The COVID-19 pandemic had far-reaching impacts on both people's livelihoods and the quality of education worldwide. In particular, educational institutions were forced to close, causing a widespread disconnect from education for many students in India. The closure of traditional modes of instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic presented a daunting challenge for learners and educators alike. Moreover, the various challenges arising from this unprecedented situation, including emotional, social, economic, and physical factors, highlighted the need for learners to be equipped with the necessary skills to confront and overcome such hurdles. Consequently, Life Skills Education became a crucial component during this period. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), life skills refer to psychosocial abilities that empower individuals to develop positive and adaptive behaviors that enable them to cope and flourish during difficult times. Fundamentally, Life Skills Education aims to help individuals interact with and navigate their environment in a healthy and suitable manner.
This paper seeks to reflect on the efforts of the Alpha School of Life Skills team in India to create an education system that is flexible, adaptable, and capable of withstanding current and future challenges, while also providing comprehensive Life Skills Education to all learners.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, many educational institutes were contemplating shifting classes online as it seemed to be the only feasible solution at the time. A special report by Abramson (2020) on enhancing online education, suggested some ways to cope with this transition and enhance the quality of online learning. Some of the major suggestions are making the lessons more flexible, being more accommodating about how and when students submit their assignments, picking the right technology and even being more engaging during the sessions by using friendly facial expressions and gestures.
Being in Life Skills Education, it was an even bigger challenge to transact experiential learning of skills through an online medium. A Focus Group of eight members, consisting of School Principals, Life Skills Consultants, School Administrators, Psychologists, and Soft Skills Trainers from the education and training sectors, was created by the researchers. Discussions were held to collect data that would form the basis for developing the education system for Life Skills dissemination. The participants deliberated on the issues faced by the students concerning the loss of education during the pandemic and the appropriate methodology by which Life Skills Education can be disseminated during and post the pandemic.
The questions that needed to be addressed were:
An initial experiment was done by creating a short module that could be transacted through an online medium in the form of a live workshop, i.e., like a WBT or a virtual classroom through a platform like Zoom. This module of 6 hours was completed online through a live workshop by 130 students. But this was not without challenges. As Ramachandran (2020) mentioned in her report, online learning is only a passive mode of instruction and a poor substitute for face- to-face interaction. The key challenge faced by the learners and trainers was the lack of reliable internet access. There were downtimes and connectivity issues. While some students did not have a suitable atmosphere at home to interact and actively engage in a session, others did not have a personal device. There were instances where learners had to leave the session because their parents needed to use the device (the mobile phone) they were using to attend the live workshop. For others, the resources that would normally be available for online learning – reliable Wi-Fi, access to a computer, and even a basic understanding of digital platforms – were not always easily available.
These findings were similar across India when schools adopted the online learning approach and used similar WBTs or even WhatsApp at times, to share lessons. In a review by Rawal (2021), it has been identified that the unpreparedness of students and teachers in transitioning from face-to-face learning to online learning and the limited or no access to gadgets or the internet, created a digital divide among students as well as a huge gap between the rich and the poor students and between the urban and the rural students. This was further impacted by the role of their parents and their education level, which was essential in guiding their children at home.
In parallel, the research team also took feedback from the students who had completed the 6- hour online life skills module, as well as from their parents, to understand the challenges they faced to attend and complete the module online, and to take their inputs for improvement. Suggestions received included the need for a more regular intervention for Life Skills, with dedicated sessions weekly or fortnightly, and the need for live workshops to be designed in a way that they become a part of the annual academic schedule and the learning outcomes become a part of the student’s routine.
Some of the common issues faced by the students were:
These findings made the research team relook at the medium of instruction. They realized that there is a need for a system that can simplify classroom transactions, that can be standardized and implemented with minimal investment, regardless of whether the teaching mode was online, offline, or hybrid. The team, therefore, continued to review the literature to understand whether any other methodology was available that can be employed for online education.
The team explored hybrid learning, which involves the simultaneous application of in-person and remote instruction. It means that an educator teaches learners through in-person and remote instruction at the same time. India witnessed the application of this method when schools started to reopen. The educator taught in a brick-and-mortar set-up and few students who could not be present in the classroom, attended the lessons online, at the same time. However, the major limitation of simultaneous application was again, reliance on technology without adequate bandwidth to support it. This led to a difference in the impact for those attending in person and those learning remotely.
Since the Life Skills curriculum was aimed to be purely experiential, it needed continuous engagement between facilitator and learner during in-person instruction. Even the simultaneous application of hybrid learning was not going to overcome the expected challenges in the learning process. The term, hybrid learning is often used interchangeably with blended learning, which is the asynchronous application of in-person and remote instruction. As Renner et. al. (2014) describes, blended learning means that educators principally teach students in a physical classroom through face-to-face instruction, and then supplement the in-person instruction through online learning resources and activities. There are various combinations of blended learning depending on the extent of application of remote instruction and in-person instruction, using traditional face-to-face learning experiences with online and mobile technologies.
