Ripon Kumar Sarkar
In this article, Ripon explores BRAC’s home learning through the adaption of Play Labs operating in low-resource humanitarian contexts. The article shows how these helped keep girls’ dreams alive in Bangladesh during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Why was a focus on gender important during the pandemic?
Patriarchal traditions dominate every sphere of society in Bangladesh. Women and girls experience various barriers and discrimination, including limited access to education, and violence against those who are educated and employed. Parents can have negative attitudes toward educating girls and investing in their early schooling. Reducing this gender gap in education is a priority for BRAC.1
Over the last few decades, collaborations between the government and development organisations have increased girls’ access and completion of education. However, the pandemic has slowed and reversed this progress. We therefore aimed to ensure a focus on gender was central to addressing the disruption in underprivileged children’s learning.
School closures put girls at greater risk of experiencing violence, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. For example, school closures increase the likelihood of girls dropping out of school permanently, marrying early, and ultimately being unable to fulfil their dreams. In addition, after long-term school closures, learners can forget what they have studied before, impacting the performance of those girls who do find their way back to class when schools reopen.1
Furthermore, there has been limited investment in and initiative for girls’ education in Bangladesh, especially in relation to developing virtual learning platforms. Many families from disadvantaged and/or rural backgrounds experience limited internet or mass media access. Online platforms are essential for impactful remote learning solutions, so greater care is necessary when many learners are unable to access the internet or smartphones. There is a need for more investment in technology and developing accessible home learning initiatives, particularly for girls.2
Design of BRAC Play Lab models
In 2015, BRAC collaborated with the LEGO Foundation to introduce the original Play Lab model. This was adapted and redesigned into the Humanitarian Play Labs (HPL) programme. This learning development model was designed to promote play as a cost-effective, high-quality learning tool. It uses a safe, educational platform for children up to 6 years old to enjoy learning through play therapy.3
As a result of COVID-19, BRAC repurposed the Play Labs to introduce remote learning to out-of-school Rohingya children living in Cox’s Bazar. In a humanitarian setting, learning through Play Labs targets the psycho-social counselling and physical growth and development of displaced children and pregnant women and mothers.3 The HPL model is operated through home-based activities, child-friendly spaces, and learning centres. BRAC Play Labs are community-based early learning centres.4 To date, BRAC Play Labs have supported the social, psychological, and language development of over 100,000 children in Bangladesh, Tanzania, and Uganda.5
Drawing on experiences in the Rohingya camps, play facilitators delivering remote learning sessions, focused on physical play, songs and rhymes, stories and traditional cultural tools to support children’s learning and development. Basic hygiene sessions improved safety measures against COVID-19. Counselling sessions focused on mental health and wellbeing to address learners’ stress and anxiety about the virus and their displacement from their home country, Myanmar.
Radio is a useful platform for providing academic and social learning. During the pandemic, BRAC’s community-based radio station – Radio Pallikantho (voice of rural community) in Moulvibazar, north-eastern Bangladesh – was a popular platform. Programmes focused on various academic and social subjects, including dramas on child marriage, adolescent girls’ health issues, and violence against women and children. One of the home learning programmes, Radio School, was delivered through rented radio stations, when access to Play Labs and the Radio School package broadcast by BRAC was limited.
Alongside the Play Labs programmes, BRAC takes a holistic approach to supporting disadvantaged learners, with special attention towards keeping girls’ dreams alive. Nutrition, food assistance, and cash transfers were provided to those who needed additional support. To ensure a focus on keeping girls’ dreams alive, learners and their families were referred to BRAC’s wider support programmes: e.g. Microfinance; Gender Justice and Diversity; and Social Empowerment and Legal Protection.
Delivering remote learning during the Pandemic
During home learning sessions, educators connect with small groups of 3-4 students for conference call sessions over the phone. Each lesson is about 15-20 minutes. Using the lower cost option of a simple button phone helps avoid interruptions to internet service and ensures wider access to children from lower-income families.6
The educators play a significant role in making the sessions enjoyable and practical. They deliver scheduled lessons two or three times a week. This includes subjects taught on the regular curriculum (e.g., Bangla, English and Mathematics, mental health issues, personal hygiene and social distancing related education).2 A key aim is ensuring that the parents of girls can perceive the value of educating their daughters.
The home learning sessions are as inclusive as possible, conducted over the phone to include learners from marginal and disadvantaged communities, and learners with disabilities. The educators respond to the diverse individual learning needs of their students, paying attention to the preparation and delivery of quality lessons. It is important that learning objectives are accessible and understood by the learners. The educators receive training and guidance so that they can motivate and support students efficiently.
When learners need extra support, or do not have access to even the simplest of mobile phones, educators conduct in-person sessions where possible. They follow safety precautions such as wearing a mask and socially distancing. Additionally, to ensure the effectiveness of home learning sessions, monitoring and follow-up processes are conducted. The Social Innovation Lab and Institute of Educational Development have been evaluating the initiative’s impact.6
To overcome gender-based discrimination, BRAC prioritises gender mainstreaming approaches to empowering disadvantaged communities, especially underprivileged women and girls. Parents and caregivers experienced various challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected the educational attainment of all students, particularly girls. BRAC’s remote play labs involve girls in playful learning and sharing processes. While the majority of the state-owned and private stakeholders shut down their operations, BRAC launched these resource-based home learning activities, connecting girls staying at home.
Ripon is a Deputy Manager at BRAC Learning and Leadership Development and Research Fellow at the University of Rajshahi.