Recently I was reminded of a story I read in school called ‘Dukh ka Adhikaar’ by Yashpal that painstakingly delivered the message that time to mourn the death of a loved one is almost considered a given but in reality; it is a luxury-a right that those at the margins of the society do not have and how many of us fail to see that.
The reason for this sudden reminiscence was my experiences of closely supporting online education of my own son juxtaposed against me voluntary teaching students supported by an NGO Sarvaprayag Trust. One of the key programmes of the NGO is to prepare students from Economically Weaker Section (EWS) for admissions in an unaided private school as provisioned for in the Right to Education (RtE) Act, 2009. Covid-19 has pushed the children from disadvantaged socio-economic strata into an unjust and unfair situation where they don’t have means, don’t have home support and don’t even have the right to deny this unequal and substandard education they are forced to receive. Technology which is otherwise supposed to offer a level playing field and open opportunity gates for them became the very medium to perpetuate the inequality. An already stratified Indian Education system failed to provide an enabling eco-system that could offer equal quality of learning experience to both sets of children.
Being a teacher and a development sector professional, I yearned to correlate my reflections over past few months with experiences of a wider group and data from recent studies. The observations, review and reflections together point towards bigger issues that need urgent attention and discussion if our education system has to offer and ensure an equitable school education to all the children irrespective of their gender, class, geography, special learning needs or any other category they belong to. As governments plan for re-opening school and allocating education budgets for next school years, these issues highlight areas that need attention especially for planning the learning experience of those living on margins.
The pandemic has been an unkind experience for all but everyone’s suffering is not same. It is harsher for people with meagre resources, austere for women and vulnerable groups. According to UNESCO’s policy brief on the pandemic’s impact on education, 24 millions of 1.6 billion children affected from pandemic, are at the risk of not returning to schools – most of them in south and west Asia. It further emphasized that we need to ensure that economic strains and gender norms do not prevent most vulnerable learners and girls from returning to school. Girls and young women are likely to be disproportionately affected as school closures make them more vulnerable to child marriage, early pregnancy and gender-based violence. One of its recommendation to mitigate the effect of the pandemic is to reimagine education and accelerate positive changes in education systems that are forward looking, more resilient, flexible and inclusive. Question swirling in my mind is: are we creating those positive changes or allowing this pandemic to widen the already existing, massive chasm among different groups of children?
We are aware of economic hardships, unjust situation many living on the margins of the society are forced to experience due to pandemic; the digital divide; the access issues especially in rural areas and for girls the discrimination and specific challenges girls are dealing with -increase in unpaid care work responsibilities and crime and violence rates against girls and women, risk for being pushed into early marriage and restrictions to own or use mobile phones. So, the sharp difference in two situation does not perplex me. One understands that overcoming all these economic, socio-cultural barriers to offer an equitable and quality education to all is not an easy task in an education system that is already plagued with quality, retention and school completion challenges. Certainly this is not something that will be eradicated in pandemic. Yet, when I saw how these differences played out in the day to day lives of children, I couldn’t help but ponder long-term implications on children’s development trajectories. It is the increasing power current situation has assumed in both furthering ‘poverty of choice’ among the disadvantaged and ‘accelerating inequality’ in the education domain, that is the source of feeling perturbed. When one takes a closer look at this harsh reality along with other learning opportunities or developments in the education space, the paradox in the two-learning situations become even more conspicuous. This indicates that a parallel system of e-learning is well on its way to be established. Remote learning using asynchronous learning materials is one of the innovative methods used for children with resources but for majority children that is the only way possible to continue study in some form.
The article shares some observations and collective experiences of what teaching- learning meant for children and teachers during pandemic. Hidden there, are issues where children need systemic support now and when schools resume operations. Using anecdotal experiences and data from some recent studies; it also highlights scale of problem and focus areas which if given due consideration hold the promise of offering even access and quality learning to all children in future. If acted upon urgently, the suggested short and long term measures could recover learning loss, prevent drop out and facilitate smooth reintegration of all children in school.
Let us first take a look on what changed in teaching-learning space.
