Can you hear me? Can you see me? This has become a common refrain since lockdown post-COVID-19 when talking to anyone given digital has become the only mode of connectivity. For those who were using the smartphone and other gadgets earlier to just conduct a conversation, an interview or to watch a film have had to forcefully jump on to the digital bandwagon since the pandemic before it eclipsed them from reality.
The online education space in India has been catching up for a few decades now. But it has been largely used for skilling and is buoyed by self-learning. Schools and colleges have rarely had to teach solely online unlike post-March 2020 when coronavirus changed the education paradigm and everyone, irrespective of their exposure to learning online, have had to adapt and learn.
The current crisis has turned the focus on the flaws in the system -- lack of access to quality education for all, lack of inclusive education, scarcity of qualified teachers and low focus on life skills. For 12-year-old Rahul Oak, studying in a government-aided school that caters to underprivileged and the migrant community children in Mumbai, school time now means he has to run out of his house to the end of the lane a few minutes before class starts so that he can tap into the signal that will rev up his parent's mobile phone and he can see his teacher online. "There is no signal at home," says Shingare. "I do not want to miss my daily sessions and so now it has become a practice to be ready and run to the end of the lane and sit outside and listen to the teacher," says the 7th grader.
An estimated 71 million children aged between 5-11 years in India access the internet on devices of their family members, constituting about 14 percent of the country's active Internet user base of over 500 million, the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) said in its Digital in India report, in May 2020. Mobile phones continue to remain the device of choice for accessing the internet in both urban and rural parts of the country.
School children have now understood that classes are not going to begin in the familiarity of their school surroundings any time soon. This has led to many of them eagerly waiting for class to begin at their homes to listen to their teacher and also see their classmates online. "We understand that students are deprived of classroom interaction and the fun times they have with their friends in school and so we give them a 5-minute break to be able to catch up with their classmates," said Mona Mahajan, a senior teacher at a school in South Mumbai.
There are sets of parents who appreciate online classes, while others have spoken against it, according to a national survey conducted by LocalCircles, a social media and community platform, which received 8,287 responses from 204 districts of the country. Citizens were asked what should be the way forward as some states in the country have banned online classes. In response, 31 percent parents said that the ban on online classes should continue, while 49 percent said online classes should be started but limited to two hours per day. Around 15 percent said online classes should be started and run for the duration of regular school hours which could be 4-6 hours while around 3 percent were unsure.
Challenges to system
Lack of sustained connectivity, a bane: The Indian internet infrastructure is not ready for the paradigm shift to online learning mandated by the situation arising due to COVID-19, according to a report by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), which comes out with coveted global ranking for educational institutions. The report titled COVID-19: A wake up call for internet service providers is based on a survey conducted by QS IGAUGE, which rates colleges and universities in India with complete operational control held by London-based QS. The report pointed out connectivity and signal issues as the most prevailing problems faced by students while attending online classes.
Rajendra Pradhan, president, DS High School in Sion, Mumbai said, with a student strength of over 3,000 students hailing from poor families, where parents are largely labourers, the school has 60 percent students who have access to mobile phones.
"Majority of our students cannot afford two square meals and live in an 8x10 room with adult members besides their parents and other siblings. For them, school is the best time of the day. Many of our students sit eagerly for classes to begin with their uniforms on though they don't have to. Connectivity is an issue, buying data is not possible for many of the parents and so teachers record their classes and send it to those students who cannot access it. Each class is held for 40-minute duration and then a break is provided to the children after which either an art class or PE (physical education) is taken. With no equipment at their disposal, we ask children to take pots and pans and do exercise or do yoga with them," he said.
All subjects can't be taught online: Construction in math, for instance, is difficult to teach online, said a math teacher, Vidya Ganeshan who has been teaching the subject for over a decade. "It is difficult to teach a few new concepts in an online classroom though we use an interactive app as students focus at home is an issue besides the complexity of the topic. Earlier, the mute button was at the teacher's end and we could mute students who interrupted class but with the new Microsoft Teams for education app, some children play truant and won't answer when a question is asked as the mute button is in their hands now!"
