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Is Online Education Really Solving The Emergency In Public Schools?

ReimagineTogether logoEditor’s Note: This article is a part of #ReimagineTogether, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with UNICEF India, YuWaah and Generation Unlimited, to spark conversations to create a new norm and better world order in the post-pandemic future. How have you and those around you coped with the pandemic? Join the conversation by telling us your COVID story and together, let's reimagine a safer, better and more equal future for all!

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.

Representational image.

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.

How Effective Is WhatsApp Learning And, More Importantly, How Fair Is It?

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.

Representational image.

In Such A Grim Scenario, What Can Be The Possible Solutions?

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.

Professor Shyam B Menon has been a Professor at the Central Institute of Education, University of Delhi, since 1994. He is the former Vice-Chancellor of Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD). He had been Dean, Faculty of Education and the Proctor of the University of Delhi and earlier Director, School of Education, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) and Professor at the Central Institute of Educational Technology, NCERT.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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