The school was familiar, but the teachers were not. Something was wrong, Clive Suchiang thought, after visiting the Saipung Secondary School, in the East Jaintia Hills district, a few days ago. It took some asking around for the social activist to find out things, for a change, were right.
“Some of the teachers I knew seemed to have been replaced overnight. Then I learnt these strangers were the real teachers appointed by the government long ago. They only turned up for duty recently because of a new digital attendance system,” he said.
The “teachers” Mr. Suchiang was acquainted with turned out to have been “appointed” by the genuine teachers for a fraction of their monthly pay, to take classes on their behalf while they pursued other work, ran businesses, or simply stayed home.
Saipung is one of the remotest areas of the 2,040 sq. km. district, one of 11 in the State. With its rounded hills and abandoned mines, the East Jaintia Hills were once the hub of Meghalaya’s rat-hole coal mining banned by the National Green Tribunal in April 2014.
But accessibility and proximity to Khliehriat, the district headquarters, was no insurance against the problem of proxy teachers and absenteeism in many of the district’s lower primary, upper primary, and secondary schools. One such school used to be the Lad Rymbai B Lower Primary School, about 8 km from Khliehriat.
“The parents are happy that their children are now going to school because the actual teachers are taking classes. Most children used to skip classes even a fortnight ago, before the digital attendance stopped the khushi-khushi (according to one’s whims) system,” Jasper Bareh, the headman of Lad Rymbai B village said.
Facial recognition and geofencing
Complaints about the poor quality of teaching and teacher absenteeism from parents and educational activists had made the East Jaintia Hills district authority engage digital experts to work on an integrated attendance system. It yielded the Teacher Attendance Monitoring System (TAMS), an app launched on June 2 by local MLA and Minister, Kyrmen Shylla.
“The app basically entails taking a selfie for registering attendance. Its unique features are facial recognition, geofencing, and recording the time spent in school,” the district’s Deputy Commissioner, Abhilash Baranwal, told The Hindu.
While facial recognition technology ensures that none other than the teacher concerned can mark attendance, geofencing allows teachers to register their attendance only within the school premises.
Geofencing uses global positioning system (GPS) to create a virtual geographic boundary, enabling software to trigger a response when a mobile device enters or leaves a particular physical area.
“It is a good system that makes no difference for sincere teachers except for switching from signing in the attendance register to a digital system. The insincere ones are feeling the heat and so are some older teachers who are not accustomed to smartphones,” Evident S. Manner, a teacher at Narwan Upper Primary School said. The school has four teachers for 90 students.
Mr. Baranwal said that the attendance app was tested until June 15 in the district and may be implemented across the State. “The technical issues will be addressed before TAMS is made fully functional across 577 schools in the district.” However, it doesn’t account for teachers who may be attending training programmes away from school, or when teachers are assigned other duties by the government.
A total of 1,354 teachers of lower primary and upper primary government-run and government-aided schools in the district have registered in the app. Mr. Suchiang said it may take some time to analyse whether TAMS translates into quality education but the “very fact that a digital eye keeping a watch on the teachers” has led to an increase in the attendance of students, points to a move in the right direction.
“I hope the system is replicated in other districts of Meghalaya and also in all government offices and departments, where punctuality is suspect,” he said.
What systems like TAMS cannot change are teacher shortages. Ristina Nongtdu, one of two teachers at the Jarain Government LP School, said absenteeism or proxy teaching was never an issue at her “temple of learning”. But the school needed one more teacher for 23 pre-primary children. “The two of us have been contributing ₹2,000 each per month to hire a teacher for the pre-primary section while we take care of the other 53 students from Classes 1-5,” she said.