Vaishnavi Bhardwaj's 'school' is her grandmother's puja room. And her classroom is her grandmother's smartphone. From Monday to Friday, nine-year-old Vaishnavi is ready for 'school' by 9 am.
Her mother Rashi makes sure that the Class four student at a private school in East Delhi has all the required text books and notebooks ready in time for her morning class prayer, signalling the beginning of her school day.
Schools in the National Capital began their new new academic session on 1 July with technology-driven classes over the internet and on television. Private school students like Vaishnavi, every morning wear their uniforms, pack their bags, reach 'class' on time and start with their "good morning madam" followed by marking of attendance.
All on Zoom, or on Google Classroom.
Vaishnavi and her ilk, however, are among the fortunate few. Tens of thousands of other students in the city have yet to get that 'being in the classroom' feeling. Most of them are tenuously connected to their teachers, homework and assignments, via phone call or a YouTube link, meant more as an aid to parents to home school their children.
Sources say that this entire academic session may include only online education, online examination and online evaluation. Representational image.
On 17 July, the Ministry of Human Resources Development asked the Delhi government, and other state governments, to get feedback from parents on when schools should open and what they expected from schools. State governments were expected to revert by 20 July, an impossibly short deadline for realistic feedback collection from parents battling work from home and slow lockdown exits.
On 19 July, a parents' association from Delhi urged Union HRD minister Ramesh Pokhriyal not to reopen schools for the academic year 2020-21 or until children have been vaccinated against the coronavirus. Sources in the ministry say states have asked for more time to get feedback from schools and parents.
States, in turn, are awaiting the MHA's next guidelines on unlocking. But one source remarked that this entire academic session may include only "online education, online examination and online evaluation."
Meanwhile, the Delhi Parents' Association appears to be smitten by the whole idea of taking online teaching, learning, evaluation and online admission to the next level.
"Self-motivation has gone up among students as children are excited with the technology interface," said a freelance consultant with a chain of private-aided schools in the capital, on condition of anonymity. "True, some parents who were not plugged into technology and actively involved with the teachers were reluctant, but most of them have worked their way through this and are now convinced that online classes are the best in the given circumstances."
In fact, how effectively the online classes are being executed and absorbed has become a sensitive issue for school managements who find themselves caught between government instructions and parental expectations, even as they have to learn to teach in a different way.
Asked if they had any short duration workshops to train teachers on delivering lessons in a digital format, this consultant answered in the negative. "Some teachers said they were capable of it, some said they were helped by their adult children. At least in our schools, where students are middle class and the aspirational upper sections of the poor who want English-medium education, there has been no decision on training teachers. Yet, they are managing pretty well".
Delhi government's stance
Deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia, who holds the education portfolio, is deeply involved with all aspects of school education in the National Capital Territory. He has even authored a book titled "Shiksha: My Experiments as an Education Minister".
Among the early innovations he introduced in government schools are the now famous "happiness" classes as well as the lesser known "Entrepreneurship Mindset Curriculum" (Delhi has 1,030 government schools, 1,700 MCD schools, 68 NDMC schools, 46 Kendriya Vidyalayas, six schools run by the Delhi Cantonment Board, two Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas, about 259 aided schools and 2,812 public schools).
"Online learning may not be a solution, but it is a necessity today," Sisodia told a batch of 50 government school principals on 20 July, as they began their Principal Training Programme being conducted by the IIM, Ahmedabad. "I urge all school principals to fully commit to it."
Sisodia has often said that the biggest problem with online education was its potential to create a digital divide between those who have access to technology and those who don't. He describes the Delhi government's "remote teaching-learning plan" as "learning with a human feel."
The Union Ministry of HRD has, in fact, classified households by available digital infrastructure into six different levels. And the Delhi
government has clubbed students from kindergarten to Class 8 into one cohort, classes 9 and 10 in a second cohort and classes 11 and 12 in a third cohort.
Worksheets based on daily syllabus aimed at promoting reading, writing, understanding, basic numeracy and happiness among the children are WhatsApped by teachers to students of classes KG to 8. Those in classes 9 and 10 receive worksheets with subject-related content.
For classes 11 and 12, live online classes are conducted for up to two hours a day in a dozen subjects. The education department has also asked principals to ensure that teachers maintain a constantly updated WhatsApp group of parents and students.
For good measure, they have been directed to maintain telephone numbers of those who do not have a smartphone, and these parents are asked to collect the worksheets for the entire week. Government school principals have been directed to report on the completion of the weekly syllabus set for different classes.
That is the government design. But talk to the teachers and one of the most scathing criticisms is about the way online education has been being conceptualised. It was simply transferring face-to-face classroom sessions to online platforms such as Zoom or Google classroom, they said. There was little training or planning among teachers and school administrations and of course, little preparation in advance.
"It is worrisome that there is no thought being given to whether the online medium could be seen as an opportunity to prepare more creative, interactive content tailored to online teaching," said a senior government school teacher., on condition of anonymity.
According to her, classes have now been reduced to mere one way delivery, with little or no personal contact, no way of gauging who's getting it and who's not. "The advantage of using multimedia is not there. There is also no mechanism in the present system of knowing what students feel, whether their needs are being met, how many are losing interest," she said.
When you talk to parents and children, it is apparent that each school is doing the best it can, in whatever manner it can. "My daughter attends her classes on Zoom," said the mother of a student in one of the Springdales schools. "There is no classroom feel to it. The teacher does not teach really, simply gives assignments and tells them what to do. Sometimes she sends a YouTube link where the teacher is generally solving problems. This is really for the parents; using it, I have to teach my daughter. Also, they do not repeat the syllabus they have covered."
In schools where the children are not from well-off backgrounds, Sisodia's fears of a digital divide are coming true. An alumni association of one such school wanted to chip in and provide a limited number of laptops, at least for teachers. According to a member, the kind of laptops they wanted were simply not available in the numbers needed.
Rani Kumari. whose daughter and son are studying in a government school in east Delhi was close to tears when she spoke about how difficult it was for her to manage their WhatsApp lessons. "There is one phone between three of us. And when I am not educated, how can I help with my children's home work?" she asked.
Rani's daughter is in Class 6. Her son is in Class 4. She pays Rs 700 a month for a lady in her neighbourhood to help with homework.
And she is not convinced that their education is headed in the right direction.
A senior teacher in a School of Excellence"Pratibha Vikas Vidyalaya " pointed out that all students in classes 11 and 12 in these schools were given tablets in February. But that hardly solved the problem or bridged the digital divide. In one case, the family had simply traded the tablet shortly after receiving it, perceiving it to be useless.
In another instance, a girl said she had to give her tablet to her brother's son who went to a private school and was having online classes at the same time; never mind that she was in Class 11 while the other child was in Class 1. Clearly, and not surprisingly, the gender issue remains at play.