Globally, the pandemic has forced around 130 crore children out of school. As per UNESCO, in India alone, more than 32 crore students have been affected due to the closure of schools, colleges and other educational institutions. In fact, such is the impact of the pandemic on education that, as per the British charity, Save the Children, an entire generation has had their education disrupted, while around 1 crore children may never return to school.
However, the pandemic has also caused educational institutions, teachers, parents and children to explore digital options and other platforms beyond traditional schooling. While this may not be the ideal scenario, considering that children benefit the most when they are physically present with their fellow school mates and teachers, it has ensured that education does not stop completely for many students.
We take a look at how education has changed, amidst all the uncertainties that the virus has brought into our lives.
Across the country, and in many parts of the world, schools and educational institutes have shifted their classrooms to the virtual world. While those schools that have the required infrastructure, are conducting interactive classroom sessions on conferencing apps such as Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and Zoom, others are communicating with students and sending classwork sheets and assignments through platforms such as WhatsApp.
This shift to the online method of teaching has further increased the usage of smartphones in a country which is the second-largest smartphone market after China. Those who can afford to are providing their children with laptops, tablets and individual smartphones, while low-income homes which do not have access to computers or the internet are scraping together money to buy smartphones, many for the first time in their lives.
This hybrid version of real and digital classrooms may become a reality even after the threat of the virus is over, as schools, colleges, tuition centres and other educational institutions adopt tech-based solutions for education.
Parents - teachers as collaborators
As classrooms merge with homes and with the limitations of online mode of teaching, parents are taking an active role in educating their children. In many households, while juggling between work from home and household duties, parents are taking turns to sit with their children, especially the younger ones who need handholding during online classes.
Various anganwadis across the country are also encouraging such bonding between parents and their children. The Government of Chhattisgarh, with technical support from the UNICEF, has launched the Sajag programme which ensures that children continue with their education during the pandemic, regardless of whether they have access to technology or not. The programme empowers anganwadis and volunteers to support parents with their children’s education at home.
The Odisha Government has also introduced a home-based curriculum for anganwadi children, called Ghare Ghare Arunima, which reaches out to parents to engage with children in a host of activity-based learning programmes. The programme calendar, which has a set theme every month, and materials are disseminated by Anganwadi workers.
Apart from introducing activity-based learning and bringing in a special focus on staying safe during the pandemic, parents are also encouraged to involve children in simple household chores such as folding clothes or watering plants. Particular emphasis has been placed on the participation of fathers in the activities, to increase the bonding between them and their children. This, as per reports, has helped reduce aggression and has led to responsible parenting.
Edtech companies lead the way
As per a Redseer and Omidyar Network India report, with the pandemic proving to be a game-changer, online platforms providing education for classes 1-12 are expected to increase 6.3 times by 2022, creating a USD 1.7 billion market.
While other startups have been going bust or have seen their operations scale down drastically, edtech platforms have been reaping the benefits of the pandemic, with a surge in registrations and website traffic. A report by BARC India and Neilsen reveals a 30 per cent increase in the time spent on educational apps on smartphones.
Byju’s, one of the biggest players in the ed-tech scene, saw an increase of 3x in the aftermath of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. Other edtech startups, such as Flinto, Unacademy, Vedantu, K-12 and Toppr, have also managed to raise fundings with investors wanting a slice of the online learning boom.
A glaring digital divide
The online mode of education brought about by the pandemic has also widened the gap in learning between those who have access to digital devices and the internet and those who do not. As per data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), only 23.8 per cent Indian households have access to the internet. The rural-urban divide is even starker here - in rural households, this number stands at 14.9 per cent, while in urban households, this is 42 per cent.
Also, only 8 per cent of homes have members with a computer and internet link.
Further, even in case of access to both, sustained electricity is another challenge. As per data from a nationwide survey of villages conducted by the Ministry of Rural Development, only 47 per cent of households in the country received more than 12 hours of electricity a day, 33 per cent received 9-12 hours daily, while 16 per cent of the country’s household received only 1-8 hours of electricity a day.
Though mobile penetration in India is high at around 78 per cent, only around 57 per cent of people in rural areas have access to mobile phones. Again, in households which have a smartphone, access can be restricted as all learning members of the house would often have to share a single phone.
To overcome these difficulties, the Government has launched 12 new TV channels (until K-12) providing educational content, especially to households that lack access to a high-speed internet connection.
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Role of teachers
With the uncertainty of the lockdown and school closures, teachers have moved on from being knowledge providers, to a much more larger role. They have taken on the additional role of counsellors in order to lend support to students who may be suffering due to the pandemic. Many teachers have also been supporting children and families for whom the lockdown has meant a loss of livelihood and access to good nutrition. For a large number of teachers, this has meant dipping into their savings as many have not been paid salaries for months.
Schools and teachers have also stepped up to the challenge of teaching during the pandemic by employing innovative means and ensuring learning does not stop. While Shyam Kishore Singh, a school teacher in Jharkhand’s Dumka district has put up several loudspeakers to relay lessons to his students who do not have access to the internet, in Haryana’s Jhamri village, students are taking notes and continuing their studies by listening to loudspeakers attached to carts, through which their teachers impart lessons.
A maths teacher from Delhi, Rashmi Jha has been providing lessons on her YouTube channel, Ganit Pathshala, specifically for students who do not have access to 24x7 internet, so that they can study the subject at their own time and convenience. Another maths teacher from Mumbai has found a rather innovative way of teaching her students - by using a transparent tray from her refrigerator as a stand for her mobile so that she can show her students what she is writing, in the absence of a blackboard.
Going forward, teachers would need to continue thinking out of the box to come up with creative solutions to teach students for whom a digital classroom would not resonate as well as a physical classroom. They would have to stay updated with all the necessary tools to be able to teach a digital classroom with the same or better efficiency than a physical classroom.
With no signs of the pandemic abating, most parents, and teachers, are uncomfortable with the idea of sending children to school, at least until a vaccine is found. Even when schools reopen, education and schooling as we know it would be very different. Apart from ensuring infrastructural changes to adhere to social distancing, safety and hygiene norms, a number of social events that involve large gatherings such as inter-school events, sporting events, excursions and annual days may have to be put on hold, at least for the near future.
Implementing social distancing and basic hygiene practises such as hand-washing may not be an easy task for a majority of schools in the country, especially municipality ones which do not have the luxury of space or even running water and clean washrooms.
The most affected, however, would be children, especially the younger ones. For them, the return to school and adjustments towards social distancing would be very difficult, especially considering that they would have been out of school for more than six years, or by some estimates, even an entire year.
The pandemic may, thus, be a good time for policymakers, schools, teachers, parents and all stakeholders to rethink education to make it more holistic, child friendly and future proof. If implemented thoughtfully, the National Education Policy approved by the Union Cabinet could set the pace for a complete overhaul of the education system.