Center for Global Development Diaries from the Frontline: Distance Learning for Offline Children

Center for Global Development Diaries from the Frontline: Distance Learning for Offline Children

This blog is the second installment of Center for Global Development‘s new series: Diaries from the Frontline. The blog is available at www.cgdev.org/blog/diaries-frontline-distance-learning-offline-children and included below.


Diaries from the Frontline: Distance Learning for Offline Children

By Maryam Akmal, Marriam Musa and Maretta Silverman

With schools out, countries around the world are grappling with distance learning initiatives to keep kids learning and engaged. Distance learning is a big challenge in low-tech environments where children have minimal access to digital media, though many digitally advanced countries are struggling as well. According to CGD’s COVID education policy tracker, only 29 percent of low-income countries are providing some kind of distance learning program for their students. But even in low-income countries that do have distance learning programs, many students might be left out due to poor access to the TV, radio, or internet. For example, a new survey from Kenya suggests that only one in five children are accessing online learning during school closures. In addition, language of content, access to books at home, and parental literacy and involvement can further exacerbate inequalities.

In the second post in our “Diaries from the Frontline” series, we continue to examine how frontline education organizations are adjusting to the crisis. Last week we took a look at how The Citizens Foundation (TCF), which operates more than 1,600 primary and secondary schools in urban slums and rural communities in Pakistan, and the Luminos Fund, which  provides accelerated learning for children who have missed out on school due to poverty, crisis, or discrimination in countries including Liberia, shifted to providing food and relief to families. In this post, we examine how TCF and Luminos are supporting distance learning efforts for the students they serve.

TCF’s Ilm Ka Aangan TV Show in Pakistan

Less than a month after Pakistan closed schools, the prime minister announced a new state television channel dedicated to lessons aligned with the national curriculum, PTV TeleSchool. It was the first time in decades that Pakistan had a local language children’s TV channel. Television was a natural choice. Roughly two-thirds of households in Pakistan own a television set. In contrast, the percent of households that have a radio and internet connection are 6.4 percent and 11.8 percent respectively.  While TCF has found its teachers taking the initiative to use a variety of media, including WhatsApp, SMS, and word-of-mouth to ensure the continuity of learning in communities it serves, television stands out as a medium to reach and engage a large number of children from schools throughout the country.

Now came the harder question: how do you get school from a TV? For TCF, the answer was simple: You don’t. Lessons from education response efforts in West Africa after the Ebola crisis emphasize that education’s primary role during a crisis should be that of positive engagement, mitigating psychosocial impacts of the disaster, and establishing routine—not just ensuring the continuity of academic learning.

In response to the government’s call for academic content for the TV channel, TCF adapted its play-based curriculum for a new filmed-at-home-but-made-for-television show, Ilm Ka Aangan (The Courtyard of Knowledge). The content focuses on building functional literacy and numeracy through engaging activities, with a key focus on socio-emotional learning.

Figure 1. TCF’s Ilm Ka Aangan uses play-based learning and storytelling to keep children engaged

Source: The Citizens Foundation

The show uses storytelling, which can be an effective way to not only cultivate literacy and social skills, but also explain concepts from science and social studies while keeping kids engaged. For example, the story “Emaan the Scientist” is about a little girl who wants to fly, and illustrates the scientific method. After several failed attempts, her mother reassures her that if she keeps experimenting, as scientists do, then someday she will fly. Eventually, she does, with a hot air balloon. The protagonist, along with the show’s host, also offer positive role models for little girls watching. Despite the effectiveness of storytelling, only 3.5 percent of kids in Punjab have 3 or more books to read at home.

Recognizing that children of many ages are watching at once, the show’s content is multi-grade with a focus on basic concepts targeted at ages 5-10. This is in contrast to other distance learning content being aired in Pakistan right now that is structured in a grade-wise manner—despite the fact that many students are already behind their grade level. Data from the Annual Status of Education Report suggest 75 percent of grade 3 children in urban Pakistan cannot read a simple story in their local language at the grade 2 level.

The learning doesn’t stop once the show ends. The host assigns “homework,” for example playing a game to learn a concept or solving a math problem. However, the most popular homework is the host asking children to submit a drawing based on the episode.

