Step 1: ASER National Workshop
By around the middle of each year, ASER tasks and processes for the year have been finalized. New survey questions and assessment items have been extensively piloted. Soon after, almost-final versions of all survey materials are sent out to the ASER team in English and Hindi: the Village Pack, Monitoring & Recheck Pack, Finance Pack, and Communications Pack among other materials. These will be updated with any last-minute changes after the National Workshop, then translated into other languages.
ASER rollout kicks off with the ASER National Workshop, usually held in August, when the entire ASER team gets together to understand, practice and fine-tune the entire process. The team comprises more than 100 people from almost every state in India. This team is responsible for coordinating and monitoring the survey throughout the country.
At the six-day National Workshop, every step in the process is studied in the classroom and practiced in the field. Enormous attention is paid to thinking about how to transmit this knowledge to volunteers in short periods of time and with limited training infrastructure. In addition, long hours are spent planning logistics for individual states and districts, thinking through the survey calendar, understanding financial procedures, and so on.
National Workshop sessions often continue for 12 or more hours each day. But despite the grueling schedule, the National Workshop is full of energy and excitement. This short film from ASER 2013 National Workshop captures the mood:
Step 2: State level training workshops
All ASER materials are finalized by the end of National Workshop. During the following month, these are translated and printed – an enormous logistical operation that will be the subject of a future post. Simultaneously, every state finalizes its partner list and survey rollout calendar, beginning with the State Level Training (SLT) for Master Trainers. Master Trainers are usually from partner organizations – two for each district. They will in turn train the volunteers and lead the entire ASER effort in their district.
The State level trainings (SLTs) begin to roll out about a month after National Workshop and follow a similar structure and duration. In some large states like Uttar Pradesh, multiple SLTs are held in different parts of the state in order to manage the process more efficiently. SLTs have the same key elements as the National Workshop: participants study each step in the ASER process in theory, practice it in the field, and also practice how to train volunteers on the same processes, with feedback provided by the ASER veterans in the room.
Step 3: District level training workshops
The last and most critical step in the training process is the District Level Training (DLT), where master trainers take volunteers through the same process – reviewing tools and processes in the classroom and then practicing them in the field. This year DLTs are being held in each of the 607 rural districts covered by ASER 2016.
Different activities are conducted to motivate volunteers and help them understand the scale and importance of the effort they are part of. For example, in every training participants are asked to recite the ASER pledge, often a powerful experience:
The ability to adapt quickly to training conditions in the district is critical for Master Trainers. As ASER Centre Research Associate Ashwini Deshpande describes in her blog post, issues to be dealt with can range from no electricity in the training venue to having to end training early because of wild elephants in the vicinity. DLTs are conducted in all kinds of situations, and innovative solutions must be found to problems. For example, in some trainings large flex banners printed with the survey tools work very well as substitutes for overhead projectors.
Good training is vital. But how do we know whether volunteers have absorbed it?
As with every step of the survey process, procedures to carefully track training workshops and volunteer performance have evolved over time. In training workshops, three key indicators are used. First: volunteer attendance. All volunteers must attend all days of the DLT, otherwise they are not permitted to do the survey. Second: the ASER quiz, which tests participants’ understanding and recall of ASER processes and helps Master Trainers identify volunteers who need additional support. And third: the field pilot, during which Master Trainers have the opportunity to observe volunteers’ performance in the field. Wherever possible, more volunteers are trained than the number actually needed to conduct the survey, so that weak volunteers can be dropped.
Over the last ten years thousands of volunteers have had the experience of implementing what they thought would be a routine survey task – asking a child to read – and being horrified when even those who have been in school for several years cannot. This immediate, personal understanding of a problem is central to thinking about how to solve it. As ASER Centre’s Purnima Ramanujan observes, getting volunteers to understand why ASER is important is key to motivating them, and the field pilots invariably serve this purpose.
In addition to these measures to ensure high quality training, a number of quality monitoring mechanisms are implemented once the survey actually goes into the field. Assessment of volunteers’ performance in training feeds into some of these mechanisms. But that is the subject of a separate post.
More details on ASER training are available in a report on the ASER Centre website.