Going the Distance

When the pandemic hit, and schools were shut down all of a sudden in the middle of March 2020, I was immediately concerned about my students: their academic as well as social and emotional well-being.     

I saw teachers working under relatively better circumstances, contacting their students readily, already designing content and schedules, and setting up and resuming classes online through various software and applications. Yet, where I worked, a fair percentage of students did not have access to any personal means of communication. Of those who did, about fifty per cent of them possessed a simple cell phone with basic call/SMS service. And the rest of the fifty per cent, who did own a smartphone, did so with minimal technological expertise, making it difficult for them to operate within the extensive world of social media and the internet.

I wondered: how do I reach my students? Where do I even begin?

Establishing Contact: The Seeming Dead-end

Throughout the school year, I tried collecting my students' infor​mation, but somehow or the other it always ended up at the bottom of my to-do list; something to be done later when time allowed. And so, when I first started calling my students with what little contact information I did have, I discovered to my dismay most of the contact numbers the students or their parents had given me were either incomplete, incorrect, turned off or not in use anymore.

Establishing Contact: The Community to the Rescue

My co-Fellow and I did however get through to a handful of students. We appealed for their help in reaching out to other students The next step was making lists of students’ names, in English and Urdu, and circulating them through SMS/WhatsApp everyday. The students and parents who were helping us look for these students, actually combed through entire neighbourhoods for us, with some mothers even going door- to- door and asking for any information regarding a certain child.

An additional strategy to reach out involved listing and contacting all those connected to the school including teachers, school staff as well peripheral connections such as the taxi driver or the shop owner in front of our school.

The overwhelming support and assistance from the students, their parents, their families, friends, neighbours, school staff, and people in the community made all the difference. Within a week, we managed to gather the data and contact information of almost all of our students.

Starting  a Whatsapp School      

Now equipped with the relevant information, we immediately set out to collect important data points that would help us design our virtual teaching practice. As a start-off, my fellow colleague and I did extensive telephonic interviews with parents and students. Our focus was to ascertain their emotional well-being and to gauge the kind of resources they had access to. Through these, we discovered almost all the students had access to television, but few had immediate access to a smartphone. Moreover, only two of our eighty students had access to a computer or laptop.

Given the situation WhatsApp was the only viable solution. Since most of the students did not have access to WhatsApp directly, we urged them to look for relatives, cousins, or neighbours who might have a smartphone, or we paired them up with their class fellows who did, and lived nearby. For those who did have access but had parental consent issues, we worked on convincing their parents to let them use the phone for an hour every-day, under supervision.

Slowly, we began forming a WhatsApp group. Starting with a single WhatsApp group with only four girls, we now had two groups, one with 26 active participants, with many neighbouring girls using the same WhatsApp account through a single smartphone.

Many fathers were downloading WhatsApp and other applications for the first time on their phones. One father became so invested in his daughter’s education that not only did he buy a smartphone for the first time in his life but also asked me for help in downloading and using WhatsApp.

We started sending pictures of worksheets to students available on WhatsApp, along with video and audio lectures, but had to type out content for those who only had the facility of SMS, in English and Urdu, following up with a phone call to make sure the content was delivered, received, and understood. Unsurprisingly, the submission of completed work and assignments, and their accuracy, varied substantially between those who had access to WhatsApp and those who did not.

We soon realized that an overwhelming number of our students were lagging behind and we needed to find a solution at the earliest. After brainstorming, we decided to design learning packs for the students and deliver them to their homes. These learning packs would consist of content based on the curriculum of the previous and the next class, consisting of English, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies, as well as other engaging content we found available over the internet.

Now we faced the dilemma of delivery. Neither of us resided in the city and no door-to-door delivery services were available during the lockdown. 

The plan we put into action was this: the first step was to identify a person in the city who would be willing to print and compile the learning packs we wanted to send. This person would then deliver the packs to the village where most students lived, and a parent would receive them. 

Fortunately, my co-fellow was able to find such a person. Within two hours of us emailing the learning packs, all 80 copies were printed and ready to go. 

Then I asked parents in the WhatsApp groups if anyone of them were available to receive the copies. Thankfully, one parent volunteered to pick up the copies and drop them off to a local shop in the village from where all students could go and grab their pack. We called each and every student and made sure every one of them received their copy. And so, just like that, within 24 hours of designing and delivering the learning packs, all 80 students had access to 2      months’ worth of homework that would help them revise concepts from the previous class and prepare them for those in the next one.

And, surprisingly, through this, we were also contacted by those students who had remained out of our reach, as they caught wind that their teachers had sent work for them. Students from other classes started calling us up for work too!

In hindsight, we underestimated the impact these learning packs would have entirely. Not only did our students' performance and engagement increase substantially, their enthusiasm to learn became difficult to contain, as we were bombarded with messages and calls to answer their questions and clear up confusions. This alone speaks volumes about these children: even stranded at home, their eagerness continued to drive them.     

Endings and Beginnings…

A quantitative analysis of the impact of our strategies was done by dividing students into three categories. Even though the impact was visible through several different student actions, seeing it in numbers just drove the point home. Students in category A (access to distance learning and took the year-end test) were able to score twice as much as category B (no access to distance learning but took the year-end test) and C (newly admitted students who did not take the year end test). 

What needs to be noted is that the impact of distance learning was not limited to academic performance only. It had far-reaching consequences throughout the village. Teachers in our school who previously did not believe that a system like this could be implemented in their schools were eager to learn how to navigate ​WhatsApp, make groups, send resources, and within a month of school reopening, had formed their own WhatsApp groups with their classrooms. Parents reached out to us to keep them updated on their child’s progress through WhatsApp and it became very convenient for us to take a picture of a test and send it to them. 

Through the whole experience, I realized the power of having immediate access to a smartphone and an internet connection. From the comfort of my home, I was able to reach my students despite the hundreds of miles separating us, and this not only strengthened our relationship, but deepened students’ understanding of learning, that it can happen anywhere and in any form, not just in school, and still be as effective. Even though there is still a long way to go when it comes to devising long-term sustainable solutions for distance learning that are inclusive of those living without a single screen or WiFi signal, nevertheless we must keep doing everything in our power with the resources we have available, to make quality learning easy and accessible for those who need it most.

About the Author

Momina Abid is an Economics & Political Science graduate from the Lahore University of Management Sciences. She is currently working as Assistant Manager – Digital Learning at The Citizens Foundation, and recently completed her two-year Fellowship at Teach For Pakistan.