Effects of Covid-19 : Teaching-learning processes and parents’ engagement:
Pandemic gave no advance warning for any kind of risk mitigation. Pandemic and subsequent lockdown, school closures ushered new teaching-learning processes. The schools, teachers and students who were supported and nimble, set forth on a path of reinventing themselves while others struggled to ensure continuity of learning:
Government school-teachers on the other hand, struggled with basic issues of reaching out to their students and ensuring regular participation of most of the students. Most could have at least phone numbers and a subset of them could start with online classes. But with poor network, inadequate digital exposure and support at home, a simple set of joining the class using a link turned into a major learning goal for some students. It was more of remote learning than e-learning for most of the government school students; especially those enrolled in primary and upper primary classes.
This space for dialogue or building consensus or seeing a more assuring mid-term (if not long term) picture though was not available to parents from disadvantaged sections: partly because they themselves were struggling for survival and also because they are yet to attain the ‘stakeholder respect and value’ as other parents in the system by virtue of paying high fee enjoy.
Effects of Covid-19: Education management:
As an immediate response, a country wide spurt in making existing teaching-learning resources fit for online or remote rendering, developing new e-resources and offering newer platforms for teaching-learning and training was seen among education departments and various organisations. These online resources included learning applications, curated videos on teaching-learning and some fun activities, worksheets, teachers’ explainers’ videos on key concepts, link to interactive games and assessments, home based teaching-learning kits.
A new glossary for educational technology and e-learning needed to be learnt and brought to life: Hybrid learning, Just-in-Time learning, Synchronous and Asynchronous learning, Mobile learning, Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), Learning with wearable Technologies, Learning in social Networks and collaborative environments to name a few. With this, Connectivism- learning theory gained prominence in informing pedagogy. At the same time, viability and efficacy of online or remote learning became a central topic of all debates on the matter.
When asked what factors supported NGOs to survive and successfully pivot during pandemic, Sudha Srinivasan, CEO of The/Nudge replied, “During Covid, systems that bounced back across the board are the ones that were built with resilience in mind; so if there is a lesson to be learned it is to build kind of infrastructure that invests in fundamental capacity.” I feel this applies to our education system and schools too.
By no means ensuring continuity of learning has been an easy change management and experience is not same for all schools- not all schools were able to pivot successfully, not all children have resources and home support to adjust to the new situation and not all changes guarantee regular and sustained learning. Of course, for teachers to even embark upon this journey of e-learning, it took a proactive and supportive school management, school-home infrastructure and yes, lot of hard work.
Among the high fee private schools, those who could manage a smooth transition reflected following good practices:
These schools too struggled with receiving regular fee from all parents but had the means to carry on the path of transition. There were a lot many others low fee private schools whose existence and survival became a concern amid economic downturn and mass migration of labour force.
Indian government school education system has a huge reach and scale but it was already struggling in terms of adequate facilities, teaching competencies especially when it comes to technology aided teaching. Part of the reasons is that basic infrastructure supporting tech enabled education such as power supply, adequate number of computers, availability of internet connection was not there in many geographies. Students advancing to next class or passing from schools without attaining age and class appropriate learning outcomes has been a matter of concern for some years now. In this situation, it was nearly impossible for most of the government schools to migrate to online learning as swiftly and as quickly as some elite private schools were able to do. It took some time but State governments came up with locally relevant and creative solutions to reach children:
Let us take a pause to recognize the efforts education officials, school leaderships and teachers made to turn this crisis into an opportunity and adapting to new ways of teaching and education management. 2020 has not been an easy year for teachers as well and for some it meant initiate efforts for being innovative and embarking a journey of steep learning curve. Government school teachers also did not have the kind of home-based digital infrastructure and guidance private schools could expect or request from the parents, exacerbating their struggles. While the plans to bridge gap in digital access and competencies are being worked out for a majority of children, a slew of short term solutions have been rolled out by education departments. Of course, efficacy of the plans and outcomes vary across the spectrum. And for Children it means sea difference in their learning experience and gains.
Implications of Covid-19 for children: what it meant for majority
Pandemic kept all children away from playgrounds and friends for 10 months (and still counting); with this some children lost their autonomy and time away from ‘always supervising eye’ of a parent. But other children and a large group of them were suddenly robbed off their right to continuous learning and development. I am not saying that without schools there is no learning. Of course, children are learning something every day and that goes for all children. My concerns primarily relate to academic learning here. Unlike Kenya that has declared 2020 as a cancelled year with all its students mandatorily repeating classes in 2021; The Ministry of Education in India said no to declaring 2020 as a ‘zero academic year’. It offered support in terms of reducing syllabus and adjusting academic calendar for school year 2020-21.