The day after the launch, the show received 20,000 text messages from a wide range of urban and rural areas, a response that has fed into how the program is evolving. Since the most marginalized children will not have access to TV, mobile phones, or electricity, including most of the communities that TCF serves, the organization is also piloting a purely offline version of Ilm ka Aangan: an edutainment magazine focused on building early grade skills through do-it-yourself activities, stories, and comics, which can be exchanged with teachers via drop-off points, such as grocery stores. Anticipating that school closures may be extended, TCF is designing similar magazines for secondary school students. For now, Ilm Ka Aangan, through television and the offline magazine, seems to be providing much needed engagement, learning, and a sense of routine for millions of children stuck at home.

The Luminos Fund’s Efforts to Support Learning at Home

After schools closed in Liberia, the government launched a radio schooling initiative. Unlike Pakistan, Liberia has a relatively higher rate of radio penetration and lower rate of TV access. Roughly half of households possess a radio, whereas roughly one-fifth possess a television and approximately one-tenth of the population has access to electricity. However, that means that while radio schooling is more scalable, half of Liberian households still may not have access. And even among those households with access to a radio, children might not have access to learning materials such as books and stationery.

Luminos has sought to provide access to some of those learning materials. In late March and early May, Luminos distributed learning materials to hundreds of Liberian students for home-based learning, including readers, math workbooks, pencils, and pencil sharpeners, as a part of relief packages that also included soap and detergent for students’ families.  Through this process, Luminos facilitators found that in most cases, the materials they provided are the only books the family has.

A student in Liberia receives her learning material to continue studying at home
Figure 2. A student in Liberia receives her learning material to continue studying at home

Radio or texting might work elsewhere,” says Abba Karnga, Jr., Luminos program manager for Liberia, “but not where we work. Most of our parents don’t have radios, and kids shouldn’t gather around one anyway due to distancing. If we sent a text, many of our parents couldn’t read it. The best thing Luminos can do is distribute the readers, worksheets – learning materials – for students to work on at home, speak to the families, and then for our facilitators or supervisors do their best to monitor.”

Apart from providing textbooks, Luminos Fund facilitators have tried to stay engaged with students and ensure that they are using the learning materials. Varney, a facilitator who lives and teaches in a rural village in Bomi, walks by students’ houses—at a distance—to tell them the lesson for that day and to ensure that children are using the books. Then, that afternoon or the next day, he checks to make sure they have completed it.

One father, who is literate, says of the Luminos reading materials, “My daughter can read the whole book now. Even last night she was working on it.”

The initiative has had challenges. First, not all facilitators are able to check in with their students, especially those who live in faraway villages. Second, distributing materials in remote communities is time-consuming and can be stressful when local community members are suspicious of visitors wearing medical masks and personal protective equipment, especially due to heightened distrust of others from experience with Ebola.

Despite these efforts to promote distance learning, facilitators and parents have expressed concerns that students will fall behind, especially students who were struggling already. For now, everyone is worried about what will happen to this particular cohort of students, and eager for the virus to pass so schools can reopen and life can return to normal.


Next week we’ll take a look at what TCF and Luminos teachers are doing and how operations are being sustained during the crisis.

Center for Global Development, a prominent think tank, features Luminos in its new blog series: “Diaries from the Frontline.” The series focuses on education organizations that are pivoting during COVID-19. Here is the first installment, which is also available at www.cgdev.org/blog/diaries-frontline-how-education-organizations-are-providing-food-and-relief-during-covid-19.

Center for Global Development features Luminos in “Diaries from the Frontline”

Center for Global Development features Luminos in “Diaries from the Frontline”

Center for Global Development, a prominent think tank, features Luminos in its new blog series: “Diaries from the Frontline.” The series focuses on education organizations that are pivoting during COVID-19. Here is the first installment, which is also available at www.cgdev.org/blog/diaries-frontline-how-education-organizations-are-providing-food-and-relief-during-covid-19.


Diaries from the Frontline: How Education Organizations Are Providing Food and Relief during COVID-19

By Rita Perakis, Nikita Khosla, Wajiha Bari

It’s hard to grasp what 1.3 billion kids being out of school means for education systems, families, and children’s welfare. While CGD has been conducting research to advise governments on policy responses to the pandemic, we wanted to supplement big-picture analyses with an on-the-ground look at the reality of operating under the lockdown for education providers in low- and lower-middle income countries, and their roles in supporting the communities that are most affected.

