The disruption to education caused by COVID-19 has left the continuity of learning for crores of Indian children hanging. With over 60% of India’s school-going children belonging to rural and tribal communities, there’s a need to provide them with contextual and enriching learning opportunities independent of prerequisites like the internet at a time when schools are shut.
Mantra4Change seeded the idea of a collective to reach 100,000 children in remote geographies. The Collective, supported by Education Above All (EAA), comprises 17 organizations who have come together to translate, contextualize and implement EAA’s internet-free learning resources (IFERB) in 12 states across India. This is a series of case studies on innovations that have emerged from the ground over the course of the intervention.
Project-Based Learning As a Pathway to Student Entrepreneurship
Vidhyalay Udhyam as a case study
In October 2020, the popular Hindi newspaper, Patrika Citizen, ran an article about a group of government school students in Udaipur who had created contactless sanitizers and water dispensers to make their neighborhoods safer. The story grew popular and was soon picked up by other outlets, including The Local Samachar, a local online newspaper.
The idea for these machines had germinated from the students’ work on EAA’s project “Our House Rules for COVID-19”, which explored what COVID-19 is and how we can keep ourselves safe from it. Inspired by their learnings, the students created contactless dispensers out of waste materials, and have already received 30+ orders from hospitals and police stations nearby for their creations. For Vidhyalay Udhyam, the organisation mentoring these students, this was a big milestone.
The Story Behind the Milestone
Before the pandemic disrupted education worldwide, Vidhyalay Udhyam had begun working with children in the tribal-majority area of Sarada in Udaipur, Rajasthan, where they aimed to address the issues of school drop-outs and child labour. Among the children they work with, about 50% typically drop out by grade 9, and around 90% eventually become disengaged from learning altogether. A majority of children in these areas also begin to get involved in child labour by the age of 14.
Vidhyalay Udhyam’s operating model at the time was either providing these children with alternative education initiatives or working alongside schools to promote entrepreneurship. The approach they used was to pick a problem in their communities and encourage the students to solve these problems collaboratively with practical solutions.
“In the tribal region of Udaipur, students usually start earning at very early ages to support their family and end up dropping out from school at ages 13-16. Many students are not good with communication and numeracy but they have great skills with design and common sense. These students usually dropout from schools and join the labour jobs — everyday we see the same story of exploitation,” explains Ashwani Tiwary, founder of Vidhyalay Udhyam. “Entrepreneurship classes provide our students an opportunity— just after dropout or being at the tip of dropout— to test themselves as creative beings and problem solvers.”
COVID-19 Disruption and Response
When the pandemic hit in early March 2020, bringing with it a harsh lockdown, migrant labourers returning home to Rajasthan faced a dire situation. It is worth emphasizing here that these laborers mostly come from rural and tribal areas, and usually work for daily wages. The change in the dynamics and demography due to the large-scale ‘migration’ of labourers back to their villages led to many unanticipated consequences — including a massive disruption to the education of children.
It was in this situation that two new initiatives emerged: the collective’s partnership with Education Above All’s IFERB resources and Vidhyalay Udhyam’s own initiative called “Micro Makers Labs” in tribal villages, where students have the space to practice 21st century skills as they create prototype solutions for local problems.
“Project-based learning is the way forward to entrepreneurship skills,” says Tiwary, adding, “I see PBL as activities and entrepreneurship skills as outcome. We see PBL as practices for students in byte-sized learning modules. PBL enables the creative nerves of learners and gives them freedom to pick their theme and explore.”
The students agree. “EAA projects help us as a pre-challenge identifying activity,” says one of the students at the Makers Lab, “These projects help us to see beyond what is written in books and provide an opportunity to engage with the community.”
Together, these two initiatives provided students with the opportunity to learn and create. With EAA’s projects, which ranged from literacy to numeracy to social science concepts, students could continue their interrupted learning even without internet access. With the Makers Lab, they could put their learnings into action—and that is precisely what happened with the COVID-19 project.
As the students worked on understanding COVID-19 through various activities, they also began to work in their Makers Labs to use this new knowledge to create practical solutions for their communities. Thus, the contactless sanitizers were born!
Students are quick to notice the changes in themselves as a result of their work on the projects and subsequent real-life solutions. “I have developed facilitation and resource mobilization skills through Makers Lab. Moreover I learnt adaptability from Makers Lab,” says one student. “Projects are like a warm-up session before we start problem solving. Projects are the broad topic that open many ways to identify challenges in different contexts.”
Vidhyalay Udhyam has also encouraged a similar progression from learning to practical action with other EAA projects. “ABC By Me”, a project aimed at improving literacy and vocabulary, requires students to “author” their own alphabet books (replete with a variety of vocabulary and their own coloring and decoration).
Once students had created their ABC books, Vidhyalay Udhyam recognized the potential of distributing these books around the neighborhood— especially for younger children in the community who did not have access to textbooks. In the spirit of entrepreneurship, they assisted the students in organising a fair where they would sell these books at a minimal cost to interested parents and students. The event was a resounding success, with about 300 attendees and 200 books sold.
Students are also maximising their opportunities to create solutions for the community through other EAA projects: with a project called “Why all the plastic?” that explores the basics of the environment and bio-degradable vs non-degradable materials, students at Vidhyalay Udhyam have already begun to think about the kinds of recyclable products they can create for those around them: slippers, earrings and sanitary pads being among them.
Using project-based learning as a foundation for student entrepreneurship has empowered the students to imagine creative and fulfilling lives for themselves.
According to Tiwary, there are three key ways in which students are impacted by this combination of project-based learning and Makers Labs: they are able to design their own learning process, their communication and teamwork skills improve, and, finally, they are able to think about non-traditional careers and do business in their villages.
Apart from these skills, students highlight that working with real-life challenges has given them a morale boost: “It boosts the confidence of problem solving and encourages me to tackle more complex challenges. In short our team develops an “I CAN ” attitude from accomplishing these projects,” says one student.
Students also exhibit the true entrepreneurial spirit of embracing failure. “Every project has a minimum of 5 failed prototypes,” explains one student. “Every failed prototype minimizes the chances of failure at the next iteration.” He ends with a quote: Ever tried, ever failed; no matter try again, but fail again, fail better.
As volunteers at Vidhyalay Udhyam prepare to facilitate more EAA projects with their students, the potential for real, practical solutions emerging out of the Makers Labs is growing. As the situation with COVID-19 continues to be unpredictable, Vidhyalay Udhyam looks forward to helping create self-reliant and adaptable entrepreneurs who grow, learn, and work for the community around them.