“Schools without teachers, orphans without school fees, communities without functioning schools.” That’s how EDC’s Michael Laflin describes the current state of education in many African countries, where the HIV/AIDS epidemic is decimating families and social systems. In Zambia, teachers are dying faster than teachers’ colleges can produce them.
Faced with these conditions, the Zambian Ministry of Education is working with EDC’s International Development Division (IDD) to develop community learning centers where children can gather every day for an hour of innovative lessons.
“We bring these children together in someone’s house or in an open field, with only a blackboard, a community volunteer, and an interactive radio lesson,” explains Stephen Anzalone, a senior researcher at IDD. “That’s all the system can afford. Even with those modest resources, we see an almost immediate impact on learning. After just 50 hours of radio broadcasts, there are substantial gains in students’ math and English-language learning. In four years, these children will cover the same curriculum that is covered in the seven years of primary school.”
The Zambian community learning center is a classic example of the theory of multichannel learning—a theory that has grown out of the practical knowledge that EDC researchers and their colleagues have gained through designing educational programs in Bolivia, Honduras, Guinea, Papua New Guinea, and many other countries. The theory also evolved out of discussions surrounding the World Conference on Education for All in Thailand in 1990, when a number of educators, funders, and policymakers reflected on failed attempts at education reform in developing countries.
“The traditional approach to education reform in developing countries has focused too often on what we call the ‘inputs only’ or ‘bricks, books, and mortar’ approach,” says Anzalone. “These approaches focus on resources and the structure of the system and they provide prescriptions. But they never go into the classroom. They get to the door of the school and then stop, which is why they’ve been inadequate.”
A Question of Readiness
To Anzalone and his colleagues, it comes down to a question of readiness: Learning environments need to reach a certain level of readiness before they can absorb and benefit from an infusion of resources. When those resources arrive in environments that are not prepared for them, “nothing happens,” says Anzalone. “They just sit there.”
The theory of multichannel learning focuses on enriching the environment by engaging the resources that are available. “The idea,” says Anzalone, “is to focus on strategies that work, and not be discouraged by a lack of resources or the literacy levels of the learners—or the teachers. Using a multichannel learning approach, you effect incremental change. You can come in and get results even with a small investment because you are focusing on the concrete realities of the situation at hand.”
Multichannel learning refers to the coordination of various ways to connect learners with information, knowledge, and stimulation, and to mediate those interactions. In the Zambian example, there are three channels at work: a community volunteer, a blackboard, and a radio. In many ways, it was radio’s success as a learning channel that gave birth to the concept of multichannel learning. For the past three decades, Laflin and Anzalone have pioneered the use of interactive radio instruction in some of the world’s least-developed countries. In Bolivia, for example—where 94 percent of rural households live in absolute poverty and 55 percent of the population is functionally illiterate in any language—7 out of 10 households own radios. Recognizing radio’s potential as an untapped learning channel, EDC staff members began developing radio-based curriculum and teacher training materials. The radio lessons enliven the classroom with imaginative use of stories, songs, physical activities, and role plays that invite the active participation of the learners.
“We used radio because it was feasible and available in these countries,” says Anzalone. “There are few channels available in many of the countries we work in, so radio offered some new possibilities. But the key was to use the radio in ways that fostered connections—not just to introduce it as another input.”
Maximizing the Information Flow
Rather than simply introducing more channels, IDD practitioners strive for maximum “flow” over each channel—enriching the information and interactions the channel makes possible. Thus, radio lessons can carry information for both teachers and students and help stimulate interactions between the two. And, as interactive lessons, they are designed to create information flow in many directions—from teacher to student, student to student, and student to family and community. As such, they can help bridge the gap between students’ lives inside and outside of school, which is a critical issue in many countries.
In Guinea, multichannel lessons are designed to enrich classrooms by promoting greater interaction and creating livelier environments. The traditional Guinean model of education emphasizes a teacher delivering information to passive students through lectures and repetitive exercises. The model is based on the custom of apprenticeship in Guinea, which views the apprentice as a blank slate, and the Quranic tradition, which emphasizes memorization and repetition of religious verse. In addition, Guinean classrooms tend to be undecorated, tin-roofed spaces with nothing more than a blackboard, chalk, and blank notebooks and pens.
EDC has designed multichannel lessons for grades 1 through 6 featuring radio instruction, workbooks for teachers and students, colorful classroom posters, and a number of physical activities that encourage active student involvement in the lessons. The 66 radio lessons per grade serve as a learning channel for both teachers and students. The lessons provide models and support for teachers as they move toward a more student-centered process, incorporating question posing, cooperative learning activities, and problem solving.
While the radio lessons present Guineans with new educational models, IDD staff collaborate with local educators to ensure that the activities remain deeply rooted in the existing culture. “Our Guinean colleagues are very excited about incorporating these models into their traditional system,” reports IDD researcher Rebecca Rhodes. “And we make sure that the materials are specific to the Guinean context. We use objects and examples from the students’ surroundings to draw upon the learning channel students are exposed to most: the one that links them to their homes, families, and communities.”
Originally published on July 31, 2001