Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) practices have had to shift their focus during the pandemic. Gail Campbell, CEO of the Zenex Foundation, explains how her organisation made adaptations in the face of Covid-19, and how M&E can deliver greater impact in the education sector.
How did your M&E funding change this year?
The funding has not changed and our commitment to M&E is unwavering. However, the way in which we work and relate to one another has changed, and the situation may persist until a Covid-19 vaccine is found. Increasingly, we are thinking more about ed-tech in education delivery and this will of course affect the design of our evaluations.
How have your M&E practices been adapted during the pandemic?
During the pandemic, the Zenex Foundation had to consider its programme portfolio and the linked M&E portfolio. We had four categories of projects, those postponed until the resumption of school, those that had to be redesigned, those that were able to go ahead as planned, and those which had to be halted. At the same time, we had to consider new projects to respond to Covid-19. This had a direct impact on our M&E programme. We considered whether existing data or information gathered could be used in the future – for example, we already had a baseline on learner performance in mathematics and English in grades 8 and 9, so even though the project halted, we are considering follow-up testing to gauge the extent of learning losses during Covid-19. Some evaluations had to be placed on hold and some could continue with desktop work like data analysis and literature reviews.
We were forced to think about the impact of school closures on our projects. When schools reopened, we had to be mindful of the logistics of social distancing, the rotational attendance of learners, and at the same time think about the design or redesign of our evaluations.
What, if any, M&E are you doing on your new programmes?
Zenex has initiated school interventions linked to education recovery – however, these have kicked off with stakeholder engagement at school and district level and evaluations are being planned for 2021. To date, our M&E has been related to information gathering. We commissioned a survey on learning at home while schools were closed, we undertook an analysis of social media to monitor trends around parental concerns, communication from education departments, and general public sentiment on education matters. We are undertaking case studies at schools to find out at a granular level how the rotational systems are working, what work learners are doing at home, and how teachers are coping with the trimmed curriculum.
Which emerging M&E practices do you think will be useful beyond the pandemic?
We are thinking more about involving our implementing partners in collecting monitoring data and working with evaluation practitioners to design instruments. We have always said that monitoring should take place at the level of implementation, so that partners can get immediate feedback on implementation and respond accordingly.
We have also been more focused on the need for capacity building in M&E and Zenex is working with the National Association of Social Change Entities in Education (NASCEE) on M&E capacity building in the non-profit sector. The pandemic has alerted us to the need to have good data in the education system. Decision-making should be informed by evidence.
What role has technology played in M&E, both before and during the pandemic, and what are some of the challenges of that?
Zenex has innovated with technology in a few initiatives in the past and we are currently running a pilot with grades 8 and 9 learners, using a technology platform to address learning backlogs in mathematics. We are also thinking about how virtual platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts could be used for training and evaluations, for example, holding training sessions or focus groups with teachers or even remote learner testing. The jury is still out on whether technology reduces costs.
The pandemic has certainly brought technology to the fore, but I must say that there are serious barriers that have further highlighted the inequities within our education system. With our Covid-19 projects focused on education recovery, we have factored data costs into the budget, particularly where schools may not have Wi-Fi, as we do not want to add to the financial burden of participants.
What impact will the pandemic have on the education sector, and on M&E of the sector?
Curriculum recovery will be at the forefront as the lockdown eases, but we should be thinking not only about the catchup of grade-related curriculum content but also about cumulative learning backlogs exacerbated by the pandemic. M&E has always been ahead of the game in designing test instruments that are diagnostic to determine learning backlogs. The pandemic is forcing us to think about how to add to the body of evidence about education delivery in times of crisis. My own view is that government and donors who commission evaluations should include costs for dissemination for learning and uptake.
What recommendations do you have for development practitioners regarding M&E practices in the future?
In the education sector, we have all been ‘schooled’ on the importance of impact evaluations to determine whether our interventions have had an impact on learner performance. We are used to designing multi-year projects with multiyear impact evaluations. Development practitioners are now thinking what methodologies we can use to collect information faster and provide feedback more quickly. We are considering the importance of short-term outcomes where we cannot wait for years in times of crisis to find out what works or does not work. In other words, designing evaluations that are truly fit for purpose.