“Diaries from the Frontline” is a new blog series that will feature stories from education organizations about what the crisis means for them and the underprivileged communities in which they’re working, as well as the ways that they are helping children to stay engaged in learning or helping families to cope.

For many households, the urgent need is basic sustenance. The World Food Programme anticipates that without action the number of people suffering acute hunger will almost double to 265 million. Social protection programs have grown rapidly since the start of the pandemic, although there are concerns they will miss the informal sector—80 percent of all workers in sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile, millions of children are missing out on school meals—a critical supplement for families in low-income countries, where food averages 60 percent of household expenditures.

In response, some education organizations are filling in the gaps and providing relief far beyond their usual operations. This week, we are featuring stories from two nonprofit education providers who were serving some of the world’s most vulnerable children before COVID-19 hit and have shifted to providing new kinds of support: the Luminos Fund, where Nikita works as senior director of programs, and The Citizens Foundation, where Wajiha heads the department for volunteers and higher education. 

The Luminos Fund works in Ethiopia, Liberia, and Lebanon (with Syrian refugees) providing “Second Chance” education—programs focused on accelerated learning for children who’ve missed schooling because of crisis, poverty, or discrimination. More than 90 percent of Luminos students advance to mainstream government schools after completing the Luminos program.

The Citizens Foundation (TCF) is one of the world’s largest networks of independently run schools, operating more than 1,600 primary and secondary schools in urban slums and rural communities in Pakistan. TCF hires only women as teachers and principals, making it the largest private employer of women in Pakistan, and maintains a 1:1 ratio of girl students to boys.

Luminos’s experience distributing relief packages to communities in Liberia

According to the World Food Programme, 83.8 percent of Liberia’s population lives on less than $1.25 a day and a quarter of Liberian families spend over 65 percent of their total expenditures on food. The Luminos Fund began working in Liberia in 2016, at the end of the Ebola outbreak, and many of its classrooms are in the communities where the poorest and hungriest out-of-school children live. A necessary part of the program has been providing midday meals: Luminos provides a parent of a student in the class with ingredients including rice and beans and pays them a monthly stipend to prepare lunch.

On March 16, when Liberia confirmed its first COVID case and closed schools, all Luminos classes were put on hold and Luminos pivoted quickly to providing relief for families. The following week, in addition to distributing learning materials to hundreds of Liberian students, Luminos distributed soap and detergent for students’ families, the first time the organization undertook a mass distribution of this kind. Luminos has received special government permission to distribute these items during the lockdown.

Villagers could not congregate due to physical distancing guidelines, so team members spoke with families individually about their children’s education and to share government health guidance. When distributing supplies in late March, team members wore face masks and surgical gloves, and maintained reasonable distance with others. Taking the time to speak with families and answer their questions allowed the Luminos team to help calm fears within communities.

Abba Karnga, Jr., Luminos program manager in Liberia (who previously directed the Stop the Spread of Ebola Campaign), describes initial challenges with the distribution due to rumors in the villages:

“At first, people ran away from us—adults and children alike—and people were arguing, even though they know us! It was tense. Once we explained why we were there and our purpose, the families were very appreciative. I wasn’t surprised by people’s suspicions. It reminded me of working during Ebola when false rumors were flying that Ebola was a joke or that doctors were giving bad vaccines, and everyone was afraid…During the March distribution, it took us an hour in one community simply to relax everyone enough to then distribute the materials.”

A second emergency distribution in May includes additional learning materials, soap, drums to store water, and a bag of rice for each family. Some Second Chance parents describe much more difficult conditions, with no one in the family able to work, especially since the country entered a strict government-mandated lockdown. One out-of-work father of 11 says, “It has gotten really tough for us. We used to eat rice twice a day, but now we eat cassava in the morning and rice in the evening. My son is trying but he is missing his friends and teachers. Children want to be in school and eating.”

Many staple foods in Liberia are imported, including rice, the population’s core food, so the country is particularly vulnerable to shortages in times of crisis.

“Luminos could not use our regular wholesaler for the rice because the Liberian government had purchased all her stock,” says Nikita Khosla, Luminos senior director of programs. “COVID made it harder for us to source rice, but this is not the first time we’ve run into issues procuring rice and other basic inputs in Liberia.”

