Designing new solutions to support children’s learning during COVID-19

The Aga Khan Foundation took its Human-Centred Design (HCD) workshops online in a bid to develop education solutions to the challenges presented by COVID-19 in developing world contexts. In 15 minutes, 35 participants from 10 countries, representing 25 nationalities generated a staggering 250 potential solutions.

30 May 2020
By Sarah James

By now, it is self-evident just how drastically the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered life as we know it.

Each one of us must now seek to navigate new ways of being, new ways of approaching our work, our relationships, what we do for entertainment, how we learn and how we interact with society.

The same is certainly true of the work of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). The past two months have seen all 10 agencies of the network look to adapt, re-organise, and reconsider their work to improve the quality of life whilst also supporting global efforts to slow transmission, provide optimised care for patients, and minimise impact on communities.

A time-lapse of the HCD webinar. The anonymous cursors represent 35 people from 10 countries working together to find the best ways to support families and educators to help children learn during COVID-19

The Crisis in Learning

The COVID-19 crisis has impacted families, children and educators particularly hard. Parents have now been burdened with the responsibility of meeting their children’s educational needs with many not equipped to deal with this. Children have been displaced from their usual routines and are denied access to their typical learning environments and the psychosocial support that comes from being physically present at school with their teachers and friends. Educators, tasked with finding novel ways of delivering lessons, are now pushing forward not only for the benefit of their students, but in some cases also as an imperative for their livelihoods.

In marginalised communities, adapting quickly to this new environment is even more crucial. So many of the communities that AKF works in are already vulnerable, underprivileged and lacking in facilities and resources. Finding new ways to ensure continuity of education in these contexts, that also seeks to improve education and make learning more effective, is at the heart of the work being carried out right now by the Foundation. As ever, this work aims to build on the principle that underpins our approach to education – ensure quality, inclusive, equitable learning for all.

An AKF-supported community based class in Afghanistan, before the crisis. Faced with having to remain home, children such as these will need additional support to continue their studies.

AKF’s Global and Local Response

Schools2030 – a flagship programme for AKF and a coalition of eight other private foundations – is a new 10 year longitudinal learning improvement programme working with 1,000 schools across 10 countries seeking to empower the next generation of children and young people with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values to interact effectively with the world and become contributing members of society. The programme is reaching school-level stakeholders across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Portugal, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Brazil, and India.

At the heart of this endeavour, not surprisingly, is listening, and learning from frontline educators about ‘what works’ and ‘why’ in improving holistic learning outcomes for the most marginalised children and young people.

With millions of schools now closed due to COVID-19, the Schools2030 programme is exploring how children, caretakers, and educators can be adaptive to the challenges brought on by lockdown in some of the most marginalised areas of the world. AKF has responded with two concrete steps of action.

First, in partnership with its sister agencies the Aga Khan Education Services and Aga Khan Academies, AKF developed and shared a global review of available tips, recommendations and offline/online learning resources to support families and educators to help children learn during school closures. These were shared across the Schools2030 geographies and with in-country partners.

These can be accessed here:

Four Resource Packages for Educators
Three Resource Packages for Families

Second, to search for and develop local solutions to teaching and learning during COVID-19 that would supplement the global review and materials, AKF and the Schools2030 coalition hosted a number of virtual Human Centred Design (HCD) sessions over the last few weeks.

In December 2019, AKF led the first Schools2030 HCD training session in Nairobi for partners in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania

Now, as COVID-19 forces us to reimagine how schooling might work, representatives from the 10 country coalition are engaging in one of the most important design thinking challenges of our time, ‘How do we continue to provide quality education for all during and after COVID-19?’

To find answers to this, AKF has been hosting initial online ‘sprint design’ sessions for staff and partners of Schools2030 to engage in virtual HCD exercises with the specific aim of addressing the teaching and learning concerns that have now arisen from this unprecedented crisis.

HCD in action during COVID-19

AKF’s Global Innovation Lead, Munir Ahmad, has been leading virtual HCD sessions alongside AKF’s Global Leads for Education, Dr. Andrew Cunningham and Nafisa Shekhova, that bring together over 35 education professionals and programme designers.

A virtual Schools2030 HCD meeting underway bringing colleagues from 10 different countries together as design thinkers.

The first virtual HCD session began with colleagues presenting concerns and challenges from interviews they had previously conducted with various stakeholders within their communities. Whether it was through WhatsApp, texting, or a phone call, colleagues were challenged to bring local realities to the global conversation about ‘what is working’ to improve learning during COVID-19.

A variety of issues became apparent straight away. Among them: concern for the mental health of families struggling to adapt to these new circumstances; fear for those students who were verging on dropping out; how to know if the children are making the progress that would otherwise be monitored at school; and importantly, how to reach those students whose families do not have access to computers or the internet.