The quality of teaching-learning processes varies significantly for two groups of children- one that has the means and other that does not. The risk of catching pandemic is same for all, but the impact (or should I say side-effects) and ability to manage it is definitely not. For a sub-group of children (and mostly those belonging to families with better resources) life has come back to “business as usual” as far as goal post for annual learning is concerned. Children, especially those whose families are dealing with ebb and flow of the corona hit life got affected the most. Survival has been first priority for these families and rightly so. But in the process, the children suffered learning losses for 3-9 months. There is evidence available now that COVID-19 driven school closures have brought significant disruption in education -it is being referred to as ‘Covid Slide’. Alarmingly, these losses are found to be much higher among students from less-educated homes. The observations and collective experiences of friends, family and service providers regarding education of their children during school closures highlight how this reality rather inequality manifests itself.
Usually for children studying in a high fee private school, a spared device (computer/ I-pad/ smart phone) and a very good internet connection at home is almost a given for online teaching to continue. Some parents and teachers had to buy new laptops to enable this and ensure their children are learning using best online tools available that make learning interesting and fun. Many of these children did not have a gap of even a month in their studies are attending classes daily. Some schools are proactively paying attention to socio- emotional well-being of the children enrolled with them by creatively engaging them in physical and co-curricular activities. Some schools have also created a space for children for virtual group work and seeking one to one help from their teachers. These are good initiatives to offer need-based support for the holistic development of the children.
I have observed children who are fortunate enough to resume learning quickly not only using these online tools for learning as planned by teachers but taking initiative to explore new e-tools and create more resources on their own. They are becoming more comfortable and adept at using various online platforms for learning, group work, assessments and participate in various school level and inter school events (We may argue whether young children should be exposed to so much technology / have so much screen time or not but that is a discussion for some other time).
Now imagine a teaching-learning situation where 2-3 children, not necessarily at same learning level or same family grouped together, sharing a basic smart phone and internet connection (usually provided by the NGO) and attending classes via WhatsApp call. For some of the migrant families comprising rural and urban poor, WhatsApp is the only medium through which it has been possible to reach and teach children. They do not have radio or Television, having a power connection and patchy internet connection is a luxury.
Teaching (as a volunteer) in these situations, I don’t see colorful drawings, printed worksheets or use of modern, tech driven teaching methods. Their teachers/mentors rotate. Children are conscious not to leave too many blank space gaps for the fear of filling the notebook provided to them sooner than expected, pencils become shorter and shorter, poor network and neighborhood noise disrupt classes. If weather is not conducive and one has to teach them inside their one room home, one can barely see little more than their silhouettes in dim lights; checking their classwork and giving feedback becomes harder. But these children don’t complain or give up. They show up every time, determined to learn and grow. They try to make most of this one hour of learning classes offered to them thrice a week. They also share back their homework on WhatsApp. A small subset of them, who are already enrolled in the private schools and have the means, participate in online classes and get worksheets from schools on WhatsApp.
A new form of private tuition is finding its feet where children who cannot access schools are going to a local teachers’ (or didi/bhaiya in neighborhood) house to learn. Parents who are struggling to meet both ends, are paying for it. Clearly, parents know the importance of education and are committed to continuing their child’s education. While I acknowledge the solution-oriented approach of parents, I do wonder about the quality of the education children are getting as there are no learning outcomes or standards being checked for and ensured.
Online programs are being offered for children as old as 18 months and parents enrolling their children for expensive coding classes at the age of 5-6 years when these young ones are still learning to problem solve in the real life. Home based pre-school education kits with online guidance for parents are available for those having both financial resources, education levels and time to meaningfully engage their children.
