In India's Slums, Blended Learning Finds Unexpected Evangelists

In India's Slums, Blended Learning Finds Unexpected Evangelists

On his swing through Silicon Valley this week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed to improve education for girls and increase opportunities for women. In a Mumbai slum some 4,000 miles away, two local women are doing just that. 

Meenu and Manju have little teaching experience, but they are helping to close the literacy and numeracy gap in Malwani, one of Asia's largest slums. Their schools, which have chipped walls and frequent power cuts, charge students less than $6 per month and struggle to retain certified teachers. Armed with basic tablets, Meenu and Manju have become unexpected evangelists of blended learning.

Across town, Femina manages a makeshift tablet lab behind the large, government-aided Guru Nanak High School; it predominantly serves children from Dharavi, one of Mumbai’s other major slum areas. Femina herself recently finished high school in Guru Nanak and has returned as a teaching assistant. Everyday, she supervises 30 children at a time--half the size of a typical class--as they sit in rows on the floor to watch videos and take assessments on tablets. They often appear at her door outside of their regularly scheduled classes--and even during school vacations--eager to spend their free time in the lab.

Meenu, Manju and Femina are part of an educational ecosystem facing an ominous shortage of qualified educators. UNESCO estimates that by 2030 India alone will need 3 million new teachers. (That’s more than the population of Chicago.) 

The shortages are forcing many policymakers around the globe to adjust requirements for teacher qualifications. Entrepreneurs and NGOs are also exploring instructional models which use technology to become less dependent on certified teachers. In some designs, teachers are entirely removed from the equation. Such efforts have been met with controversy from the education community because they perpetuate the ideas that minimal professional training is required to be a successful teacher or even that technology can replace teachers altogether. On the other side of the controversy, however, is the urgent reality that current models of schooling and teacher recruitment are not reaching every child. Not even close.

Combining the best of traditional instruction and technology, blended learning has seen growing success in classrooms in the developed world. At Zaya Learning Labs, an edtech start-up based in Mumbai, we believe that blended learning can also be a solution for schools in less developed regions. We have been working with schools over the past few years to implement a simple blended learning model enabled by low-cost technology, existing qualified teachers, and lower-skilled teaching assistants, who--like Meenu, Manju, and Feminia--are trained by Zaya. The entire model is powered by Zaya’s ClassCloud technology, which gives these offline schools an online learning experience by creating a powerful local hotspot in classrooms or labs without Internet access.

All the schools we work with charge less than $25 per month per child and often, as in Malwani and Guru Nanak, much less. Sixty or more children pile into one small classroom, with or without benches; teachers lecture as children run up from the back rows to see the blackboard properly. Adequate school space is so difficult to come by in Mumbai that one of our schools repurposed part of an old shopping center to set up its campus, using the hallways for recess. Schools sometimes accommodate their student numbers by working in two shifts, crunching all their subjects, including two to three languages, into only five hours per day. Electricity is unreliable and often disappears for several hours every afternoon. Unsurprisingly, these schools deal with high teacher turnover and absenteeism on a regular basis.

Much like KIPP Empower Academy came to a blended learning model when trying to achieve efficacy within budget constraints, Zaya has approached blended learning as a pedagogical strategy to provide more personalized education in large classrooms with few or even no qualified teachers. The implementation varies widely from school to school, but the basic ingredients are the same:

• Lead teachers and teaching assistants receive ongoing training about the platform and pedagogical model, managing groups in classrooms, and working with data in instructional teams. They gather in clusters for formal teacher training every couple of months and receive in-classroom coaching from Zaya’s School Managers throughout the year.

• Existing, usually certified teachers introduce lessons in one-to-many lectures, using  textbooks.

• Students rotate between small group instruction with the lead teacher and tech-enabled instruction overseen by a teaching assistant. During tech-led instruction, students individually review concepts through videos or games and take assessments with instantaneous feedback.

• This assessment data is instantly aggregated for instructors. The model and platform give the teacher and teaching assistant more opportunity to provide help to students who need it based on real data, either on the Zaya platform or in-person.

In schools with extremely limited resources, it’s difficult to imagine that blended learning is the most reasonable solution; after all, many high-income schools struggle to implement it. However, the benefits of blended learning with alternative staffing are surprisingly well aligned with these schools’ daunting challenges:

• Instructors faced with 45 or more students in one classroom can rely on technology and teaching assistants to group learners and deliver leveled instruction.

• Teaching assistants--whose own content knowledge may be limited--can use the platform to review concepts and find teaching strategies quickly during limited prep time. In a chain of after school centers across Karnataka and West Bengal, uncertified instructors use this technology to help them deliver a skills-based English program.

• In situations where they are not sure how to introduce a topic, teachers can use a video or other digital resource with a projector. This has proven especially useful for English language instruction.

• Local teaching assistants have been highly motivated by the opportunity to enter the teaching profession, and have driven implementation of the model with an eye on results. Last year, Meenu's and Manju’s students jumped impressively on a national literacy and numeracy assessment.

The introduction of technology and uncertified teaching assistants has elevated the perception of the teaching profession in these schools, allowing teachers to focus more on delivering targeted instruction. In one school, teachers who were previously disengaged with data are now sending us Whatsapp messages demanding specific formative assessments. They see value in being able to spend their time on remediation rather than on grading quizzes.

In the end, our biggest challenge is not broadband or student:teacher ratios, but working with stakeholders to take the leap to blend their classrooms.

Meg Whittenberger is Director of Operations at Zaya Learning Labs, which provides blended learning hardware, software, and training to low-income and offline schools around the world. 

STAY UP TO DATE ON EDTECH.News, research, and opportunities - sent weekly, for free.