Blended learning model
A review of the literature was required to study the offerings of blended learning methodology. Christensen et. al. (2013) gives the updated taxonomy of the blended learning model, its subtypes, and the impact of its application in K-12 education, while Powell et. al. (2015) reviews its evolution in education from 2008 to 2015. A study conducted by Eryilmaz (2015), on 110 participants measured the effectiveness of blended learning environments. Lessons were taken by students face-to-face, online, and through a blended application. The study reports that the students expressed to have learnt more effectively in a blended learning environment. In a study conducted by Attachakara (2021), a blended learning model was employed to develop practical skills using creativity-based learning in 30 fourth-year social studies majors. The students expressed high levels of satisfaction with the creativity-based learning paradigm used in blended learning, which fostered the ability to think creatively. Thus, blended learning was found to be effective in the literature which made it seem like a reliable model for the dissemination of life skills.
Most blended learning courses in schools today can be described as following one of the four subtypes of blended learning models: The Flex, À La Carte, Enriched Virtual, and Rotation models. In the Flex model, a course is conducted with online learning as the main method of instruction, while occasionally directing learners to offline activities. The Flex model is fluid regarding the schedules of online and brick-and-mortar learning. In the A La Carte model, a student may complete a course online and continue to have experiences at a traditional learning facility. In the Enriched Virtual model, students’ time is divided between attending brick-and-mortar sessions and learning remotely. In these three models, there is a heavier inclination towards online learning over the traditional method. Also, since a solid structure and schedule were needed by the researchers for life skills dissemination, these models were not chosen by the team.
The Rotation model is where most of the learning occurs on a physical campus. Students learn primarily on a school campus, in a classroom with their teacher. Students within a single class rotate between several learning activities. At least one of these modalities is online learning. Other examples of rotation activities might include one-on-one interaction with the teacher, peer group interactions, teacher-led lessons, or independent study time. The rotation occurs either on a fixed schedule or at the discretion of the teacher. This helps to give a definite structure to the program. Also, the major mode of interaction happens face-to-face, thus meeting the needs of the researchers, while at the same time, providing an opportunity for online learning.
Flipped classroom approach
Within the Rotation model, the Christensen Institute defines four sub-models: Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, Flipped Classroom, and Individual Rotation. Among these, the team found the flipped classroom model as the most suitable, since it enables students to take part in self-paced online learning, while also engaging in face-to-face interactions with the teachers for guidance, projects, practice, and application. As Hill (2012) describes in his paper, the flipped classroom model involves courses that shift the dissemination of content, away from face-to-face hours, into online delivery that must happen outside of class time. Instead of the traditional class lecture format, teachers may record themselves explaining the content and provide the students with these pre-recorded lectures to view online, before class time. The traditional class time is then utilized for supervised practice, individual assistance where needed, discussions, and application of the content learnt online rather than for delivering direct instruction.
The efficacy of flipped classroom approach has been established in the study by Smith (2015) conducted on grade 5 students that compare traditional classrooms and flipped classrooms. Though the quantitative data collected in terms of homework completion rates and student achievement was in favor of the traditional classroom, the qualitative data collected from students, parents, and teachers supported the flipped classroom model and showed that flipped classrooms actively engaged pupils more than regular classrooms did. Also, students reported that the flipped classroom gave them more time to ask questions and allowed them to complete their work at their own pace.
Like any model, the flipped classroom model has its pros and cons. Ozdamli & Asiksoy (2016) have explained this amply in their paper on the flipped classroom approach. From an educator’s perspective, the pros include the feasibility of drawing on a wide range of resources to provide learning materials, using different pedagogical approaches, and being able to track students’ progress. On the other hand, the cons are that the success of the model depends on the competency of the teacher and the model requires a lot of resources like time, budget, and infrastructure. From a student’s perspective, the pros include being able to learn at one’s own pace, having greater control over one’s learning, and the availability of materials. On the flip side, the model is challenging for students who are not intrinsically motivated to learn, and who have less digital literacy and access to technology.
The flipped classroom approach in a blended learning model could give the students more exposure to life skills from a practical, real-world, hands-on perspective. For Life Skills Education, where experiential learning is the underlying principle, this model fits the bill for developing a suitable education system for the dissemination of life skills. Based on this approach, it was decided to develop a learning system for life skills.
Learning platform development
The development of an online learning platform was the next challenging task. The research team partnered with experts to develop an application to host the resources for online learning and created both, a user-friendly web as well as a mobile application. This enabled the platform to be accessible to a larger population. This platform would comprise the asynchronous application of blended learning. It would host the content in the form of self-paced modules which the learners will get access to, after getting onboarded to the platform. The course content is always available on the website and in the app so that learners can refer to it at any point in time. Thus, learning is not hindered even if a student does not own a personal device or has unreliable internet.
