Rautahat, Nepal: The first thing four-year-old Rishika Chaudhary does in the morning, right after brushing her teeth and washing her face, asks her mother Sumitra whether there are any new messages from Sita ma’am.
Sita Dawadi is a pre-primary teacher in Chandrapur Municipality in Rautahat District in southern Nepal. She is currently among the educators who are supporting the piloting of an innovative telephone-based learning approach in four municipalities across the country, as part of UNICEF and Finland Government partnership to improve the overall education and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) situation of children and families in Nepal.
Under the tele-learning approach, parents and caregivers of young children of four years of age in targeted communities have been provided mobile data to take part in closed user groups, where they receive daily text messages describing different structured activities to carry out with their children. Teachers then follow up with the caregivers via phone to check on how the children are faring and to clarify any concerns.
On her part, aside from follow-up phone calls, Sita has additionally developed a Facebook Messenger group for all 35 parents in her area, so that she can counsel them on daily exercises, share additional resources and tips, and keep track of progress.
“I often record videos of me and my own children doing these learning exercises and share them with the group so that they can see how it’s done,” Sita says.
And it’s precisely those videos that Rishika is always so keen to watch and try out.
“She was so restless being at home for so long, and I didn’t know what to do,” Sumitra says. “With the lessons, we have kind of a routine set out for each day, and she loves it.”
Sumitra says that the couple of hours a day she currently spends with Rishika going through the SMS instructions and using the workbook and other materials in the self-learning packs provided by UNICEF, has strengthened the bond between mother and child.
“I give more time to her now…It’s brought us closer together.”
This is echoed by Ramita Rai, another parent from Chandrapur, who says that since starting tele-learning with her younger daughter Jenisha, she feels she understands her children more. “I’ve learned that forcing young children to study, study, study is not the right way,” Ramita says. “You have to understand their moods and interests, and work with them.”
Teacher Sita says that these are precisely the kind of changes they had been hoping for when the classes first began. “In the past, many parents had this mindset that schools were entirely responsible for their children’s learning, they didn’t understand the role that they themselves played,” she explains.
“But the pandemic and school closures has forced us out of these old boxes, and in a way, it’s been a good reminder that learning starts at home and the importance of spending focused time with children.”
And that learning has not been limited to the children. For instance, for Ramita, while her daughter is picking up different skills through the lessons, she feels that she has gained some new skills herself – particularly to do with technology. “Interacting in the Facebook group, and taking part in virtual meetings, I never thought I could do these things before,” Ramita says, smiling. “But after using these tools regularly, I feel much more confident.”
Familiarizing oneself with new technology might not be possible for all parents and caregivers, of course, and in such cases, Sita makes sure to provide individualized support. For example, although the parents of four-year-old Sano Babu Singh were included in the Chandrapur CUG, having never been to school themselves, they were unable to read the messages properly.
In the process of identifying possible ways to help the family conduct the lessons, neighbour Binita Acharya – a 24-year-old arts student – came forward. She offered to stand in for the parents and coach the young boy herself. “We’ve known the family for a long time, and when talking to Babu’s mother, I could tell they really wanted him to learn,” she says. “I thought, if I can help, why shouldn’t I?”
And so, for the past few months, Binita has been receiving the tele-learning messages and guiding Sano Babu through the exercises.
“He couldn’t even hold a pencil the right way when we first started,” she says, proudly. “Now, he does different exercises, and goes home and tells his parents about what he’s learnt.”
“I don’t think any of us knew what to expect because we never had to do anything like this before,” she says. “But now that we have a system in place, and seeing the impact it has had, it makes us realize that this could be something that could have be useful even beyond the pandemic.”
“If for any reason, schools close for a long time again in the future, we know we have something to fall back on.”
Telephone-based learning is among a range of alternative education modalities that have been developed as part of the Learning Continuity Campaign by the Government of Nepal and education partners to ensure children can continue to learn through prolonged school closures brought about by COVID-19. At present, UNICEF is supporting the piloting of the tele-learning modality targeted at pre-primary level children of age four in four municipalities in Rautahat, Kapilvastu, Surkhet and Achham Districts.