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Why e-learning isn’t a sustainable solution to the COVID-19 education crisis in India

Sruthi Sri Laxmi, a Class XII student in Coimbatore, last attended school on March 16, before it closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. She has been learning via WhatsApp ever since. The notes and assignments would be posted in her class group. She calls her teachers to clarify doubts. But she disfavours this set-up. “I prefer to be in a classroom,” she says, “Now, I have to do everything on WhatsApp — submitting assignments, talking to friends, asking doubts... It is boring.”

The digital divide
  • Rural households with computer: 4.4%
  • Urban households with computer: 23.4%
  • Rural households with internet: 14.9%
  • Urban households with internet: 42%
  • (Numbers from Key Indicators of Household Social Consumption on Education in India report, based on the 2017-18 National Sample Survey)

Sruthi is among the 1.26 billion children worldwide (estimated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)) affected by school closures due to the pandemic. This is 72% of the world’s student population. India comprises over 320 million of these learners. It is still uncertain when they can return to their schools or colleges.

Education, as a result, has largely moved online. The World Economic Forum reports a surge in the use of language apps, virtual tutoring, video conferencing tools, and online learning software in the last three months. India, too, is witnessing an e-learning boom. Classes on Zoom, WhatsApp and Skype are becoming the norm for students, parents and teachers. Yet, this abrupt transition to online hardly compensates for the absence of the classroom experience.

Operational nightmare

Neha Sharma’s nine-year-old daughter, who attends a private school in Bengaluru, has four classes on Zoom from Monday to Friday — two core subjects (English, Science, etc) and two activities (dance and Taekwondo). Though Neha, who is an online tutor herself, and her daughter have adapted to e-learning, she says several parents she knows are not happy with this new set-up. “They complain of increased screen time for children, which is now inevitable,” says Neha. “There are a few parents who aren’t comfortable with technology themselves — they crib about it. So, their children, too, might look at it negatively. At times, classes get disturbed due to Internet issues.”

Why e-learning isn’t a sustainable solution to the COVID-19 education crisis in India

In nuclear families, especially, parents might have to miss work to take care of their children. Some of them could be healthcare professionals, who are desperately needed to mitigate the pandemic. There is pressure on teachers, too. Valli Subbiah, the principal of KC High School in Chennai, says, “Every teacher has a unique teaching style. Over a period, they would have built a rapport with the children. This is done through observing their body language in class, their interaction with classmates — how it is different in small groups and large groups. Now, they just see them on computer screens and there could be a lot of disturbances. A dog might walk in during the class.”

Students and teachers also have to quickly adjust to new routines. “You can’t have the same nine-to-five schedule,” says Valli, “We had to reinvent our model within a few weeks. And, thanks to the support of the students, parents and the school management, we could do it successfully.” Classes were divided into groups of not more than seven children. Teachers regularly apprised the parents, individually, of their child’s progress. The school even managed to conduct exams online. “Students were asked to take an honesty pledge. We felt it was a good way of making them responsible. Plus, even if they had a book with them, the questions required their own thinking to find the solution.”

Why e-learning isn’t a sustainable solution to the COVID-19 education crisis in India

Conducting large-scale, high-stakes examinations, however, will be more complicated. Most board and entrance examinations have been either postponed or suspended, causing disruptions in the academic calendar. The students who are slated to appear for next year’s board exams, for instance, have already lost instructional time.

A call to arms

Meanwhile, millions from Government schools and colleges, especially in rural areas, will not even have access to education due to the lockdown. According to the Key Indicators of Household Social Consumption on Education in India report, based on the 2017-18 National Sample Survey, less than 15% of rural Indian households have Internet (as opposed to 42% urban Indian households). A mere 13% of people surveyed (aged above five) in rural areas — just 8.5% of females — could use the Internet. The poorest households cannot afford a smartphone or a computer.

Governments, NGOs and other public-private organisations are trying to alleviate this serious deficiency.

Online learning
  • Google Classroom is a free web service that schools can use to create and distribute lessons and grade assignments.
  • TED-Ed’s Earth School, in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme, offers lessons about the planet. Check out the quizzes and challenges as well.
  • Discovery Education offers free educational resources about viruses and outbreaks for different grade levels.
  • Khan Academy has free lessons and tests in maths, sciences and humanities for various grades.
  • Education Nation Nordic countries have opened up their learning solutions to the world for free, supporting teachers and learners during the school closures.

Avanti, a social-educational enterprise set up in 2010, has launched a free learning app for Hindi medium Government school students in Classes IX to XII. The Sankalp app, which has been installed from the Google Play Store by 1,000-plus users, has recorded video content, solved examples and quizzes in the National Council of Educational Research and Training topics of Mathematics and Science. Avanti also conducts free live classes for IX to XII 9-12 students on YouTube, TikTok, Facebook and other social media platforms.

Akshay Saxena, Avanti’s co-founder, says his organisation has partnered with the State Governments of Haryana, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh to make its free content accessible to over one million students. “Students from private schools and those from urban areas can access high-quality digital learning. But we aren’t able to help those from the economically weaker parts in rural areas. There is no plan for them. The Government needs to subsidise phone data and phones for people in rural areas. There needs to be an aggressive push to do this as quickly as possible.”

ThinkZone, an startup from Odisha, is using Interactive Voice Response (IVR), Short Message Service (SMS) and radio to help households with no Internet access. It has partnered with a local radio channel to broadcast activity-based learning modules for students aged three to 10. The activities are available in Odia, Hindi and English. “The response has been good. We found that people from the neighbouring states are consuming our content as well. In April, through SMS and IVR, we reached over 5,000 families,” says ThinkZone’s founder Binayak Acharya.

The implications of school closures in the country are not just about education ; they are manifold. An unprecedented social disaster can be avoided if more entities — Government and private — pitch into short-term and long-term futures of the children in this digital divide.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 4:26:53 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technology/why-elearning-is-not-a-sustainable-solution-to-the-covid19-education-crisis-in-india/article31560007.ece

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