Can online learning replace the school classroom?

E-learning is out of reach for many students coming from the disadvantaged sections

June 26, 2020 12:05 am | Updated 12:51 am IST

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

The COVID-19 outbreak has disrupted the academic year, cancelled classes and examinations across the country. To ensure that students do not miss out on their studies, schools moved classes online, forcing students to attend lectures via their gadgets. However, this has also sparked a debate on whether the increased amount of screen time helps students learn or if it impedes their progress. While Maharashtra has banned online classes from pre-primary to Class II, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh have extended the ban till Class V. In a discussion moderated by Puja Pednekar, Kiran Bhatty and Reeta Sonawat look at the pros and cons of online learning. Edited excerpts:


Has screen time for students increased because of online classes?

Reeta Sonawat: No, I do not think that online classes have increased screen time. Children are anyways hooked to screens whether it is in the form of television, mobile or computer. Children have been addicted to screens even before the COVID-19 pandemic began. They have been using the screen for eight to nine hours daily. When it comes to online lessons, most schools are not depending only on screens. They are giving students a blended approach by including various activities in their lessons. At pre-school level, children are asked to do painting or craft. Some schools conduct yoga sessions; ask students to experiment in the kitchen, make a salad at home. Children only have to watch their screens during storytelling sessions. But those too are designed creatively to engage students. So, there is a bit of screen time, but it is interspersed with hands-on activities.

What we need to understand is that if we do not hold these classes, we will be hampering the child’s brain development. In early childhood, the child’s brain develops every day. So, we cannot afford to miss even a single day. And for brain development, children need to receive the right kind of stimulation, which only teachers can provide. They have been trained to provide age-appropriate stimulation.

Kiran Bhatty: Looking at the screen for long periods of time can be harmful. And since schools have shifted to online instruction, it does imply long hours of screen time for the child. And that doesn’t seem to be a healthy way of learning. In addition to the impact on their health, online learning from home can also be very isolating and lonely for the child. They don’t have their peers around them and are sort of learning by themselves. Even the teachers’ role becomes limited. Children do not get the kind of supervision that they would in a classroom. Parents might be too busy with their own work to supervise online learning. These factors impact learning.

Also, many children, especially those attending government schools, are being deprived of education during the pandemic as they do not have access to online facilities. They are actually missing out on their lessons. Though some families may have access to digital technology, there might not be enough devices for the personal use of all the family members. The parents may be working from home and need to use their computers. So, each household needs to have several gadgets that they can distribute among all of them so that that is really not possible for a large section of the population.

Many schools are holding online lessons for children in kindergarten as well. What are the dangers of exposing children to screens at such a young age?

Reeta Sonawat: Exposing children to screens from a young age is not right. It can hamper their overall development. The light emitted from the screen can strain children’s eyes and could lead to vision problems throughout their lives. Watching a screen is also a passive activity that can make children lethargic and affect their thinking skills. Often, parents expose children to screens right from a young age — using videos to get toddlers to eat without a fuss is a common parenting method. This can lead to several behavioural problems.Schools should also keep this in mind while creating online content for younger kids. The lessons should be designed in such a way that the child only spends a few minutes looking at a screen. This can be done by integrating different activities into the lessons.

Also read | Online classes raise the spectre of screen addiction

The Karnataka High Court has asked for guidelines on online learning. What do you think some of these guidelines should include?

Kiran Bhatty: So, I think there are multiple issues surrounding online learning, which haven’t been thought through. There has been a rush to switch to online classes almost overnight. That’s why, some courts have asked the government to come up with guidelines on online instruction. They want to know what online classes entail, what it means, how is it going to happen and what will be its impact.

Reeta Sonawat: The Early Childhood Association (a think tank on pre-primary education) has prepared detailed guidelines to be followed in online learning. Schools should be opened only if they are able to follow these guidelines.

Unfortunately, many of the balwadi s and anganwadi s (government-run creches and daycare facilities) might be located in congested areas, which may be hotspots.

