Reaching the unreached

How the distribution of Self-Instructional Materials is helping both students and teachers during the pandemic.

A boy with folded hands and books
13 June 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has closed schools but it has not stopped children from learning.

In remote places where access to television, smart phones and internet is limited, teachers are visiting villages and going door to door to ensure that learning continues for children even when they are digitally cut off from the rest of the country.

Radhi Middle Secondary School in the eastern district of Trashigang, has a student welfare committee that is today keeping track of children who do not have access to television or a phone for them to access e-learning.

The distribution of self-instructional materials (SIM) for about 32,135 children across the country according to the teachers is helping both teachers and students to partly address inequity in education continuity due to digital divide  UNICEF supported the Ministry of Education to print the materials. SIM contain the same lessons  broadcast on television  for different grades, with some additional instructions and follow-up activities to engage children meaningfully.

“Children have found SIM to be more convenient and easier to understand,”  the Vice Principal of Radhi Middle Secondary School  said.

Like teachers in other parts of the country and where possible, teachers from his school also walked door to door to handover the SIM to each student. Before the SIM was distributed nationwide, teachers kept in touch with students through their neighbours.

A girl with her books at home
Dechen Wangmo with her copy of SIM in Trashigang

To keep in touch with one of their students, Dechen Wangmo, they call the parents of her classmate and neighbour Pema. “Two accounts can access Google classroom from one device so we have set up access for Dechen on her classmate’s phone,” the school principal said.

The welfare committee, he said, is exploring means to help get a smartphone for those like Dechen in their school.

In Phongmey Primary School, teachers split into groups and went to different villages to distribute SIM to 58 children. They called all parents to the school to collect the SIM for their children.

One of the teachers, Cheki Dorji said the school, in phases, had oriented students for a week on Google classroom to ensure they knew how to access the lessons online.

But poor internet speed and the make of the smartphones often make it challenging for students, he said. “Sometimes, it takes very long to download one image,” he said.


A teenager in her altar room with her books
Deki Choden, 17, of Dungtse Central School in Trashigang carries her books with her when she goes to herd cattle in the nearby forest.

In neighboring Mongar district, teachers of Special Education Needs (SEN) unit have created new activities for their 47 children with special needs. “Individualized Education Plan needs contact and e-learning meant creating new content for them,” SEN coordinator at Mongar Middle Secondary School, Yeshey Choeki said.

These include providing both academic and non-academic support to children according to their needs and monitoring their progress through videos and photographs shared by the parents through WeChat. The application, WeChat is used to engage children from grades PP - III and Google classroom is used for grades IV-X. 

However, for SEN children, the teachers said they use WeChat as access to Google classroom was a challenge for the children.

Home visits where possible and when permitted, say teachers, allow them to interact with the children and monitor their academic and functional activities.

In the far eastern district of Lhuentse, considered one of the remote districts in the country, SIM has come as a relief to many families with some requesting the school to provide them with xeroxed copies.

Lhadrong Primary School says it provided about 40 such copies to the parents. “The children find it more convenient to learn from SIM as they can get help if they do not understand the lessons,” the school principal said.

A boy with a copy of his SIM
Jigdrel Dorji Yoezer with a Xerox copy of SIM

Eight-year-old Jigdrel Dorji Yoezer is one of the students who received a xerox copy of SIM. “My father helped me get this book and I am using it to study from home,” he said.

Older children, teachers say, carry their copy of SIM when they go to herd cattle or when they go to the farms.

A class VIII student of Dungtse Central School in Trashigang, Deki Choden, 17, said she carries her SIM when the goes to herd the cattle into the woods. “When I get home, I check with my friends through the group chat to ask questions or share answers for the lessons I miss on television.”

The more remote the community, the higher is the appreciation and gratitude for SIM. Despite challenges, the distribution of self-instructional materials has ensured equitable access to learning for all children. Its distribution has also allowed the teachers to check on the situation of children and their learning at home.

Autsho Central School started its SEN programme sometime towards the end of last year’s academic session. Just as the SEN teachers were identifying and referring children with special needs to their programme, the school closed.

The school’s SEN coordinator, Tshering, said the school today has eight children with special needs. “I came across one of our SEN students, who was herding cattle, when I was on my way to his house to deliver the SIM,” the teacher said. “It took some time for him to recognize me because we were together for only about a week at the school.”

For all the challenges the pandemic is causing in the education sector, the teachers are rising to the call of ensuring education continuity for all children. They are learning as much as the children are. They return all the missed calls received from their students and are the hope for the education of thousands of unreached children.

Yet, some could fall through the cracks. As school closure prolongs, some schools have started receiving calls from parents in far-flung villages saying that their child may get married and might not return to school.

While in some places like Chumey in central Bumthang, the school is setting up handwashing stations and the principal, going door to door to distribute deworming tablets. Optimism has not been lost totally and education continues.

A student with a book
Phuntsho Choden