And on the other side, some older children have no regular classes for more than 3 quarters of the year; younger ones who were due but could not be enrolled in schools in 2020 have no one to stimulate their brains. For them at least one year of critical early childhood phase is lost. (We know that brain development is most rapid in early years. Early years of childhood form the basis of intelligence, personality, social behavior, and capacity to learn and nurture oneself as an adult.) For one set of parents, paying the fee for these expensive online coding classes is a decision about using the money family had set aside for a family vacation which got cancelled due to Covid-19. For other and a bigger set of parents, enabling children to participate in e-learning classes is about making a trade-off between ensuring food for family and online education. We heard cases where a father sold his only source of income -a cow for a meagerly sum of rupees 6,000 to buy a smart phone ensure their children do not miss out on online learning and a girl committing suicide for missing out on leaning opportunities.
Besides personal experiences and anecdotal accounts shared above, a look at recent study reports reveal that it is not a situation affecting only a few. Azim Premji Foundation’s research study ‘Myths of online education‘, September 2020 covering telephonic data from 5 states, makes a strong recommendation for reopening the schools in phased manner as based on its findings from study of government-school system in 5 states:
Annual Status of Education report 2020 presents a more hopeful picture at least in term of access to digital and printed resources, based on phone-based survey conducted in representative households in 30 states and union Territories in September 2020:
Both confirm that a significant percentage of students do not have means to access online education. Only a small percentage of students studying in government schools are able to benefit from online leaning. We know that it is those geographies, families, groups of children that have most resource deficits in terms of digital access but also digital capital, that will be affected the most and are at higher risks of dropping out from schools. This finding is reinforced by a study which shows that children from socioeconomically advantaged families have received more parental support with their studies during the school closure period. The data and information shared here illustrate the extent of the concern as well as point towards bottlenecks that need urgent attention:
After 10 months, vaccination for Covid19 has commences in India. Given that children are unlikely to be inoculated in the phase 1 of vaccine administration, distance and e-learning mode would continue for some for more time especially for young children. Also, when school reopens, there is merit in continuing with a blended learning model- mixing in-person teaching with online or remote learning- partly because of Covid19 safety protocols but also because some of the newly adopted practices have stirred the system for good.
In this backdrop, at an individual level the whole experience serves as a daily reminder to appreciate and be grateful of what we have, even in these globally difficult times. However, at a broader and systemic level, I cannot help but contemplate deeper on following questions:
Answers to these questions will also depend on measures planned and systemic efforts made by duty bearers and key stakeholders to address drivers of exclusion and ensure equal access to quality learning for school children.
What next: Some solutions
Some areas that need consideration in education planning are suggested. The list a) does not include the obvious such as ensuring safe schools operations upon reopening of schools, ensuring budgetary provisions to implement urgent and important measures and b) is certainly not an exhaustive but does highlight some critical areas to inform short and long term plans:
The need for schemes offering laptops, tablets, smartphone that are internet ready or with an access to an internet connection to students was never more than now. However, this time it is not the merit but needs that has to drive it. England, California, Canada had re-directed significant education budgets earlier in 2020 to offer devices and internet connections to students from poorer families at the risk of disproportionately losing out on academic learning during school closures. In India, too some initiatives have commenced like the campaigns being run by private schools or Corporate Social Responsibility groups to encourage wider community to donate money or used digital tools have started to appear. There is also hope being placed in the Prime Minister’s Wi-Fi Access Network Initiative (PM-WANI) scheme, as far as improving the access of internet is concerned.
Small scale initiatives are useful but they meet limited purpose. A more comprehensive and time bound approach to meeting the resource deficits is required. A cogent and converged planning among government and key supporters, may help in optimum utilization of resources and timely help for most needy.
One aspect that needs challenge and further exploration is the notion of ‘digitally ready’ school. The availability of a few functional devices with couple of ICT trainings should not be construed as readiness for the technology aided education. The understanding of appropriate digital infrastructure and teachers’ trainings varies significantly among stakeholders. Defining what technology skills all teachers must acquire to enable effective e-teaching-learning will help set the goal clearly. UNESCO has developed an ICT Competency Framework for Teachers, which could be good starting point. An Observer Research Foundation’s paper Strengthening the Online Education Ecosystem in India is a good read for more insights on this matter.
Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan aims to digitally literate at least one member of each household. There are interventions such as Internet Saathi Program, a collaboration of Tata Trust and Google to digitally empowering rural women in multiple states of India. Some NGOs have initiative that aim at building digital awareness and skills to in turn improving education and career prospects for young students. However, these interventions vary in their scale and focus groups.
