With the need for social distancing, it has become difficult to physically reopen schools. When schools in Israel reopened, clusters of COVID-19 cases were reported – and all schools had to be closed again. Thus, keeping schools closed is a wise option.
The current situation has certainly increased the demand for virtual learning and in the same direction, the Government of Maharashtra has announced the beginning of a new academic year for state board schools with online classes.
While it seems like a logical decision, especially in Maharashtra which accounts for 30 percent of COVID-19 cases in India, it does not account for digital disparity. Not all students have access to smartphones/internet and therefore, it is imperative to find alternatives to online learning so that all students are able to access education.
The city of Mumbai, which has the highest number of cases in Maharashtra, would benefit a lot from social distancing, as a result of online learning. However, it should be noted that schools that are run by the government – Municipal Corporations and Zilla Parishads – have a majority of students coming from poor economic backgrounds, who do not have access to internet or TV.
Stark Contrast Between BMC-run & Private Schools
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) Education Department recently came up with a report, that studied the accessibility and effectiveness of online learning against the backdrop of the pandemic.
According to the report, only 46.74 percent of students are present in BMC-run schools, while 88.23 percent of students in BMC-affiliated private schools have remained in touch with studies online. Only 25 percent of the students from schools having Classes 1-8 and 42.73 percent of students from Classes 9-10 use Diksha, an app developed by National Council of Teacher Education.
Remote Learning Techniques Implemented Without Internet
Focussing only on online education, despite evidence of its poor penetration, is contrary to the goal of universal education. It is critical that all students, irrespective of their economic backgrounds have an equitable access to education. To facilitate that, without compromising on social distancing norms, innovative steps need to be taken. There are a few ways of remote learning that can be implemented without access to the internet/smartphones.
- Speakers – In Jharkhand’s Dumka district, a headmaster of a school has installed in the areas, depending on the number of students. Lessons are delivered by teachers in the school, over the mic and the students sit near the speakers. If they have any questions, they send a message through the phone and it is resolved the next day. This method has been well received by students, as they are taking interest in learning through this unique style.
- Delivering educational materials – Weekly kits could be designed comprising of readings, worksheets and other required materials. These can be delivered to students and any queries and can be resolved through calls or messages. If the situation allows, a can be installed at the school, wherein the students can drop off their assignments.
- Snowball learning – A teacher can teach a parent or anyone in the family who is educated or the student (if he/she is old enough) and then that person can teach another student in the vicinity and so on.
- Mobilising volunteers – The BMC can collaborate with NGOs in the education sector and mobilise volunteers through them. The volunteers can form groups of 4-5 students in the neighbourhood and conduct classes as per convenience.
- Radio broadcasting – Radios can be easily accessible, even through a regular mobile phone. Broadcasting academic content through radio channels can be a cost-effective method of teaching students. Timings should be communicated in advance, so that none of the students misses out on lessons.
- Skill development – Students should be encouraged to work on their hobbies or skills such as cooking, painting and reading. The students can be asked to maintain a journal for the same and update their teachers about the progress, at regular intervals through calls or messages. The end result should be considered towards final assessments.
- Buddy system – If there are seniors and juniors living in the same neighbourhood, a buddy system can be formed wherein the senior teaches his/her junior and maintains a record of the latter’s progress.
Focus on Reducing Digital Disparity
Such unconventional alternatives will require the BMC’s Education Department to introduce flexibility in the existing curriculum and evaluation methods. It will also need to map students based on demographic data such as grades they are studying in and the area they live in.
Digital divide is something that needs to be considered before rolling out online learning initiatives.
The focus should be on how to achieve remote learning, even without access to the internet, so that all of the students are on an equal platform and not left behind in the system. That being said, the long-term focus should be on how to reduce the digital disparity, so that the benefits of online education are equally accorded to everyone.
(Sunila Dixit is a Research Analyst at The Takshashila Institute, Bangalore. Her research focuses on health policy and development areas that affect public health at large. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)