Not all teachers are tech-savvy: Mona Mahajan, who teaches at an IB school said that many teachers in the school do not have laptops or are familiar with the digital medium. Ramya Venkataraman, founder and CEO - Centre for Teacher Accreditation (CENTA), said this challenge places the onus on the teachers to upskill themselves in competencies such as subject expertise, classroom communication, content planning and development, student assessment and technology tools, to capitalize on the emerging opportunities in schools in India and abroad as well as in online teaching.
Lack of standardised content for regional languages: Children studying regional languages are at a disadvantage as there is not much standardised content available yet online for them.
"While there are some schools that are doing quality work, there are many who are also not benchmarked for their teaching or syllabus. This has led to an issue of tech not being able to solve the problem of inclusiveness and further accelerated the problem of those who want to avail of the education," said Mahamaya Navlakha, co-founder, Arthan-a social enterprise. Education cannot be self-learning primarily, and it is time technology is used by organizations and NGO to fill this gap, she said.
Increase in screen time: Parents are concerned about too much overall screen time (mobile, television, gaming, laptop) including education now.
Parents, children need time to understand medium: Parents and students have not been exposed to this new system of learning and will take to adapt to the new form of education.
VIBGYOR Group of Schools, which is present in 14 cities across India, recently conducted a survey among the parents across India regarding online education and found only a minute percentage of respondents (out of 55,000 students and their parents) had reservations with regards to internet connectivity (15 percent), hardware issues (6 percent), duration of the classes (4 percent), ability to assist their children (3 percent) and software incompatibility (12 percent) and too much overall screen time including education (60 percent). The challenges are fairly low and with time will wither away, said Peshwa Acharya, chief marketing officer.
Lack of formality: Some teachers mentioned how they feared being judged by parents while teaching. "We are trying to teach on a new medium and we are being watched by parents and other family members constantly. We have to make sure we don't make any mistakes, which is possible. Also, we understand we cannot control our students in this environment and if we find some of our students having their breakfast as they are studying, we don't say anything. What is important is that they attend class and are able to understand new lessons away from any contact with teachers and other students," said one teacher choosing to remain anonymous.
Many students do not have the new textbooks and the teacher is the only source of learning and reference.
Other mediums like radio, TV to the rescue
Given the issues faced by online education, state governments can take the initiative to make education available through the television which is accessed by a large majority, as Kerala has done.
Kerala Infrastructure and Technology for Education (KITE)-Victers channel under the name First Bell conducts classes for grade 1 to 12 from 8.30 am to 5.30 pm on weekdays. The channel is available free on cable networks, over the internet and direct-to-home all across the state as the education department was worried about a section of students who lacked facilities for online classes. All the classes are in a downloadable format and can be compiled together and shown to those who have missed the class later. The sessions on Victers channel are available simultaneously on the KITE Victers website, mobile app, and social media pages.
Though television reaches a large majority, the challenge of teaching through television is the lack of interaction, says Aravind Pakaravoor, a former teacher who runs a coaching institute, Enlighten-The Joy of Learning in Pattambi, Palakkad district, Kerala.
"We had to change the format from offline classes to online for Classes 10 and 12 grade students at the institute. One advantage online classes have is that students can ask questions in the comment section and the teachers will respond to it unlike a class on TV where the teacher does not know if the student has grasped the content or not," he said, adding that despite these issues what is important is that students are able to keep up with their studies during lockdown crisis.
Future of online education
Can online education replace schools? It cannot be the only option as socialisation and life skills cannot be replaced by online learning which is vital for education. However, some experts suggested it can work in tandem with offline classes post-pandemic. That way, it can help bridge geographical boundaries, said Acharya.
The current upheaval to the traditional educational system in India will work well for organisations that encourage higher education among their employees.
"This will mean a much higher demand for a variety of executive education as well as online-based specialised masters programmes," said Vishwanathan Iyer ACA, PhD, Professor " Accounting, Economics & Finance Area, Dean (Academics) TA PAI Management Institute (TAPMI).
He expects the demand for programs of Work-Integrated-Learning variety to go up due to online education.
In the push for online education post-pandemic, what needs to be factored in is that the poorest of poor students are not left out as they do not have the resources to access it. One way of doing that suggested Mahmaya Navlakha of Arthan is for government to step in to make this new system of learning possible for all.
"After all, civic society has its limitation. The government can devise a programme which ensures standardisation and quality by working with experts in the field and create a framework that creates inclusion," Navlakha said.
The author tweets at @SulekhaNair8