Interactive radio instruction keeps learners in class amid Covid-19

Tuesday 16 June 2020


In a small homestead in Jali, in the deepest parts of rural Zomba in southern Malawi, Emily Leston conducts an early morning class with five pupils, taking them through their paces


But Leston is not a teacher. She is a housewife who has transformed her patio into an improvised classroom.


The Malawi government announced the closure of all schools and colleges when news of the COVID 19 pandemic broke out in May.


Since then, the cases of individuals who have tested positive have risen steadily to 547 since the first case was detected on April 2. The pandemic has claimed six lives in the country.


These are no ordinary times that require extraordinary interventions.


So, the responsibility has fallen on the shoulders mothers, fathers and selfless everyday heroes like Leston to turn into educators in the closure of formal structures.


The 28-year-old takes the four learners through their paces, occasionally pausing to consume the instructions being broadcast from a small solar-powered radio before relaying the same to the eager learners.


“This programme has helped in a very big way in the sense that when the kids were out of school, you could tell that they were slowly forgetting what they had learnt in class,” the mother of three says.


Leston, who teaches two of her own children and two of her neighbours’ on a daily basis, adds that when the programme started, the primary goal was to refresh the learners’ memories.


“The idea was to capture what they had learnt so that they felt like they are back in class. So that even when they go back to school, they will be fresh,” she says.


She notes that the main challenge they faced in the initial stages was the number of children that wanted to join in the classes.


“We had a lot of kids that wanted to join in the classes because they wanted to be with their friends. But we are only allowed a limited number of children coming from limited and close households because of the pandemic,” she says.


All the four learners attend a local Early Childhood Development (ECD) community-based childcare centre (CBCC). The radio programme specifically targets this group as they prepare to enrol into the first class of primary school.


Shakir Malemba is a caregiver at Nkhundi CBBC and coordinator of the radio programme in the area.


She notes what is encouraging about the home-schooling via radio is how the parents have embraced the programme.


“They are able to do that without the aid of a caregiver. They just tune in the radio station and follow the instructions,” she says.


Malemba says the gains of the programme are there for everyone to see.


“What they are learning in the homes is the same things that we teach them in the CBCCs so when CBCCs resume, it will be like the schools were never closed,” she says


Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI) has become an integral part of the core education system, says Lexon Ndalama, Senior Technical Advisor for education and child development at Save the Children.


The organisation launched the IRI project in 2013 after noting that most of the caregivers in the CBCCs were not well trained.


“The idea was to have pre-recorded ECD lessons recorded by people who are aware of the learning standards and curriculum with the intention of making sure that when they are being broadcast, the caregivers also had the means for mastering the way to teach ECD,” he says.


He notes that the IRI was also designed to attract children for school attendance as radio is deemed an exciting medium.


“We noted that the IRI was working effectively because children were attracted to attend because of the radio and the untrained caregivers were able to teach in a standard way,” he says.


Ndalama noted that the IRI also has some unintended benefits as parents were able to listen to the programmes with their children, thus becoming more supportive of ECD.


“The approach has had multiple benefits. For instance, Save the Children IRI project in Mchinji in 2017 added 80 more ECD centres to the ones we started with because of the attraction and the benefits the programme was seen to give to the children,” he said.


Over and above, IRI has come in handy after the Covid-19 pandemic stuck.


“When the pandemic hit, schools were closed and government was looking for reaching out to children while in their homes and the IRI emerged as a handy viable alternative option. So, government asked Save the Children to take the lead in developing a national COVID 19 compliant IRI project,” he says.


According to Ndalama, beginning June 1, Save the Children started broadcasting IRI programmes across the whole country by partnering eight community radio stations. Community radios perfectly collaborate with and understand Community Based Childcare Centres (CBCCs) and vice-versa.


He says the broadcasts reach the whole population of 2.04 million ECD learners across the country.