The sudden shift to online teaching-learning mode from face-to-face interaction in a classroom setting is having its impact on the education system. The Coronavirus pandemic has not only brought out the huge digital divide (inequitable access to smartphones, computer, laptop and internet connectivity) but also a lack of nuanced pedagogic practices required for transacting lessons in online/virtual mode.
The government orders to conduct the teaching-learning process in online/virtual mode tend to overlook the heterogeneous landscape of our school education system. The Indian schooling system drastically varies in terms of institutional capacity, human resources and infrastructure. Studies show that for underprivileged children, government schools are the mainstay. (see infographics)
An article by Manzar and Chaturvedi (2018), associated with Digital Empowerment Foundation, states that for 2014, the computer-student ratio was a mere 1:89 across schools in India. Apart from this digital divide, limited information is available about the use of the internet for educational purposes. Use of ICT-driven solutions such as recorded lessons and testing modules are a few issues adding to the problem.
Private schools, where children of relatively well-off sections go, were quick to arrange for online classes with equally supportive parents. But this is not the case with the marginalised sections.
Virtual learning/teaching has its benefits for the privileged but the underprivileged children get further marginalised. Apart from suffering from the loss of a proper source of income, parents of such children have to struggle to provide them with smartphones and laptops, which are beyond their reach even in ‘normal’ times. Under such circumstances, hoping for the marginalised children to attend online classes regularly is problematic.
First, most of the low-income settlements/slums lack scope for children to have separate learning space in the house, which is further cramped during the lockdown as all family members stay back at home. This gives very little space for young children to concentrate and attend online classes, even if they can access a smartphone. Parents often lack ‘technical’ competence to use electronic device/app and support children.
There is also no proper arrangement in terms of physical setup (comfortable chair and table where children can sit continuously for one/two hours) and ample light in the room. Given the complex caste-based structure of the villages for Dalit children, it might not be possible to access online materials continuously through their peers’ smartphones.
Secondly, many children are unprepared at the psychological level and face difficulty in switching to the online mode all of a sudden. Many a time, parents have to carefully allocate the use of single mobile phone amongst two-three children. It could be stressful for others as they are not able to join the online classes simultaneously. Poor resolution and camera quality of the mobile/smartphone can also influence the quality of the live streaming video lesson by the teachers.
The teacher may also not be able to pay individual attention to children who might find it difficult to follow the lesson due to lack of clear visibility and audibility. The situation is further complicated due to bad connectivity and slow internet speed, which lead to the reception of either half lessons or only bits and pieces of it.
Thirdly, the online learning platform is demanding in terms of time, financial resources, and self-motivation and direction. To make online classes a two-way process, children are also expected to write a response to the lesson, which is submitted to the teacher as a way to ensure participation. Children are required to store/save and record the lessons on the device available with them, which might have limited storage capacity.
At the pedagogical level, the emphasis is on ‘teach to test’ as a quiz, multiple-choice questions appear to suit the need for assessment and are cost-effective. This places children under stress. They have to make a judicious decision about which lesson to save for future reference and prepare for online testing.
For underprivileged children submitting a typewritten response is tricky given the small size of mobile screen and storage capacity. Attending online classes demands a high level of self-motivation on the part of young learners as well as their parents. Poor parents have scarce resources, still they are expected to facilitate online classes for their children. For this, they have to incur an extra cost as they have to purchase data packs.
Children of migrant workers and the question of their educational needs are not considered in this online teaching-learning activities during the lockdown. Such children lack any kind of medium to continue their education as they are uprooted from the temporary residence in the cities. The ‘alternative’ mode of learning via a virtual/online platform is not an option for migrant children.
To prevent these children from slipping into the trap of child labour, there is a need to redirect some resources and provide access to education. Some norms can be relaxed and academic calendars should be flexible to accommodate them back in the school system. The expertise of non-formal education centres could be utilised to provide meaningful learning experiences to these children.
The government needs to play a more active role in bringing recently displaced children of migrant workers in the ambit of education by redirecting some of the resources under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.
There is a need to humanise and diverge from the regular syllabus-based online teaching-learning activity and assessment norms. It is essential to respond to the specific learning needs of the children supplemented with psychological support.
To make education inclusive in the face of the Covid-19 crisis, a process-centric engagement has to be evolved to address the issues of the learning requirement of marginalised children living in a stratified society with rampant inequalities. Inequitable access to digital platforms should be supplemented by the provision of other forms of interactive learning material.
The government should announce an immediate relief package for the education of marginalised children at the school level. A specific inclusion policy to meet their educational needs must be the priority.
(Rajshree Chanchal teaches at Ambedkar University, New Delhi and Ajit Kumar Lenka is research consultant at Change Alliance, New Delhi)
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