Technology-enabled education and not just online education should be the way forward.
Vinayak’s father works in a local biscuit factory in Kanduah, West Bengal. Being the first in his family to go to school, one can see the brightness in his eyes when he talks about his desire to go to college. But the beginning of online education in his school has left him stressed and unsure about his future. With the presence of one smartphone in the family carried by his father to the factory, this class XII student of Kanduah Mahakali High School awaits his return at night to go through the classes in the morning. He stays up late at night to finish homework. “I face a lot of difficulty in understanding the homework since I cannot attend the live classes during the day,” he shares.
This is not an exceptional story. West Bengal has hundreds of such stories as students with a lack of privilege struggle to cope up with education, online.
Soumi, a class IX student of Begum Rokeya School, travels a distance to her uncle’s house on Sundays to avail his smartphone. She has a few hours to take note of the week’s engagements and try to finish her homework. She comes back home, stressed. There is a constant awareness of lagging compared to her friends with privileges. Her school teacher, Nandita Mazumdar, says, “If anybody is going through the worst phase in the pandemic, it is the students. I do not have a decent attendance of students whenever I take my class on google meet. I usually send explanations through voice messages following with homework. There is a lack of communication that leads to lack of interest. If I ask in the group if they have understood, I will get ten replies saying a ‘yes’. Even then, I know, I am not able to reach even 50% of my students.
If everybody had access to technology, things would have been different”, she mentions.
Having said that, she does acknowledge her students’ complaints of lack of concentration due to constant engagement with phones and lack of practice to adapt with this method of learning, leading to worries about their health.
But this issue needs to be seen from a broader perspective.
It is not a restrictive argument of technology versus no-technology that if you provide the same to the ones lacking it, the problem gets solved. Instead of making education equal to technology, there should be a basket of solutions together. Online methods alone can not be the present or future of learning for the big reason as it lacks socialisation, thus becoming contradictory to the fundamental values that education wishes to impart concerning our Constitution. The technology could be used as a support to enhance learning, but when it is all you have, its effectiveness and impact on ones availing it leaves room for questions.
Nirjhar Mukherjee, Professor of Berhrampore college, tries hard to reach students without gadgets by dividing them into groups with, say, one laptop, and they sit distantly in nearby fields and attend his zoom classes. The group consists of not only his students but also of nearby colleges. Criticising online education as the only way, he urges the government to come up with alternative methods too.
This is close to the Karnataka model that is successfully being practised, where community halls, playgrounds and big religious places are used for face to face learnings. After few educationists went to the Karnataka High Court questioning online education, the Court, in a document called Vidyagama, stated a host of methods including both online and offline ones to continue learning that would cater to each student.
The Court orders strict regulations for online methods (like the stipulated time frame for classes keeping in mind students’ lifestyles and mental capacities) and a bunch of guidelines for face to face learning. The Vihara system is followed immensely and uses big balconies as classrooms. Along with this, classes are being uploaded on YouTube for students to access at their convenience and lessons broadcasted through television and radio. The latter was incorporated in West Bengal at the beginning of the lockdown but discontinued soon.
Niranjanaradhya VP, an educationist, part of the team who moved the Karnataka high court says, after the new approach taken by the state, instead of other dropouts, there have been incidents of students joining government schools leaving their private ones. Here, they are getting healthier and diverse opportunities to learn than private schools. Teachers are able to engage in conversations with students on how they are coping with the pandemic, their problems, and their feelings. This sharing helps their mental health to thrive in this difficult time. Reports have found an increase in admissions in government schools.
In West Bengal, fear of dropouts continues among teachers. Swadesh, a teacher of Kanduah Mahakali High School, says, attendance is very poor when he takes classes. There is a small section which has the means to come to class and a large number of people lack; Another section who can manage but does not come because of lack of interest fuelled by the absence of any surveillance on them by teachers. An ongoing concern is the lack of interaction with students in order to retain them in school. Earlier they could reach their parents, give them certain punishments or build relationships with them where they would want to come to class.
Vinod, a student of his, comes from a family where he is the first to go to school. Initially, with not much interest in studying, he worked in a local factory to earn his family’s bread and butter. Encouraged by teachers, he had started improving his grades. Now due to lack of any means, he is completely cut off from school and his apathy, as Swadesh says, is just going to grow. He comprehends an increase in child labour among his students. Optional attendance, coupled with a lack of examination, has proved to be difficult to bring students to online classes.
But it needs to be reminded that the solution is not to provide technology to the ones who lack. The fundamental question should rather be upto what extent does the online method alone succeed in furthering the values of education moving towards a better society? When there are different groups of people with different means and accesses, the solutions should have a mix of options to accommodate each and every student. Technology as support is acceptable, but it alone is not. The objective should always be to bring methods to continue the education of every child as per their needs.
The All Bengal Teachers’ Association President had a similar recommendation to that of the Karnataka model. He expressed deep concerns for students of class X and XII suggesting that with the infrastructure of government schools, it is not an impossible task to hold classes in schools or other convenient spaces for at least these two standards. Lack of proper education in this crucial time would affect their marks, further affecting their college admissions.
Apprehensions exist on how they would perform in interviews and examinations without quality education. He doesn’t have much faith in the manner in which online classes are happening and states that it is impossible to maintain the teaching quality with the support of voice messages and videos. “Online education is just one restrictive solution. One has to think of other alternatives. We are ready for any kind of discussion with the government as to finding a solution together for the future. But for that the government has to take the topic of education seriously,” he said.
Since the beginning of the lockdown, ABTA has been sending recommendations to the West Bengal Government, but there has been no response yet.
Education in Bengal continues to suffer during the pandemic, with a dearth of inclusive methods of learning. Online education caters to students of classes IX to XII mostly in government schools, excluding the primary branch altogether. Education is a fundamental right of every child in this country, yet is one of the most ignored issues for most governments. The government needs to take lessons and come up with alternatives with the support of technology wherever required.