Eleven-year-old Chaithanya has not been to school in over a year. On a Sunday morning, she is glued to the television in her house in rural Ravugodlu, Karnataka, watching an English lesson. With schools closed, many children like Chaithanya are making use of classes beamed on Doordarshan’s Kannada channel since the beginning of the month.
The pandemic has pushed an already neglected section of the population into deeper marginalisation — children in rural India, especially those in government schools.
And while edtech companies have been doing booming business with steeply priced programmes, they have hardly touched rural India. Data from the government’s Unified District Information System for Education Plus shows that only 22.3% of all schools had Internet facilities for students in 2019-20. According to the Department of State Educational Research and Training, 30% of students in Karnataka have been deprived of academic activities since the pandemic struck, and 39% of children have had no access to any gadget.
When schools closed in March 2020, children lost, among many other things, their mid-day meal (though equivalent rations continue to be sent home once a month), the development of social skills that they picked up when interacting with peers, and academic progress. According to a field study conducted by the Azim Premji Foundation in January 2021, which covered over 16,000 students in 1,137 government schools in five States, 82% of children on average lost at least one specific mathematical skill, and 92% of children lost a specific language skill.
“The longer children stay out of school, the more they forget, the less they know, and in the context of government schools, many students may simple choose to drop out altogether,” says Ashok Kamath, chairperson of the Akshara Foundation, a Bengaluru-based educational charitable trust.
But as online education becomes the buzzword, some platforms have become lifelines for many students in rural India. DIKSHA (Digital Infrastructure for School Education), for instance, is a free platform that offers open digital content of NCERT, CBSE, NIOS and all State and Union Territory boards. Likewise, a compilation of State-wise programmes conducted by the Ministry of Education to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on school education covers everything from ways to conduct online sessions to ensuring mental well-being during the pandemic, to lesson plans and teacher resources.
A new ‘Miss’
Offline, in Karnataka, the government is thinking of resuming the Vidyagama programme, which will have vaccinated teachers meeting small groups of children and teaching them safely in open spaces. The programme had to be stopped last year when many teachers and students contracted the virus.
Organisations such as the Akshara Foundation started working on a dual-lesson plan. They called it the Alternative Learning Project, where students studied with the help of facilitators on alternate days, and worked on their own on the other days. The initiative translated into two pilot projects that taught mathematics and ran for four months in villages around Nanjangud in Karnataka, and Mendhashal in Odisha. The Akshara findings are encouraging; the project was able to use technology and human interaction to help children focus and learn. Students’ scores and comprehension of mathematical concepts improved.
“I miss my Miss,” says Chiranjeevi, 10, a student of a government school, in Hoskote, Karnataka. He keeps busy through the day writing and drawing, and shares his work with his teacher through WhatsApp. The Alternative Learning Project brought a new ‘Miss’ to his doorstep by way of a facilitator.
Akshara recruited and trained young people from each village to work as field officers and as volunteer proxies for teachers. In Nanjangud, the initiative was conducted across 14 villages, and 15 field officers managed 240 students of Classes IV and V. In Odisha, nine volunteers managed 105 children across nine villages.
Students, when working from home, used worksheets and textbooks with QR codes that led to games and lessons, and Akshara’s free maths app called Building Blocks, on pre-loaded mobile phone devices.The devices were charged, sanitised and used again the next day.
In Kargil, members of rZamba conduct sessions with children in community centres and monasteries, says Saldon Stanzin, a former medical student who switched lanes to become a co-founder of this organisation, which focusses on training teachers and improving language and socio-emotional learning. rZamba conducts the Khangrtsa Yontan (Learning at the Doorstep) programme in government schools in Poyen, Choskor and Lober.
Says Shukla Bose, who heads the Bengaluru-based Parikrma Humanity Foundation that runs three schools and one junior college in the city: “Within days of the lockdown, we had gone out with our begging bowls asking people to donate their unused smart phones. Our social workers went to parents explaining how we planned to keep the lessons going, and we raised funds to get laptops and phones for our students.” Parikrma registered a programme called Reach-V to train teachers, to engage the community and parents, to establish SOS lines, and to introduce relevant content for online sessions.
Digital access and technology are clearly necessary for these times to supplement traditional teaching methods, and this needs funding. The government could make use of existing welfare schemes such as Shyama Prasad Mukherji Rurban Mission, Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan, Chief Minister Grama Vikasa Yojane (Karnataka), and loan schemes such as MUDRA (Micro Units Development & Refinance Agency Ltd.) and Swavalamban to provide employment to rural youth and encourage entrepreneurship to run innovative, supplementary education programmes during these times.
The Ministry of Education recently launched NIPUN Bharat (National Initiative for Proficiency in Reading with Understanding and Numeracy) to ensure fundamental comprehension for all children by the time they complete Class III. The aim, up until now, was only to get all children enrolled in school and get them to complete Class X. Now, the focus has broadened to make the experience of learning holistic, integrated, inclusive, enjoyable and engaging for all children aged three to nine.
Last month, the government approved a public-private partnership for the launch of BharatNet, a ₹19,041 crore project that aims to provide broadband services in villages in 16 States. With better connectivity, even small experiments like the ones mentioned above can be scaled up and replicated across the country so that basic education becomes accessible to all children, during and beyond these difficult times.
The children’s book author and editor is based in Bengaluru.