By Devender Singh Aswal
A video of Delhi government’s Director, Education addressing school students and telling them to “attempt every question even if it means just copying out the question again” has raised eyebrows and become a subject of public disdain. Later, on being queried, a senior member of the education department clarified that the official’s statement should not be “misinterpreted” and that it was part of an attempt to encourage students in “a very bad year” as many had lost out on their writing practice and it was his way of telling them, “don’t be disheartened, don’t worry about the CBSE or anyone else, just write”.
No clarification can justify the statement which was, in the first place, negative, immoral and discouraging for teachers who made Herculean efforts to complete the syllabus and also for hardworking students, who, despite the lockdown, used all available digital tools to study. Albeit the year-long lockdown has been a matter of deep worry for one and all, especially for students, parents, teachers, administrators and law-makers.
A large number of questions were raised in both the Houses of Parliament during the current session about the impact of the lockdown on education and students. For instance, Ram Nath Thakur asked a Starred Question (No.117) on February 11, 2021 in the Rajya Sabha to Ramesh Pohkriyal Nishank, Minister for Education, about the closure of schools due to Covid-19 and the action taken by the government to compensate for the loss of study hours. There were questions in the Lok Sabha by Prathap Simha and Tejasvi Surya (SQ No.81) on February 8, 2021 regarding online education. The minister informed Parliament that education being a concurrent subject, his ministry has taken initiatives in the best spirit of cooperative federalism to mitigate Covid-19’s impact. Instructions were issued to states and Union Territories from time to time for ensuring continual education with quality and equity.
The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) conducted a survey in July 2020 with the help of Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan (KVS), Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti (NVS) and CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) to understand the scenario of online learning of school students, including girls and children of migrant workers in the pandemic situation. NCERT prepared an “alternative academic calendar” and “students’ learning enhancement guidelines”.
The guidelines suggest models for the following three types of scenarios to ensure that no student is deprived of education during the pandemic:
- Learning enhancement for students without digital devices
- Learning enhancement for students with limited accessibility to digital devices
- Learning enhancement for students with digital devices.
Further, a multi-pronged approach has been adopted leveraging technology to reach the students. Digital infrastructure for knowledge sharing (DIKSHA), Study webs of active-learning for young aspiring minds (SWAYAM), Swayam Prabha (32 TV Channels), Manodarpan for psychosocial support to students, teachers and families for mental health and emotional wellbeing and PRAGYATA (Plan, Review, Arrange, Guide, Yak (Talk), Assign, Track and Appreciate) were used to good effect.
Guidelines on digital education, e-textbooks using e-Pathshalas web portal and mobile apps like Android, iOS and Windows are used by schools, colleges and universities to provide learning facilities. Where the internet facility is not available, Swayam Prabha one class one TV channel is being used to impart education. Besides, community radio stations and a podcast called Shiksha Vani of CBSE are also being effectively used in remote areas where online classes are difficult. The ministry is implementing Samagra Shiksha, under which a number of initiatives for promotion of education are being taken by opening of schools in the neighbourhood to make access easier.
To a question in the Rajya Sabha by Elamaram Kareem on reduction of syllabus by the CBSE, the minister said that the organisation had rationalised the syllabi of major subjects for Classes IX-XII only for the purpose of summative examinations 2021 as a one-time temporary measure to mitigate the effect of school lockdown. The CBSE has reduced the syllabi by 30 percent for the purposes of Board examinations in 2021 for Classes X and XII. The concept of “Fail” has been done away with and replaced by “Essential Repeat” with effect from this year for the Board exams.
To a question by Sanjay Singh, the minister said that online classes are being conducted at schools by employing various digital tools. Efforts have been made for the creation of a digital infrastructure which would not only be helpful in the current circumstances, but also be a valuable asset for online learning in future. The steps taken by all states are in the report, India Report Digital Education June 2020. Learning programmes were also started in the form of offline learning tools radio, community radio and CBSE podcasts, toll-free numbers, missed calls, SMS based requests for audio content, localised radio content for edutainment, etc. The medium of TV and radio has been used for students who do not have digital means. Learning enhancement online education guidelines were issued on August 19, 2020 for the benefit of all stakeholders.
Responding to a question by Derek O’Brien in the Rajya Sabha about displaced migrant workers’ school-going children, the minister said that his ministry had issued guidelines to all states and UTs for identification, smooth admission and continued education of these children on July 13, 2020. States had been asked to identify and enrol all children of migrant workers without any procedural hassles and maintain a database of those admitted. The minister said that he held a series of meetings with states/UTs and reiterated the whole range of measures, outlined above, that have been taken to meet the challenges. Also, during the pandemic period, mid-day meals in the form of food security allowance/dry rations had been provided to the students at the elementary level.
A comprehensive initiative, PM e-VIDYA, has been launched for infusing technology with equity. This overarching initiative covers in its ambit DIKSHA and Swayam Prabha comprising of 32 dedicated channels, of which 12 are one class, one TV channel, E-content for Open School, extensive use of radio, community radio, podcast and E-content for visually and hearing-impaired students. DIKSHA has 1,65,204 pieces of e-content and during the pandemic period, March to October 2020, it had over 5,000 million page hits and over 450 million scans of QR e-content of textbooks. Many hundred videos on maths and science prepared by the teachers of JNV and KVS have been uploaded on DIKSHA. There were 70 crore total learning sessions as on October 18, 2020.
Under the Vidya Daan scheme, teachers, private bodies and experts contributed 38,206 content, of which 29,069 were approved and made available to students. Open Virtual Labs (Olabs) also helped facilitate practicals for senior students. E-comic books were released to continue learning joyfully to imbibe critical thinking skills. Measures were also instituted to address the issues of cyber safety and to prevent cyber bullying.
States too had managed the critical task of providing digital education at the doorstep of students. Social media tools like WhatsApp Group, YouTube channels, Google meet, Skype, E-learning portal, TV, radio, etc., were used to the hilt. A total of Rs 5,784.05 crore was allocated under Samagra Shiksha alone to mitigate the effect of Covid-19 during the current fiscal. An online course for 42 lakh school teachers has been launched and 16 lakh teachers were trained as on October 22, 2020 and 17 crore courses conducted on the DIKSHA platform.
My conversations with the education ministers of Arunachal, Sikkim, Manipur, Karnataka, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan and with the senior officials of many states made it emphatically clear that in areas of poor connectivity, other available means were effectively put to use with the willing cooperation of the community. It has borne fruit as the attendance percentage was higher than the usual school attendance.
This proves beyond any manner of doubt that despite the pandemic, our students, parents, teachers, line departments and the community made whole-hearted and sustained efforts to learn and impart education, thanks to India’s fast-expanding digital architecture. Students are well equipped mentally and emotionally to write the Board exams.
Thus, the talk of “copy the questions” is absurd and undermines the self-esteem and ability of our students and teachers. In the hoary tradition of India, meditation, concentration and self-study occupy a pre-eminent place. Aiklabya’s story is more apt and inspirational in pandemic times. Students faced the challenges of the pandemic with grit, determination and great perseverance, made full and proper use of the digital tools and will pass the exams with flying colours. Exams are like festivals, let’s celebrate them.
The writer is former Additional Secretary, Lok Sabha and adviser to the education minister. The views expressed are personal