On March 25, 2020, the Government of India ordered a lockdown of the world’s largest democracy. 1.3 billion people were asked to stay at home with no sense of how long it would last. Schools, colleges, and universities had closed a week earlier, affecting 320 million Indian students, and were instructed to begin teaching online; being an unprecedented situation, no one quite knew what to do. Suddenly confined and already panicked by the spread of an unknown disease, parents, students, teachers, and leaders of educational institutions struggled to cope. Teachers were unprepared for online teaching. In a country where only 36% of the population has access to the internet and mere 12.5% students have access to smartphones, the digital divide posed a great barrier to online learning.
Study Hall Educational Foundation (SHEF) runs a network of schools and education initiatives in and around Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, directly impacting 7,594 students, and 100,000 indirectly. Most are on the wrong side of the digital divide; the majority are girls. During this time, SHEF has successfully contacted only 58% of its students from poorer communities; of these, 56% have access to a smartphone and internet, while 44% have access to basic phones.
The Critical Role of Leaders
A crisis tests the leadership of any institution, whether a relatively small organization like ours (400 people) or a country. Given the novelty of a situation with no certain path forward, the skill, resilience, agility, and level of concern of the organization and its leadership are tested.
SHEF follows a democratic model of consultative leadership. All decisions are taken collectively, and the leadership communicates and engages with all stakeholders (students, parents, and teachers). Furthermore, SHEF is self-reflexive, seeking feedback and acting responsively. Leaders perceive themselves as mentors and coaches, and have the humility to recognize that they don’t know everything; they are continuously learning.
Because this model is embedded in its culture, SHEF’s leadership responded holistically and thoughtfully. They have been consultative, decisive, innovative, empathetic mentors for their teams. Admitting that the circumstances were new for them, too, they saw the crisis as an opportunity to learn. First, they calmed fears by providing information and assuring others they were all in this together. They then coached their teams, guiding and encouraging them, and finding solutions collectively. Most importantly, they remained connected with their teams, allowing for swift response.
A Holistic Relational Response
SHEF believes the goal of education is not just to know, but to live. Education should enable students to answer the question, “Who am I and how am I related to the universe and others in it?” For 34 years, we have developed curricula, pedagogies, and an organizational culture of care to this end. Taking a whole child approach, teachers welcome children’s lives into the classroom—their needs, challenges, opportunities, fears, and hopes. They nurture students’ social and emotional well-being, along with their cognitive development.
This crisis has been no exception.
In order to reach all students, teachers developed an army of digital volunteers—students, parents, and alumni with phones—to take messages to those nearby who don’t have phones. Primary communications focused on fear management and connecting families in need to government relief measures; many teachers provided aid personally. Helplines were set up for counseling and reporting cases of domestic or sexual violence. Alumni and students were taught how to make reusable cotton sanitary napkins.
After basic needs were met, teachers turned to the curriculum. As many students lacked internet access, they got creative. For students with smartphones, they made short videos; for those without, they used messages and calls. They sent pictures of the textbook for students to safely share with others nearby. Conscious of the digital divide’s embedded gender divide, SHEF established a smartphone library of donated used phones that girls could borrow to access learning materials. Teachers report that frequent contact with parents strengthened their bond with the communities enormously, and that fathers are more engaged with their daughters’ education as a result.
A testimony to the culture of care constructed over three decades, it is our awareness of class, gender and caste inequalities, our history of inclusive response, and our close community connections that enabled us to mitigate the digital divide and care enough to reach ALL our students.
Leadership is critical. Globally, it has become evident that countries with highly democratic leaders (e.g., New Zealand, Germany, Iceland)—consultative, empathetic, humble, and engaged with their constituencies—who best managed the crisis. Developing leadership that exemplifies these qualities is crucial. It is also noteworthy that these leaders were primarily women, highlighting a need for more female leaders and female perspective in leadership.
Curricula and pedagogies need urgent reform. For decades, organizations like SHEF have advocated for a deeper, broader, and wider approach to education. Our curricula must shift from its disproportionate emphasis on cognitive development and information transfer to focus on developing resilience, critical thinking, creative problem-solving, entrepreneurial imagination, and a critical socio-political consciousness. Additionally, lessons of equality should have a pride of place in the official curriculum. The crisis has highlighted India’s inequalities like never before, demanding our attention.
Technology is here to stay! It affords us a great opportunity to universalize and improve the quality of education. We need fiber optic highways in the poorest communities. Women particularly need access to digital devices and connectivity. Teachers must be prepared for online teaching. Governments should prioritize and address the digital divide.
A community-based approach to education. While technology is important, it takes more to educate a child. School can no longer be the only place where teaching and learning happen, and communities play an important role as education moves out of classrooms. With technology, people can participate as facilitators, mediators of digital videos, and creators of teaching/learning resources.
Organizational culture is key. Developing a caring, democratic, consultative organizational culture is very important; however, it is not built overnight. It takes time to cultivate. Such a culture must permeate the entire organization and become its DNA.
“A Brave New World”
The crisis is far from over, the coronavirus continues to rage and spread, leaving behind huge challenges, and an economic and humanitarian fallout that will impact many of us for several years. It has also taught us a great deal, reinforced old learnings and necessitated new innovations. We can only survive this crisis and emerge stronger if we look at this as an opportunity to learn, self-reflect, be resilient of course, but also reimagine and reinvent our world bravely.