Also read | HRD Ministry working on SOPs for online classes; to address issues of increased screen time, digital divide

Many countries have started re-opening their schools. But in India, where metro cities — Mumbai, Chennai and Delhi — are reporting an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, is it viable to open schools?

Kiran Bhatty: What’s worrying is the fact that the entire conversation has shifted to the use of technology. It is not just about computers and smartphones, even watching Doordarshan amounts to screen time. Nobody (in India) is really talking about turning schools into safe places, where education can resume. Education is not just about information or content delivered to students via screens. It is about a lot more. And most of it takes place through the social interactions in a school, with peers, with the teachers. Since online classes have begun, all that has been cut out. And I think that would have other kinds of developmental and cognitive impact on the child and their development. It is high time that we started to talk about how the school actually can be made a space that is safe again, for children to come back to, rather than make a complete switch to online learning.

Also read | Online classes: students complain of eye and ear problems

Reeta Sonawat: Schools may be reopening abroad, but we cannot compare that to the situation in India. The schools that have opened in these countries are taking utmost precautions. For instance, they are using tissue boxes for every class. Students can dump their used tissues in these boxes. But the waste generated is so huge, and it will also require to be discarded safely. Do Indian schools have that kind of infrastructure? Also, it is difficult to make children sit in the classroom wearing masks, without touching it. Or for them not to touch other children and their masks.

What will education look like once schools reopen post COVID-19? Will online lessons continue and what will be the learning level of the students?

Kiran Bhatty: There is a large section of the population that is unable to access technology and that’s a huge concern. Children belonging to migrant families might have moved far away from their schools. I know government school teachers in Delhi were trying to reach some of the students whose mobile numbers they have, but they are not able to reach them, they have disappeared. And these are kids who are going to be out of school soon. We don’t know whether their families will return to the cities and what’s going to happen to them. Teachers are doing enough to develop better online modules, based on activities, but how many children are benefiting from it? The problem is that our policy has always neglected the marginalised child. That is why we still have so many children who are not in school. All our policies tend to focus on those who already have access to certain facilities. We just forget the invisible — the poor and the marginalised.

Also read | In the time of online classes, Northeast waits for a faint signal from a distant tower

Reeta Sonawat: If we stop online education, even the children who have access to technology will lose out. So, stopping online classes is not the solution. Instead, we need to work on providing technology to these [disadvantaged] children. Some non-government organisations are already working on these issues. They are providing smartphones, electronic tablets and teaching children to make use of technology. We need more such initiatives.

So what are the alternatives that can ensure that students don’t fall back academically because of this or any other pandemic that might arise in the future?

Kiran Bhatty: During this pandemic, many of the policy fault lines — across all sectors — have come to the fore. Most of all in public health. The fact that our public health system is not geared towards such situations has become evident and obvious to everyone. Even within the education sector, it has become clear that we have not invested in our education system in a way that it can take care of a situation like this. Going forward, we have to start thinking on these lines. We need to improve our education system in such a way that we do not have to keep schools closed in such situations. We need to make it possible for the students to have a safe environment in schools even during a pandemic. We need to ensure that there is no shortage of teachers. Itis not just about online instruction, but also about preparing action plans to deal with students who have lost out on education because of the pandemic. A majority of the students who were unable to access technology in this pandemic may become drop-outs. This goes against their fundamental right to education.

Also read | Streamed education is diluted education

Reeta Sonawat: We (Early Childhood Association) have suggested that during pandemics, schools can be opened in a staggered manner, with 50% students attending every alternate day. This will help avoid crowded classrooms and give schools time to clean up their premises. Temperature checks of teachers, students and non-teaching staff should become mandatory. Teachers should not give students any books to carry home. Social distancing should be followed strictly by teachers and students. Second, it will be better to give priority to opening schools for marginalised and migrant children, as they might not have access to technology. We can create separate safe spaces for these children.

Reeta Sonawat is an Executive Director at the Early Childhood Association; Kiran Bhatty is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research.

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