As the world undergoes unprecedented transformation, international development projects in low-income countries have been confronted by the challenge of swiftly adjusting to remote delivery. The initial assumption was that this change would be short term; however, the ongoing pandemic has shone a light on the challenges faced in delivering education projects in contexts with limited connectivity and access to smart devices. Many of the academic teams leading these projects are also researchers and this leads to the additional challenge of harnessing research opportunities during a time of change and uncertainty. This blog draws together some key learnings from four blogs published by CREET colleagues at the OU.
The Zambian Education and School Training project (ZEST) quickly took advantage of the WhatsApp platform, and the ease with which re-purposed learning materials could be shared in a PDF format. Kris Stuchbury reflects on the project’s initial reaction to lockdown focused on logistics and project delivery, discussions quickly switched to how successful the use of WhatsApp had turned out to be. This presented an opportunity for knowledge exchange across the OU and Zambian project teams through a process of collective sensemaking, captured through reported enhanced technical skills and improved levels of communication.
Concurrently, the Supporting Adolescent Girls’ Education project (SAGE) in Zimbabwe was discovering similar learning around the affordability of alternative learning platforms. As community learning hubs closed, many girls returned to the isolation and barriers that have prevented them from accessing learning throughout their lives. While the long-term effects of these disruptions are difficult to estimate, clearly, the impact of the pandemic will affect boys and girls in different ways. Margaret Ebubedike argues in her blog that the impact of the pandemic on girls lives’ in low income countries will be longer lasting and challenges governments to do more to avoid any more missed opportunities for girls to access learning. To counteract this, the SAGE project implemented a series of synchronous WhatsApp community educator training to continue engaging with girls, albeit at a distance. In their blog, Clare Woodward, Steve Harrison and Clare Tope talk about this as a ‘just in time’ initiative and the wealth of opportunity this approach offers to other currently restricted environments. However, they also argue the importance of documenting this experience as they move towards harnessing the power of text-based synchronous WhatsApp focus groups as a reflective tool for research.
These co-creative and collaborative approaches for research are vital for greater sustainability and improved understanding. In their blog, Alison Buckler and colleagues recognise the need for these types of long-term drivers in the creation of transformative change in the delivery of our international projects. We posit that the strength and sustainability of our work depends on informal cross-project learnings that capture emerging changes so research opportunities are not lost. Therefore, we pose two questions:
- How have you negotiated the shift between informal research opportunities and project delivery?
- How can we generate robust research data that builds on the informal learning opportunities that present themselves in the midst of our everyday work?
Margaret Ebubedike is a Post Doctoral Research Associate (Int Education) Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies. Her research currently draws on the use of creative approaches to explore the educational needs across all levels in low-income contexts, including in girls’ education in protracted crises.
Liz Chamberlain is a Senior Lecturer in Education at The Open University in the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies. She is Academic Director for the Leave No Girl Behind project, Supporting Adolescent Girls’ Education (SAGE), in partnership with the NGO, Plan International, working with out-of-school and never-been-to school girls in Zimbabwe.