By Devender Singh Aswal
The Delhi government has announced that no students should be called to schools physically in the new academic session till further orders. But schools have been told to commence teaching and learning through the digital mode from April 1 for the academic session 2021-22.
Due to Covid-19, schools in Delhi closed in March last year ahead of the usual closing of the academic year. So was the case in the rest of the country. The pandemic continues unabated, forcing schools across the country to move to online pedagogy. When normal teaching will resume remains unpredictable in view of the new surge and the emergence of more infectious variants of Covid-19 worldwide.
Thanks to India’s prowess as a leader in IT, we have a huge and fast-expanding National Optical Fibre Network and other technological devices which allow students to continue to learn. It is the new normal.
It’s a trite but true observation that necessity is the mother of invention. The challenges posed by earthquakes, hurricanes and long spells of natural calamities have turned into opportunities for innovation. So also for education.
In the 1960s, online education originated at the University of Illinois, US, and in the 1990s, India’s digital education ecosystem started with the setting up of the Indira Gandhi Open University. Educomp, a private Indian company set up in 1994, claimed to liberate students from the drudgery of classrooms and empowered teachers to become more productive. Around 2010, Education Technology or EduTech start-ups entered the education sector in India. A learning application, Byju’s, became one of the most valued EduTech companies in 2019. Now, many start-ups have sprouted to give tough competition to Byjus’s. In fact, online learning is the future and if there was no virus, that realisation would have taken a few years more.
The task of imparting teaching without attending classes physically is a daunting one as India has more than 240 million students and 8.5 million teachers across primary, upper-primary, secondary and senior-secondary stages, apart from students and teachers in higher institutions of learning. Formal learning has been disturbed for the past year and is likely to remain so till a sizeable population is vaccinated and the country develops herd immunity.
However, the nature and the imperatives of learning are such that it must never stop. Education being a concurrent subject in the Constitution, states/Union Territories and the ministry of education have been making concerted efforts to provide it to children in their homes through alternate means of delivery such as distribution of textbooks, telephonic guidance by teachers, online and digital content through various media, online classes, activity based learning through the Alternate Academic Calendar released by NCERT, etc. A multi-pronged approach has been adopted by the government by leveraging technology to reach the students. Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing (DIKSHA), Study Webs of Active-learning for Young Aspiring Minds (SWAYAM), SWAYAM PRABHA (34 TV channels), MANODARPAN for psycho-social support to students, teachers and families, etc., have been put in place. Guidelines on digital education, e-textbooks using e-pathshalas, web portals and mobile apps for Android, iOS and Windows are being used by schools, colleges and universities to provide learning facilities.
Where 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 by the CBSE are also being used in remote areas where online classes are difficult. Hindrances and bottlenecks have been spotted during the last academic session and necessary measures are being taken to remove them.
The alternative modes, though praiseworthy, do not ensure universal access and equitable quality learning for all students due to various factors such as unequal distribution of time of teachers, students having differential access to technological devices, want of appropriate space at home and lack of domestic support for learning in many cases.
There is no denying the fact that the closure of schools is likely to lead to a loss of learning and well-rounded development of students. With a view to address the issues, the education ministry entrusted NCERT with the task of constituting a committee comprising of academic and curricular experts drawn from various organisations. The committee conducted a survey in KVS, NVS and CBSE schools about digital modes being used by students to receive online education and also about those not having digital devices. Discussions were also held with stakeholders across the country.
The government has taken action on the recommendations of the committee. While framing models for reaching out to students, measures have been instituted to build teacher capacity for continuing teaching through different modes; to deliver better learning outcomes; mapping of curriculum; physical health and sanitation; social distancing, etc. Special interventions for differently-abled students and identification of children of migrant labourers were also looked into.
However, many children face anxiety, distress, depression and eye sight problem due to staring for long hours at digital devices. The NCERT has, therefore, evolved guidelines. On any given day, interaction with parents and guiding them should not be more than 30 minutes. Classes 1 to 12 to adopt/adapt the alternative academic calendar of NCERT at http://ncert.nic.in/aac.html. Classes 1 to 8 may undertake online synchronous learning for not more than two sessions of 30-45 minutes each on the days states/UTs decide to have online classes for primary sections. Classes 9 to 12 may undertake online synchronous learning for not more than four sessions of 30-45 minutes each on the days as decided by states/UTs.
The education ministry has also asked states to curate, develop and use digital resources and tools, including open and free resources. Many educationists are touting the benefits. Dr Amjad, a professor at the University of Jordan, using Lark to teach his students, says: “It has changed the way of teaching. It enables me to reach out to my students more efficiently and effectively through chat groups, video meetings, voting and also document sharing, especially during this pandemic. My students also find it is easier to communicate on Lark. I will stick to Lark even after coronavirus. I believe traditional offline learning and e-learning can go hand by hand.” There is evidence that learning online can be more effective in a number of ways. Some research claims that on average, students retain 25-60% more material when learning this way compared to only 8-10% in a classroom. E-learning requires 40-60% less time to learn than in a traditional classroom setting because students can learn at their own pace, going back and re-reading, skipping, or accelerating through concepts as they choose.
Nevertheless, the effectiveness of online learning varies amongst age groups. The general consensus, especially about younger ones, is that a structured environment is required because kids are more easily distracted. To get the full benefit of online learning, we need a range of collaboration tools and engagement methods that promote inclusion, personalisation and intelligence.
Joyful learning, recognising and fostering the capacities of each child aiming at holistic development are some of the key features of the National Education Policy 2020. Online pedagogy has certain advantages like, accessibility, affordability, flexibility and life-long learning. It is considered to be a relatively cheaper mode of education in terms of the lower cost of transportation, accommodation and the overall cost of institution-based learning. A learner can schedule or plan his time for completion of courses available online. Combining face-to-face lectures with technology gives rise to blended learning and flipped classrooms, which can increase the learning potential of the students. Students can learn anytime and anywhere, thereby developing new skills in the process, leading to life-long learning.
Albeit, there are a number of difficulties that range from downloading errors, issues with installation, login, audio and video problems, slow net speed, interruptions, digital inaccessibility and so on. Also, students find long online teaching monotonous and boring. The teachers too are overburdened, especially in private schools. Students feel the lack of community and the very ethos of a school, which is more than a physical infrastructure. How to make online courses dynamic, accessible, interesting and interactive is a huge challenge.
Till Covid-19 is eradicated or the entire population is vaccinated, digital education is the only way forward. During the first year of Covid-19, we learnt to cope up with it, identified impediments and gradually adapted to digital learning. Hopefully, during the current academic year, with strong Covid-control measures in place, observance of Covid appropriate behaviour and fast-paced vaccination, our schools and institutions of learning will throb with students once again.
–The writer is ex-Additional Secretary, Lok Sabha and author. The views expressed are personal. Inputs by Kanupriya, a law student and Medhini, an M. Sc. student, Delhi.