Mapping the rural-urban experience of online teaching

Source: The Indian Express, May 11, 2020

By Priyanka Yadav

 After a conversation with my brother who is a class 12 student in the NCR region, I found out how messed up the online system of teaching has become, especially during COVID-19. “Indiscipline rules Zoom meetings at times. If you hear a song playing in the background during a chemistry class, don’t be shocked,” my brother said and laughed carelessly. It is difficult to be technology savvy both for children (not the ones born with technology but the ones for whom it is a luxury) and teachers. Young teachers can still handle the situation and get averse with technology. But think of the older generation teachers who are compelled to teach without learning.

COVID-19 has promoted the idea of online classrooms with much rigor. Schools, colleges, academic institutions and even private tuition centers/study centers are resorting to this method to ensure that educational needs are met during the lockdown period. Platforms like Swayam, MS Teams, WhatsApp and Zoom are popularly chosen applications for dissemination of lectures and assignments. In urban areas the idea of online classes is popular due to the luxury of digital support and internet facility. Students can take online classes through video calls during regular working hours. A survey conducted by the Foundation for Creative Social Research, a Delhi-based research organization, shows that out of 709 urban students 62.43% students attend online classes even as the majority agree that they face problems during online lectures.

Rural areas in India, however, are still behind as the reasons are well-known: poverty, lack of digital infrastructure and extremely poor internet connectivity. Research shows that internet penetration is expanding in remote locations, but a large number of people are still left behind. Nitin (name changed), a young boy from a village in east Uttar Pradesh, said, “My family cannot afford two square meals. How can I ask them to get a smartphone or get a net pack charged?” The survey reveals that data cost is hardly a matter of concern for urban students, whereas bad network causes lot of issues in between lectures. 61.35% students concur with the problem of poor network.

Overlooking this reality the state governments have issued orders to conduct online classes through Swayam and additionally send worksheets to students through mail or via WhatsApp in their school chat group. On paper it looks like a progressive step, an immediate action taken by the government, but the reality of this online saga is completely different. With assurance of anonymity, a government school teacher from Uttar Pradesh says, “We are not able to conduct classes. Video call is completely impossible due to various reasons. However, we do send assignments to children but honestly we hardly do evaluate them. We send assignments and then report our work to the administration for proof and sometimes we also forge the entries. What to do? We have to do it otherwise we will be questioned.”

On further asking why they are compelled to make forge entries, the teacher explains, “Look Madam, this is a village. Here nobody, mark my words, nobody, uses a desktop, forget about iPad and laptop. Hardly can you find a smartphone with a student and even if they have, in most cases it is owned by the guardian who has little knowledge about its functioning. Senior school kids can still manage on their own, but children of primary classes cannot. In that case they rely on the guardian. If the guardian is educated, they can direct their kids but mostly the guardian is not and thus hardly can they help their child. As a result of which most of the times we do not receive completed assignments or worksheet but to avoid inquiry we forge.”

Stuti (name changed), a class 6 student from a remote village, sighs as she says, “Ma’am sends me worksheets but sometimes I am unable to understand the questions because she sends an audio file on WhatsApp. Maybe if she could send a video, it will be comprehensible to me.”

Teachers in rural locations are directed by the Block level education officer to send a copy of the report of progress to the Block office. This pressurizes the teachers to maintain a record. However, the poor monitoring system at the Block level gives a window for false and forge records. As Seema (name changed), a class 9 student from Mahaso village in Uttar Pradesh, claims, “My teacher does not check my work, wrong or right, I don’t know how have I performed. I just keep sending back the completed worksheets.”

While maintaining discipline on Zoom meetings is a problem in urban centers, rural schools are marred by the issue of enrollment. How do they ensure that every student of a class is available on social media channels for mass communication? “Only 1/3rd population of the class is enrolled on the school WhatsApp,” informs Seema.

In times where owing an iPad, Mac or a fancy smartphone is way too common for a metropolitan child, there are rural children whose adult family members own just a basic phone. How can online teaching work then, and for whom? Teachers and students inform that instead of focusing on inclusion and enrollment, assignments and worksheets are sent, as per the order of rural administration. While ensuring digital infrastructure and hence overall inclusion during a pandemic is an extremely difficult task, such narratives force us to think that education is for those who can afford it. Education has now become an administrative function, which must be completed, irrespective of all the anomalies.

During the COVID-19 situation, remote learning has become an important solution, something in the midst of nothing. However, it is not what it seems. As is understood from the narratives provided, the effectiveness of this method is considerably low as it allows discrimination. These narratives are further supported by the survey data which shows that the majority of students, that is, 43.36% feel online teaching is very bad, while for 18.79 % it is bad. Such facts compel us to think that those who can afford to set up the necessary infrastructure for digital learning will be educated and the rest will be denied of this fundamental right.

Here I would like to ask certain questions which Professor Avijit Pathak originally raised: What kind of education is required? Is it important to teach the same old syllabus when nature is trying to teach us something different? Is it important to prepare the child for an examination when the rhythm of life and time is swinging in a different direction?

I will not completely deny the legitimacy of institutional learning but what I would like to contest is the idea that institutional learning is the only form of learning. No! It is not. While a2-b2 might be important, knowing the art of minimalism is equally important. COVID-19 does push our attention towards the basic rhythm of life around us. A careful adoption of local way of life is crucial for survival amidst adverse circumstances. I know such teachings might not ensure a high-profile job in a leading MNC, but it will safeguard living with dignity with limited resource without being dependent.

It is important for schools and educational bodies to plan the coming academic year very carefully because students who will be a part of this academic year will not be the same. That is, they will not share the same mind space as before. We must not forget COVID-19 has been able to incur mental trauma for people across ages. Institutions of learning therefore need to adopt a more sensitive approach in preparing the academic calendar this time. They should be mindful of not overburdening the child with formative tests and assignments. The aim should be to cushion them, while simultaneously educating them.

This approach is possible when the concerned authority and the teaching staff take into consideration the gross inequality amongst children which persists across geographical locations. For instance, a slow learner (or popularly known as a weak child) might face difficulty in grasping too much of the syllabus at a time. A girl student in a remote location might have just missed out all her online classes because of inaccessibility and the great gender divide in technology. A child might have a troubled household. Such vulnerable groups of students must be taken into consideration in order to ensure learning. The focus should be to educate the child and not just completing the syllabus and conduct examinations. In the longer run there is a need to equip schools and educational bodies with the necessary digital infrastructure which can ensure that the educational needs are met during public health emergencies. As with other needs such as health, food and shelter, education is an equally important need and it cannot be delayed under any circumstance.

Priyanka Yadav, Research Scholar, Centre for Political Studies, JNU, India.


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