Not every aspect of these conversations was negative, however.

The money being saved by both the families and educators on the cost of travel is one positive. Another is that students are able to spend more quality time with their loved ones. It was also noted that the mental wellbeing and social-emotional health of students is now amongst the chief concerns of many educators, whereas it may not have been a priority before COVID-19. Further, many noted the opportunity of the current learning situation to strengthen social connections between children’s families and educators, thereby building a stronger support network for holistic quality learning experiences over the long-term.

Generating ‘How Might We’ Questions to Address Challenges during COVID-19

Next began the process of collating and synthesising this information. Participants were asked to vote on which concerns they felt were the most important and – from both the positive and negative sides – two of each were chosen to carry through to the next stage of design thinking.

“The mental wellbeing and social-emotional health of students is now amongst the chief concerns of many educators, whereas it may not have been a priority before COVID-19.”

The ‘How Might We’ (HMW) phase then sought to reframe those challenges or concerns as opportunities to design thinking.

So, from the positive side, ‘increased engagement opportunities with families’ became, ‘how might we increase communications between families and educators?’. From the negative side, ‘new constraints created by online and distance learning’ became, ‘how might we support educators to become great online teachers?’.

The week before, participants had also generated crucially important HMW questions from reviewing challenges facing families and students during COVID-19:

  • How might we increase caregivers’ knowledge and confidence about educating their children?
  • How might we curate and guide caregivers about how to use learning resources?
  • How might we support student learning with limited or no internet?

This process paves the way for the following important phase of ideation.

Our Ideation Phase: 15 Minutes and 250 Solutions from 10 Countries

Participants were invited to come up with solutions to the HMW questions developed together about how best to support educators during COVID-19.

Within just 15 minutes, a staggering 250 ideas had been generated.

Hundreds of ideas were generated within minutes

After unpacking some of these solutions, tangible ideas began to surface.

With one of the biggest challenges being a lack of adequate internet or computing facilities in many communities, some suggested dedicated WhatsApp groups for teachers’ communities of practice and more relevant radio and television broadcast programmes; both of which indeed are already coming into effect in some geographies with the support of AKF and other partners. Tailoring the radio and television broadcasts to encourage family participation was also discussed.

Other participants suggested that shadowing a child as they learned virtually would give parents and educators an opportunity to better understand the challenges children face in this unfamiliar territory. Communities of practice were also proposed to be set up online as a support forum for educators and parents, as well as a virtual mentoring system for younger, less experienced educators.

Next Steps for Long-term Learning, Innovation, and Impact during COVID-19

The final stages, to be completed in the coming weeks, will take some of these ideas and develop them into prototypes to be tested and assessed further. The Schools2030 consortium will also provide flexible response funding to advance these prototypes into meaningful sustained learning experiences for children and students across its geographies. This process will be led through a new virtual course that AKF and its Schools2030 partners have developed to equip colleagues throughout the world with the skills and knowledge to become stronger design thinkers and respond to the ever-changing landscape of teaching and learning in the weeks and months ahead during COVID-19.

After voting on the ideas, breakaway groups talked through ways that the ideas could be turned into concrete next steps

What is really striking here is just how much work is already underway behind the scenes as teachers, families, and education and development professionals react to our new circumstances. The level of dedication and the sincere desire to work around these parameters to deliver the best possible learning experience was evident throughout the sessions. Participants were encouraged to reflect on their experience, and, as with every aspect of their work, evaluate its usefulness to learn lessons.

It was pleasing to see just how many felt inspired to deliver sustainable and effective solutions for learning during lockdown, and indeed many were already thinking through how these principles could inform the development of holistic learning methodologies even beyond the pandemic, which is at the heart of what Schools2030 hopes to achieve. It will be exciting to see what new opportunities and schools of practice emerge from these otherwise trying circumstances.


This article was first published on the Aga Khan Foundation UK website in May 2020.

Schools2030 is a ten-year participatory learning improvement programme based in 1,000 government schools across ten countries. Schools2030 supports teachers and students to design and implement education micro-innovations. These low-cost and scaleable innovations will inform and transform education systems to improve holistic learning outcomes for the most marginalised learners worldwide. Join the movement on TwitterFacebookLinkedIn and Instagram.

The Aga Khan Foundation seeks to improve the quality of life, promote pluralism, and enhance self-reliance in poor and marginalised communities in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Working in partnership with communities, governments and others for over 50 years, AKF’s long-term, community-based approach has benefited people of all faiths and backgrounds. Active in 18 countries, AKF is a member of the Aga Khan Development Network.