While creating the curriculum components, researchers also considered the different learning styles. Since all students learn in their unique way, each module was designed to give equal attention to the different learning styles. This ensured that the learner has something to visualize and listen to in the form of video content, something to read in the eBooks, and something to do through the activities. To begin with, the learners would go through the videos that would introduce the skill to them. Following this would be an activity that the learner performs by following the instructional video. Once the activity is performed, another video explains how to interpret actions and improvise them. The learner then undertakes a self-assessment to reflect on the learning. There is reading material provided with references for additional learning. Supporting activities are also provided to ingrain the skill set further. Case-based scenarios test the application of skills in real life. Although this is the recommended flow, there is a scope for the learners to discover the content on their own, to make them feel more involved and engaged with their learning, and choose a flow that suits their individuality.
Each component of the module was developed in a bite-sized version, which made the application light in size. This ideal size allows for access even with limited bandwidth. Pre- recorded learning modules were made available through free video-sharing websites. Again, this avoided the need for learners to have high-speed internet or a desktop, but even a simple smartphone could be used for accessing the content. Assessments and worksheets were developed in online interactive formats, which could also be downloaded and printed in case the learner had any bandwidth or device issues. The learner can also receive feedback on the assignments through the system. The submitted assignments and evaluation of the assessments would give feedback to the research team on whether the learning objectives have been met. The synchronous application will be delivered in the traditional class, focusing on the application of life skills through experiential workshops.
The team decided to conduct beta-testing of the system with a few students who had completed the module on life skills through live online workshops on Zoom. They were contacted telephonically and were given access to a prototype module on life skills with all curriculum components, being hosted on the platform. They were asked to explore the web and mobile applications without giving many instructions. Since these students had already experienced the synchronous component i.e., the live workshop, this exposure to the system was to get initial feedback on the asynchronous component of the curriculum, which was collected via a few open-ended questions about their experience of exploring the application.
The students were asked to test both, the web as well as the mobile application. The students found it interesting and engaging to learn about life skills in this format. The common inputs received were, “Interesting audio-visual content”, “Optimum time for each content, not too short, not too long”, “Bite-sized version helps to stay focused and doesn’t lead to boredom”, “Case-scenarios and assessments help to understand real-life application”, “Flow of topics is well-thought-of, makes it very interesting” and most importantly, this approach made the students “interested to know more about life skills” and they said it made them “want to learn more and wish there was a live session now” after going through the content. A lot of active engagement is needed for the average learner in India. Simultaneously, increased screen time has negative connotations for many Indian parents. Hence the team developed bite-sized modules and a system where we can give notifications to nudge learners, create awareness about Life Skills Education, conduct follow-ups, give, and receive feedback on an assignment.
Through these efforts, it came to light that relying on technology alone will not be successful in India, if we need to reach the maximum learners and not just the privileged. Relying on just the traditional methods puts pressure on resources and is not sustainable and in sync with the age we live in. On the other hand, blended learning provides many advantages to educators as well as learners. The team found this method to be cost-effective, yet impactful, as it can overcome geographical barriers and even reach remote places as India’s digital network grows each day. The only scenario where online learning alone can work is when the learner is highly motivated. And this has been established in papers that compare pedagogical implications with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It follows that the teacher’s capacity to ensure student learning in these unusual circumstances must be in focus, particularly concerning pedagogy and assessment needed to deal with students at diverse learning levels.
The next step of the research team is to further test this system with a larger group of learners and real-time application of the flipped classroom approach, i.e., to give access to the content to the learners followed by traditional class where the application of the life skills is practiced and activities conducted.
In conclusion, the blended learning model and flipped classroom approach used in this study have proven to be highly effective in the dissemination of Life Skills Education.
The resilience of the model used in this study is evident through its ability to overcome various challenges that may arise during the dissemination of Life Skills Education. The blended learning model and flipped classroom approach utilized in this study enable learners to access education even in the face of potential internet disruptions, device mishaps or unavailability, and other similar issues. Additionally, the platform's intuitive nature makes it easy for learners and teachers to navigate and use the application to its maximum potential. The system's flexibility allows for optimal implementation, regardless of different learning styles, teaching modes, or unequal access to infrastructure, making it highly adaptable to various scenarios. Therefore, this model's resilience lies in its ability to overcome challenges and provide effective Life Skills Education, leading to improved student outcomes.
Thus, the researchers suggest that all stakeholders need to adapt to promote the effectiveness of hybrid learning in course delivery of Life Skills Education, which ultimately leads to improving student outcomes for effective integration of life skills.
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Rama Bhide, M.Pharm., Director, Alpha School of Life Skills, Mumbai, India
Sarbari Dutta, B.Ed.
Director, Alpha School of Life Skills, Mumbai, India
Gauri Hardikar, PhD.
Life Skills Consultant and Coach
Senior Vice President, World Curriculum by Comparative Education Societies
Secretary, Indian Ocean Comparative Education Society
Co-Editor, World Voices Nexus: The WCCES Chronicle
M.Sc., Applied Psychology
Alpha School of Life Skills, Mumbai, India
Manyeswari Gayathri R, M.Sc., Clinical Psychology
Alpha School of Life Skills, Mumbai, India