By Mansi Nanda, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

Not many people get an opportunity to be a part of an organization even after leaving it. I’ve been one of those lucky ones, remaining connected to the ASER Centre, the research and assessment arm of Pratham Education Foundation [i] in India, for whom I have worked for more than 3 years. When I got the opportunity to pursue a PhD at the University of Cambridge, I was delighted to learn that the REAL Centre at the Faculty of Education would be working closely with the ASER Centre on a grassroots intervention to increase accountability in education in rural India.

During the last week of September 2018, Dr. Ricardo Sabates, Dr. Benjamin Alcott, fellow PhD student Chihiro Koboyashi, and I visited Uttar Pradesh in India to be part of the intensive training conducted by ASER Centre for the project on increasing accountability in education through grassroots. Dr. Sabates is the principal investigator in the project, Dr. Alcott is a part of the research team, and Chihiro and I have situated our research within the project looking at  perceptions and attitudes of head teachers and teacher motivation respectively.  The intervention involves collecting data from 400 villages and about 600 government schools in India along with teacher and parent perceptions, attitudes, actions of and classroom observations.  The purpose of our visit to Uttar Pradesh was to be part of the training for enumerators who would be involved in collecting baseline data before intervention in October.

The ASER Centre is known for generating large-scale evidence on outcomes of social sector programs in India with specific focus on children’s learning. With the primary goal of strengthening the link between evidence and action, it employs simple yet rigorous methods while working at scale. However, such large-scale data collection involves training at multiple levels including state and district (depending on the focus of research), as well as engaging and coordinating with local people from the area to ensure they understand the complexities of prospective collected data. The heterogeneity of society in India is the major reason to choose local people as enumerators since they are in a position to relate more to the people, settings and situations at the time of surveys.

As PhD students, most of us worry about the data we collect or use for our research, its quality, reliability and how to initiate the process. Here, through my experience of being a part of ASER Centre before, I present glimpses of the training undertaken for the enumerators, which forms an essential part in ensuring good quality data collection at scale.

ASER in Hindi means ‘impact’. Here, it can be thought of as the impact that 12 hours x 6 days of training has on the 150 surveyors and the quality of the data that they would obtain. The surveyors are a mix of men and women who usually belong to the state in which the survey is to be done; in this case they belonged to Uttar Pradesh, India. The participants were either enrolled in a college or a University in Uttar Pradesh and working towards a bachelor’s or a master’s degree.

The training involved 3 days of equipping the surveyors with the tools that will be used to collect data: the sampling procedure, village information, household information along with parent surveys, government school observation, teacher survey, head teacher survey, classroom observation and assessing the children on foundational reading and math using the ASER Basic Reading and Math Tool. Due to the tools being lengthy and enumerators being unfamiliar with them, the training sessions are usually long.  To avoid monotony, the training sessions are made interactive by including a number of case studies along with situational videos of scenarios from actual classrooms. Participants also practice their survey formats.

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Enumerators working in groups on case studies on the second day
of the training

Besides the familiarization with the formats, sometimes, surveys such as those related to perceptions and beliefs, require the enumerators to develop a trust level with the respondent while making them comfortable in answering questions. This requires time and practice. Hence, the 3 days of in-room training is then followed by another 3 days of fieldwork where the enumerators receive hands-on training in handling the complexities involved in collecting data from households, talking to parents and teachers, observing schools and classrooms, taking spontaneous decisions on what to do if there isn’t any teacher, or how to locate households they aren’t able to find some on their own. The participants were divided in groups of 4 and sent to small villages surrounding the training site to conduct the pilot run of surveys given to them.

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Enumerators observing a classroom in government primary school
on first day of their field pilot

The bumpy auto rickshaw ride back to the training centre was filled with discussions about the field and which team performed better. The first field visit day ended with a lot of discussions and debates among the enumerators, which were then supported by the feedback sessions led by the trainers. The enumerators repeat the same for the next 2 days in the field.

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Children from the school leading the enumerators to find specific households
and meet parents to conduct household surveys.

Based on my experience in the past, the second and the third day in the field is usually better planned by the enumerators, who feel a little more confident about meeting people in the village and talking to them, as they are well-versed with the format by then.

These intensive training sessions followed by the field training ensure that every surveyor has some idea about the intent behind the data being collected, an advanced understanding of the tools as well as the ability to resolve complex situations in the field. One of the enumerators summarized the importance of these 3 days of field work in the following way :  “…I initially thought it is way too much for me to understand all formats and I was pretty sure I won’t be able to do. But coming to the field has helped me talk to people around, and the formats flow well and now they seem pretty easy”.

Such an approach and pattern of training has been proved by the organisation through a decade long publication of ASER surveys (the largest citizen led household surveys in India) as well as other research projects undertaken by them. The impact of organisation, implementation and planning of such training has been seen in the quality of data from the field. The entire process helps in minimizing errors and reducing incompleteness and misreporting of information. This ensures availability of consistent and reliable data which can then be used by researchers for further analysis.

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Group photo with some of the enumerators in the training and colleagues from ASER Centre, India.
R-L (Dr. Suman Bhattacharjea- Principal Investigator (Director of Research, ASER Centre, India), Enumerator, Chihiro Koboyashi- PhD Candidate (REAL Centre, University of Cambridge), Dr. Ricardo Sabates- Principal Investigator (Reader, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge), Dr. Ben Alcott- Researcher (Lecturer, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge), Mansi Nanda- PhD candidate (REAL Centre, University of Cambridge), Enumerator

[i]Pratham Education Foundation is one of the largest non-governmental organization working on improving the quality of education in India. For more information on ASER and Pratham,  check http://www.asercentre.org/#fu92b, http://www.pratham.org/

Mansi Nanda is in the first year of PhD at REAL Centre, Faculty of Education. She is a member of Hughes Hall and her research is related to social accountability and teacher motivation in rural schools in India. A keen observer, she is always eager to find out simple solutions to big problems. Her wider research interests revolve around early childhood education and exploring the role of communities in children’s learning. Follow Mansi on Twitter: @Mansinanda91  or email her at mansi.nanda1991@gmail.com

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