How innovation in education is empowering learners post Covid-19

How was the education system in Uganda affected by Covid-19, and what are some of the ways in which it can recover from the pandemic?

The Covid-19 health crisis heightened and highlighted a widening global equity divide, especially in Uganda.

Progress demands commitment to hope for tomorrow and the requisite supportive structures for the youngest generation to meet passion with opportunity. Toxic stress, which impacts healthy physical, emotional, and cognitive development, can occur when young children are exposed to extreme or ongoing stress. Stress of this magnitude physically decreases the size of parts of a young child’s developing brain that are responsible for memory, decision making, and learning.

In Uganda, many children and caregivers who could no longer engage the joyful opportunity and engagement promoted in participation in playlab programming were doubly impacted by toxic stressors.

These stressors included increased food insecurity created by lack of opportunity for family breadwinners to generate income. Parents and caregivers, a child’s most critical connection in the early years and beyond, were overburdened and suffered from reduced or absent income and resulting depression and anxiety.

About 1,100 families received food and nutritional support during the first wave of Covid-19. With support from the Yidan Prize Foundation, BRAC engaged marginalized communities in the Madi-Okollo District of the Rhino refugee settlement to co-create 10 humanitarian play labs for delivering high-quality play-based learning.

Also, psychosocial support was provided to 185 play lab leaders and teachers with the use of a psychosocial training manual. The manual was developed, and the training was facilitated by a professional psychosocial counsellor. The training was eventually rolled out for 5,670 parents.

This practical training helped the parents to restore a peaceful mind which eventually triggered to provide support to their children in their learning and well-being.

In regions where quality education is not always widely accessible, how does this tend to affect the general population’s lives, lifestyles and livelihoods?

Education is a catalyst for hope and progress; as well as promoting critical thinking, empathy, and problem solving, quality early years experiences encourage brain development and enable learning throughout a child’s entire education cycle.

The basic human right of education promotes the opportunity to develop agency in one’s own life and become an active member of society.

A lack of access to educational opportunity in early years and beyond often translates to illiteracy and a cycle of intergenerational poverty. This multiplies the chances of being unemployed, increases the likelihood of serious illness, and compounds harmful beliefs around sexual and reproductive health, gender norms and early marriage.

What can be done to mitigate the negative effects of a lack of education?

Our approach to working with, in, and for communities resulted in community driven innovations such as radio play labs.

These adapt playful and joyful Early Childhood Development (ECD) programming and messages of positive parenting and nurturing caregiving on national radio in local languages, a more widely accessible means of distance learning and parental support.

There is strong belief that providing accessible learning opportunities owned and supported by communities, close to students’ homes, and training teachers from these communities, builds the most sustainable capacity. In Uganda, small playful play lab groups were held in volunteer homes, respecting distance in safe, open air outdoor spaces identified and offered by community members to mitigate developmental learning loss and keep connections that combat isolation. The play lab leaders were engaged to provide additional support to the children through home visits.

ECD learning contents were delivered to the parents to support their children’s learning at home during school closure. Research findings showed that the Covid -19 response activities improved relationships between parents and children as parents were primary educators during the Covid-19 period.

The heart of BRAC’s work is joyful, innovative, and low-cost approaches that build capacity through cultivating stronger connections between teachers, parents and students.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing education in Uganda currently?

The government of Uganda considers education a human right and has been prioritizing the provision of free primary education since 1997. With the launch of the Uganda Integrated Early Childhood Development policy in 2016, Uganda formally recognized the importance of providing children with strategies and services supporting healthy development and early learning.

Major crosscutting challenges for Uganda include a lack of trained teachers, especially in rural areas and for early years programming, widespread teacher and student absenteeism, inadequate resources and learning materials, large class sizes, and disorganized school management.

A lack of opportunity to meet the needs of learners with disabilities and cultural beliefs that a girl’s education is less valuable, often promoting early marriage, are also major barriers to development.

Research illustrates programs that successfully embed foundational skills for holistic development for children in early years engage communities in providing emotional, cognitive, physical, social, and creative experiences. Article 31 in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes a child’s right to play as fundamental.

What innovative methods and technology do you think could be instituted that would be significantly beneficial to educators, learners, and students?

Connection and access to supportive structures is critical for both parents and educators. Innovative approaches that are sustainably beneficial must be available particularly for teacher training.

Ensuring pre-service teachers, Play Leaders and teacher trainers have access to pedagogy and instruction that supports developmental best practices and connects them effectively to professional learning circles, mentors, and upskilling of knowledge is essential.

Training that supports effective understanding basic theories of child development, nurturing care, and play based learning, complemented by the opportunity to practice, and cultivating play based approaches using natural, low-cost materials relevant to context is critical.

Digital literacy is an essential skill for the 21st century. Although not all members of Ugandan society have access to smartphones, computers/tablets, or internet at home, radio delivery and helplines accessible from legacy phones have proven to be an effective bridge to accessing learning and support for parents under incredible stress.

Community based technology centers that promote and support these skills and allow teachers, parents, and children to access learning materials and build livelihood skills that are relevant and personally interesting is an essential component of foundations for the future.

How did play labs support education during the pandemic?

Uganda went into lockdown in March 2020 which means ECD centres/Play Labs, schools were closed for an indefinite time.

We ensured children and their families stay connected, continue learning, and maintain their wellbeing through the global pandemic by providing remote playful learning opportunities through radio play lab sessions, SMS learning, ECD helpline and emergency food support.

When schools reopened, we continued the remote learning support through Radio, Helpline and SMS to help learners recover the learning losses in Uganda.

Radio has been identified as the most easily accessible platform for children and families living in marginalized communities in Uganda. Content for Radio play labs was developed using play lab curriculum and parenting modules, adapted into scripts, and delivered by joyful, active play leaders.

SMS learning in Uganda as an alternative learning modality has also been proven very effective during the time of pandemic.

During the pandemic, 15,622 children, 12,617 parents (6,602 direct participants and 9,020 indirect participants), 191 play leaders and teachers have been reached with 115 SMS activities developed for three-eight year old children and sent to parents and play leaders to support children’s learning while at home.

The parents practiced the learning contents with their children received through SMS; these were also followed-up by the play leaders and teachers during the door-to-door visit. Follow-up calls were also received regarding these contents.

As the school closure continued for a longer term in Uganda up to December 2021, play leaders took the lead in the cluster learning approach with supportive supervision from project assistants and line managers.

Regarding early childhood education in Uganda, major barriers, according to a BRAC research, include-

Limited and uneven understanding of early childhood development and specifically learning through play and its foundational role in supporting children’s development and learning.

●Demand for more specialized training in early childhood development and play based learning outstripping teacher training institute capacity

●Need for a more supportive environment for early childhood from parents, community members and leaders.

●Strong gendered differences in how females and males, including parents and early childhood teachers, support and engage in play, and clear gender stereotypes about the play of girls and boys, including how that relates to expectations for their future roles in society.

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