Luminos was able to procure the rice and expects that a bag can feed a large family for two to three weeks. Abba says that Luminos’s pivot towards providing the relief that families need has been only natural: “We’re reaching children who never went to school before and getting them to a level where they want to keep going. That’s humanitarian. So, when an emergency arises like COVID-19, it’s important that we step up and revise. Providing relief during COVID isn’t strange. It’s what we have to do.”

TCF’s experience with cash transfers in Pakistan

Over 25 years, TCF has built a network of schools in 700 locations across Pakistan where children didn’t have access to schools. Based on their financial means, families pay somewhere between six cents and $3.80 a month for a child to attend a TCF school; the $12 cost per child is covered mostly through local and diaspora philanthropy. In previous national emergencies, TCF has mobilized to provide relief goods. To respond to COVID, TCF is prioritizing cash transfers.

As parts of Pakistan started going into lockdown on March 23, TCF alumni and families started contacting TCF for help. TCF quickly established a partnership with JazzCash, the largest telecom in Pakistan, with an aim to deliver cash transfers to 100,000 of the highest-need individuals in the highest-need communities. Reaching those with the most need, especially during a transportation lockdown, was a challenge that required the help of a nationwide network of over 20,000 alumni and 12,500 female faculty who live in affected communities.

TCF used its socioeconomic data on families to identify clusters of need. To identify beneficiaries within communities, TCF then gathered information through a short survey administered by volunteer alumni and faculty. “While we were surveying and identifying needy families in a slum in the remote village of Surbander, Gwadar, we came across a woman—a widow whose son had lost his job at the gas station amid the lockdown. She shared that they didn’t have anything to cook for dinner and was surprised that we had come so far to this part of the village to help,” says Ms. Farida Bibi, principal at a TCF school in Gwadar, Balochistan.

Because of a lack of phones, literacy, or connectivity, surveys often had to be done door-to-door. TCF provided volunteers with safety guidelines and 250 rupees ($1.50) to buy masks, hand sanitizer, soap, and bottled water, which was important for handwashing in many communities that don’t have running water. In communities with positive COVID-19 cases, volunteers were asked to wear an extra layer of clothing, plastic to cover shoes, a head covering, and gloves.

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Volunteers identified 200 to 600 households in each community, including by consulting with local organizations and authorities to identify households outside of their networks. The transfer amounts were 2,500 rupees (about $15) on average, the estimated cost for a family of six to buy basic food supplies and soap for two weeks.

“Upon receiving the cash, people purchase groceries from local vendors, which helps in boosting economic activity in the community,” says Riaz Kamlani, executive vice president for outcomes at TCF, who is leading TCF’s COVID-19 relief efforts. There may only be one shopping area or shop in a community, and, due to social distancing measures in place, TCF had to stagger the pick-ups. Those who had the least food in their pantries (proven via a photo or self-reported) went first. In Gambat, a village in interior Sindh, TCF alumni helped 30 people collect cash transfers one at a time in a day, a total of 300 people over 10 days.

An additional challenge was a lack of mobile phones, since transfers are typically made through phones. In one community surveyed, only 70 out of 1,100 people had mobile phones. TCF convinced JazzCash to share the transaction IDs with on-the-ground volunteers, who then facilitated the collection by matching national ID cards. In one area, due to the lockdown, the JazzCash shop couldn’t officially open so volunteers made makeshift arrangements by turning a garage into a collection shop and processing transactions there instead. A few locals volunteered a tent where beneficiaries waited so that social distancing was maintained throughout the collection process. Since April 1, TCF has helped over 18,000 households in 67 communities; 82 percent of those helped are daily wage workers.

Luminos’s work in Liberia and TCF’s work in Pakistan since the pandemic hit show how education providers are stepping in to provide immediate relief in the communities they serve. Both used their links to communities to mobilize quickly, build trust, and support the hardest to reach. Next week we will look at how they have transitioned to providing distance learning, even in settings with little or no technology.  


Learn more the Luminos Fund’s response during COVID: https://luminosfund.org/covid-19s-impact-on-our-classrooms-and-mission/

Learn more about Center for Global Development: www.cgdev.org

Learn more about The Citizens Foundation: www.tcf.org.pk


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+1 781 333 8317   info@luminosfund.org

The Luminos Fund is a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt charitable organization registered in the United States (EIN 36-4817073).

Luminos is supporting students during COVID-19

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