The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of the partners.
India is staring at the possibility of schools remaining physically closed till the universal vaccination against Covid-19 is accomplished, which in my reckoning is unlikely to happen any time soon.
The private school system, by and large, has responded to the lockdown by instituting virtual forms of education, in which online mode is the mainstay.
By all accounts, the effectiveness of this arrangement has been uneven, hinged as it is largely on the competence and time of parents on whom is critically vested the responsibility to support the child as she negotiates with her virtual classwork and homework.
All the same, the economics underlying private schools will ensure that the teaching process will continue to happen somehow, whatever be the extent children learn. In any case, one can count on middle-class parents to consistently support and supplement the child’s participation in the virtual school process. Whatever learning deficit there may be, will thus get contained.
The situation is different in government schools, which about two-thirds of the school-going children attend. Several governments have issued fiats instituting online education across the board in the public systems.
Most children here are from the lower economic and social strata whose parents may have neither the competence nor the time to handhold and backstop the child in her struggle to engage with her virtual class. Access to smartphones is limited to less than a third of the cases among such families, even in metropolitan areas. Computers at home are almost non-existent. Therefore, while technically the government schools may be functional, participation by a majority of children remains suboptimal.
Teachers in Delhi’s government schools are required to create WhatsApp groups with their students. They are expected to send on WhatsApp, videos and student worksheets on various topics, all of which are produced centrally. Even in those few families that own smartphones, it remains inaccessible to children most of the time. Teachers are supposed to monitor children’s work on each lesson and provide continuous feedback.
A teacher of an upper primary and secondary school teaches ordinarily more than two hundred children at a given point in time across her various classes. Imagine how it would be if she has to monitor and assess as many as two hundred student worksheets on WhatsApp every week and follow up on each. However, only a small proportion of students respond with their worksheets.
Clearly, an instructional strategy where online teaching is the mainstay exacerbates inequity across the digital divide. Children receiving practically no support from home need a great deal of handholding from school, the possibility of which is next to none in the WhatsApp-mediated transaction.
Besides, the lockdown has resulted in an unprecedented slowing down of the economy, and it is the poor who have been affected the most. In times of crisis, children are often called upon to participate in economic activities. Even in normal times, children from poorer families often get engaged in some kind of livelihood activities outside of school hours. But, with schools working on a virtual mode, it is quite likely that because of economic compulsions, many children, particularly the older ones, will get pushed into full-time work.
There is also a gender dimension: during an acute financial crisis, it is often girl children who are pulled out of school first. They could be deployed in domestic labour, farm labour or be married off earlier than usual.
In fact, studying from home is more difficult for a girl child than for a boy in a poor and marginalized family, given the asymmetry in the distribution of domestic labour across gender.
All these put together, a likely collateral consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic is an unprecedentedly large proportion of children from the economic and social margins effectively dropping out of school. The situation that the schools are in at present is not an exigency that will last just a few weeks or months; it is going to last a couple of years. Child’s development is path-dependent.
A gap of two years constitutes a major vicissitude in a child’s life, particularly if her family has no resources to scaffold her struggle to catch up with her accumulated learning deficit. Eventual
regression into unemployment, poverty, child marriage, marginalization and alienation from society are all clear possibilities in such cases.
The present crisis demands a comprehensive strategic response with context-specific variations, instead of a one-size-fits-all ‘band-aid’ that is applied across the board. The strategy may include alternative ways of reaching out to students in addition to the default smartphone-based approach. An alternative to be considered is reaching self-learning textual material to students through post or other means. There are parts of the country where FM radio coupled with simple telephony could be an effective way of communicating with students.
The strategy should also include alternative modes of student support. One way could be for every schoolteacher to enlist and form WhatsApp groups of college students and school graduates as volunteer teaching assistants in every neighbourhood. It is possible to find the effective use of internet-based communication for building capacities among teachers as well as the volunteer
teaching assistants. Such strategic alternatives are not unknown to us.
We have time and again used these in the past. What is important is to weave new technological solutions, like online learning, into some of these time-tested strategies. It serves little purpose making a fetish out of online learning – on its own, it is not a panacea. There could however be meticulously designed instructional strategies that make informed use of online education as one of its critical core components.