Opinion: Prepping The Education Sector For Contingencies
With schools shut and students at home, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented the education sector with a unique challenge. The sector has shown great adaptability to ensure continued learning. Various e-learning portals and apps have been launched by the government and education bodies such as DIKSHA portal, e-Pathshala, Swayam and so on. National and state education boards cancelled their remaining examinations and announced results for students across the country. The NCERT also issued guidelines recommending a reduction in syllabus, making suggestions on proper implementation of online and offline courses. While the government has shown remarkable alacrity for change, it is essential that more organizations come together to devise creative solutions to problems with online education, since this mode of instruction is likely to be preferred by swathes of students at least in the near future.
Digital learning, e-learning, online classes are broad terms, each with some unique aspects. Classifying them under a single umbrella would not be right. However, one key element of all of the above models of learning is that they require an internet connection and smart devices. Reliable internet connectivity remains an issue for a sizeable student base in India.
A recent pan-India study by Smile Foundation with over 40,000 students from rural areas and urban slums found that 56% of children lacked access to a smartphone. Of these children, 12% had no access to any phone. Only 69% of students surveyed had access to television. Ground realities on access to e- education for children are stark.
The same challenges can also be seen in higher educational institutions.
For instance, a survey by IIT Kanpur revealed that 9.3 % of its 2,789 students were not able to download material sent by the institute or study online. Only 34.1% cent of them had internet connection good enough for streaming real-time lectures.
But the digital divide is not the only challenge.
Studies show remote learning has a bearing on cognitive development. Wholesome cognitive development in children requires human interaction – teacher to student, student to teacher, and student to student.
As countries lockdown, learning outcomes are bound to get affected over the long-term. This being echoed by teachers and education facilitators in the news today, when they are being questioned on the efficacy of online classrooms. The feedback was quite unanimous. They claimed that there have been fewer engagement with students, debates and casual conversations which would lead to an energised learning environment are hard to create and now mostly non-existent, students ability to manage time was a challenge but the most pertinent on was the cutting off of a face to face contact.
Multiple studies have also illustrated the devastating effect of school closures on learning. NGOs from across the country have joined hands to conduct creative classes, run workshops on collaborative learning to ensure students are constantly engaged.
While the challenges of the times are plenty, how do we as a community come together and solve some of these issues? How do we ascertain that education which is a basic right for our youth is afforded to them? If we as a country are to grow, we need our foundations to be firm and the first step for that is education. And to achieve that, we all have to come together and solve for tomorrows problems today. The need of the hour is for government, corporates, NGOs and learning experts to come together to draft a detailed multi-modal learning strategy.
And we have the ability and intent.
Even in these trying times, we have seen reports in papers of individuals who in their communities have taken the initiative to do more. In a small village in Haryana, Jhamri, to maintain social distancing, the students take notes from their homes as a teacher imparts lessons using the loudspeaker attached to the cart. In Maharshtra, Bhadole village, teachers have identified students who have access to smartphones and have formed groups clubbing them with students without any access.
At state level, the government of Haryana became the first state in the country to instruct the Haryana Institute of Public Administration to use TV for providing distance education during the lockdown period. Almost all the DTH providers and local cable services were roped in for this purpose. As of last month, the Director-General (Higher Education) of the state said that four major AIR radio stations in Haryana would be broadcasting two half-an-hour shows daily at a common time to promote learning from home. Odisha and Telangana have both entered into a partnership with Coursera an online learning platform — to train one lakh unemployed youth during the COVID-19 crisis.
We need to as a community collate clear guidelines based on a detailed need-assessment across states and districts that can help devise a model that ensures ‘education for all’ keeping learning outcomes in focus. While we have seen innovations as mentioned above, there is a need to streamline and increase the focus of those innovations to all of India. And this can be done with the following actions
Stakeholder Involvement: Consulting parents on the outcomes they desire from the learning process is an absolute must. The plan must address when schools can be reopened. Schools also need to address infrastructure challenges and must invest in inclusive learning. Putting in place data storage facilities, digitising report cards, or making the premises contagion-free are some steps in this direction.
Rediscovering models: Children with limited access to technology and infrastructure need special attention while devising annual curricula. Alternating between, classroom learning, online education, and televised classes every week could be one of the more effective ways to impart education. Following this approach would require national and state education boards to digitise their entire curriculum, make it digitally accessible, user friendly and replicable for across portals – from textbooks to online videos. Not only will this help over a short duration, it will also improve access for children in less advantaged communities. Increasing the scope of state innovations to other states.
Continuing the momentum: The swiftness of alterations brought about by the government and corporate India is undeniably praiseworthy. They have indeed stepped up to the plate and supported new approaches for continued learning in the pandemic. However, emerging challenges need more collaborative planning, interventions to fill gaps from the pre-COVID era. Infrastructural challenges and teacher-to-student ratios can be addressed through a more complete learning process that guarantees access to education.
The pandemic has provided a great opportunity for all stakeholders to get back on the drawing board and collectively address challenges in the effective delivery of education. This is the ideal time for educational institutions, NGOs and policymakers to realign strategies. What changes can we make to ensure that our students find the time and develop a routine to mentally engage in stress-free exercises thereby honing their skills and feel involved. As mentioned above, we have the ability, we have the innovations and we have the resilience all we need to do is make time. And that surely can be done by all of us for the future of our youth and in turn the future of our country.
(Santanu Mishra, co-founder and executive trustee of Smile Foundation, looks after the overall operations, planning, and strategy of the organization)