We need more widespread, targeted and time bound interventions to improve digital literacy and capital among children and youth. Priority must be given to girls and most disadvantaged geographies. These interventions may be developed with a long-term view and informed by existing interventions but should include a specific short-term goal of digitally equipping children to take lead on their online and distant learning. Only then students can make optimum use of various e-platforms and resources being offered to them. Teachers will also feel better supported and confident to use more technology aided tools.
These interventions must have a scope of constantly upgrading digital awareness and skills as they do not have this guidance at home. Collaborating with community will be a critical aspect specially to maximize girls’ access and participation in these interventions.
Teachers are required to be more agile and flexible in their approach for some time to come: blended and distance learning, amalgamation of digital and classroom teaching, school reopening and implementation of The National Policy on Education 2020 mandates all are going to have implications on teaching community. Classroom composition are likely to altered due to changes in enrolments on account of migration, parents pulling out children of private schools and education system, increased heterogeneity in among students’ learning levels in one class, based on what level of support students were able to access and use during this year. Teachers need to continuously reinvent themselves to enable effective teaching-learning in this dynamic space. They need direction, support and time to lead this transition and apply new learning. Offering need based trainings is important especially on technology aided teaching but it is not a comprehensive solution. Following are some of the ways through which teachers could be supported for equipping them to successfully reintegrate students in schools and to continue using good practices initiated during school closures.
The experiences and data from recent studies highlights that students’ engagement in teaching-learning has been uneven. Most children struggled to access online learning on continuous basis. All children engaged in government school system cannot be clubbed into one group as their learning competencies varies. This calls for building some time and concentrated efforts to offer a catch-up programme upon children resuming schools. In the interim, revision of topics taught through online and distance mode, should be planned for at regular intervals.
Recent studies also indicate that losses may be higher in Reading and Maths and for certain classes may be more affected than others. One of the recommendations is to plans for a Multi-Tiered system of support. The prioritisation of schools, subjects, classes and students for each country or State will have to be informed by the reliable learning gap assessments. Progress should be closely monitored so corrective measures can be planned in time.
The National Policy on Education 2020 talks about mandatory exams at class 3,5 and 8. These are envisioned to be diagnostic in nature to guide changes in teaching and learning rather than summative. It is important that these exams whenever scheduled happen for the same purpose. It would provide necessary information for teachers and educational leaders to provide need based support to students. Otherwise teachers will be under pressure to complete the syllabus somehow and prepare children for exams rather than ensuing Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN), bridging learning gaps and offering a level playing field to all students. This too requires dedicated fund allocations as for example UK announced a significant dedicated catch-up fund to help students bridge learning gaps.
Pandemic led to changes in many aspects of education – online and remote learning taking center stage in the pedagogy, development and customisation of worksheets and audio-visual teaching-learning aids, aggregating pools of curated online resources and platforms to aid independent learning, online trainings replacing face to face trainings of teachers, new ways of engaging parents and community to prevent learning losses. We need to review and document the efficacy of these practices. This will be a critical input into identifying newer practices and protocols that can help revamp education system and build readiness to deal with any such situations in future. It will also offer an opportunity to get rid of inefficient and ineffective ways of imparting education.
We know that not all children especially girls are not going to return to school immediately and in fact chances of them dropping out are higher. It is imperative that we have a comprehensive plan for community engagement much before schools reopen. These engagement plans must aim for building awareness – motivation, build confidence, leverage community level solutions to prevent drop outs and ensure continuation of learning for all children especially high-risk groups of children. Besides community and parental engagement are critical in managing the interim blended and distance learning phase till the time schools are in position to resume classroom teaching full time.
Following resources provide more evidence, budgetary requirements and detailed guidance on reversing the Covid-19 slide and building back better:
Call to Action:
Covid-19 has acted as a catalyst in pushing technology aided teaching-learning in education systems across the world. Stopping pandemic was not in our hand but applying brakes to stop accelerating inequality is!
Spread awareness, influence, act, inform, support or do whatever hat you are wearing allows for, to give voice to concerns of so many children. Be a part of a solution that offers equal and quality education to those who are either missing education, receiving a sub-standard education or pushed on the path of dropping out. What those children and especially girls are losing is not only 1-2 years of learning but a right to be educated and build a better future for themselves.