also reflects the below-par ability of children to understand textbooks of higher standards, as the curriculum becomes increasingly ambitious and texts become complex in more than one way.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, by September 2020, schools had remained closed for nearly six months. The first three months of the 2020 lockdown were perceived as summer holidays. 

However, through the monsoon months of July, August and September, school continued to be closed. Prolonged proximity forced families to consider how to deal with discontinuity in their children's education. 

It is well established that home factors significantly influence student achievement. Research shows that when family characteristics are controlled, most differences in outcomes between private and government school children disappear. 

Family resources are strongly correlated to greater learning opportunities and support for children - choice of school, enrollment in tuition classes, access to more learning material and possible learning support at home. 

In India, these inequalities are profound and widespread and over time have remained a chronic characteristic of the Indian social fabric.

As the country was bracing itself to navigate through the pandemic's impact on education, World Vision India, the country's largest child-focused humanitarian organisation, focused on ensuring that the education of the vulnerable children does not suffer. 

World Vision India collaborated with Global Indian International School (GIIS), Singapore and piloted Community Virtual Class Learning (CVCL) for 20 students of Classes 4 and 5 aged 8-13 years from two schools in Agra and Chennai. 

One class per week for two hours commenced from October 7, 2020 to December 30, 2020.

Through ZOOM video conferencing platform and following proper social distancing and government-enforced COVID-19 protocols, classes were initiated with the support of the school management using laptops and projectors.

For CVCL, vulnerable students from less-privileged communities were identified for age-appropriate learning and skills. Then, the best way to tutor and help them improve were outlined. 

GIIS students from Classes 11 and 12 facilitated CVCL and tutored the students in English and Mathematics. The English language topics taught ranged from alphabets, nouns and tenses to poems, letter writing and storytelling. 

Mathematics topics ranged from simple addition and subtraction to profit and loss, area and perimeter, among others. Most sessions were in the children’s regional languages, to begin with, until they were able to comprehend the study material in English.

The result and impact after three months were quite progressive. The outcome demonstrated a 70 per cent increase in students who could read and comprehend the English language. Around 35 per cent of them were able to read the newspaper and 70 per cent improved their competencies in simple arithmetic. 

This goes a long way to show how the right platforms and guidance can help students improve their skills.

The success of this pilot intervention was due to peer learning. It allowed students to use their knowledge for a meaningful social experience and enabled the tutors to reinforce their learning by reviewing and reformulating their understanding. 

Tutees gained one-on-one attention. Both tutors and tutees gained self-confidence, the tutor by seeing self-competence in their ability to help someone and the tutee by receiving positive reinforcement from peers. 

Students in India also interacted with their in-house peers and learned from each other without much supervision, creating an environment of open communication that is important for learning. 

This type of learning process tends to enhance ‘deep learning’. In this, information is retained in memory for a longer term, rather than 'surface learning', where information tends to dissipate quickly from memory in the normal way of class teaching.

Based on this successful pilot programme, the project was scaled up to include more schools in 2021. Approximately 200 children from 10 schools in Agra, Chennai, Delhi, Gurgaon and Kanpur were selected for the second phase of CVCL. 

The initiative of peer learning is aligned to the National Education Policy 2020, which mentions establishing innovative models to foster peer-tutoring and volunteer activities. It also mentions launching other programmes to support teachers in this urgent mission to promote foundational literacy and numeracy during this learning crisis. 

During the school closure due to the pandemic, community virtual learning has been an innovative method to ensure continuity of education for the most vulnerable children who do not have access to online devices for education. 

It may be reasonable to conclude that peer learning has an important role to play in primary school education. There is a need to ensure that peer learning is more effective in classroom contexts and that education is not just an activity that takes place in a group but as a group activity. 

To have maximum impact, it is clear that peer learning needs to be embedded into the pedagogy and planning in school curriculum areas. Therefore, there is a need to include professional development programmes to enhance teachers' pedagogy in using peer-learning strategies. 

A key advantage of CVCL is that self-learning and teacher / peer-guided modalities can be combined within the same model. 

There is an enormous yearning for education among many children and their families because they are deprived of quality learning. 

We need to remember and plan for these vulnerable and marginalised children. The post COVID-19 recovery period presents an opportunity to make education systems more equitable and inclusive. Hope lives on.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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