WHEN “FIRST Bell”, Kerala’s virtual classroom project to tide over the lockdown, rang on June 1, the biggest challenge was a number: 2.42 lakh. That, according to a state survey, was the number of students who did not have access to online classes at homes.
That evening, the challenge got a face — that of a Class 9 Dalit student from Malappuram who set herself ablaze. Her parents said she was upset about not being able to attend the classes as the family didn’t have a smartphone, and their TV was not working.
And so began a mass movement, cutting across party lines and WhatsApp groups, involving the government, businesses, alumni associations, MLAs, MPs, and local civic bodies, to bring the school to as many homes as possible, and arrange common study rooms even in remote villages.
“This unprecedented intervention has helped reduce that number to 1.20 lakh. In the case of others, common classrooms have been arranged and are on track from Monday. Within the last two weeks, we have ensured that online classes reach every school student in the state,” says the state’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan project director Dr A P Kuttikrishnan.
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In some villages, WhatsApp groups and alumni associations donated money to buy TVs or smartphones. In others, local businessmen provided TV sets as part of a “TV challenge’’ launched by the state’s Industries Department.
The government, meanwhile, allowed MLAs to use their local development fund to buy TVs and laptops for students. And the state’s local self-governing bodies stepped in to complete the chain.
What helped, say officials, was that almost all villages in Kerala have at least one common centre, be it an anganwadi, a reading room or a sports club, for the education department to set up a classroom. Here, teachers of government and aided private schools were placed in charge.
For instance, in Wayanad, which had the largest number of students without individual access to online classes, common study centres were set up for 9,200 children.
“Laptops, projectors and TV sets have been taken from schools to the common centres. In many homes, the parents have smartphones which they carry to their workplaces. We are sharing the online classes with them, for their children to access when they return from work,’’ says V J Thomas, district co-ordinator of Kerala Infrastructure and Technology for Education (KITE), the nodal agency for ICT-enabled education in state schools.
The classes are being telecast on the educational channel IT@School Victers channel. And one of the MPs who has joined the initiative to ensure that they reach every home is the Opposition Congress’s Hibi Eden, who has launched a “tablet challenge” in Kochi.
“The online classes brought to focus the digital divide in the state. I launched a tablet challenge by purchasing 10 tablets. People joined the movement by donating more…a group of fishermen donated one tablet. There are professionals working abroad who have taken up the challenge. Over 200 tablets have been handed over to the Education Department,’’ says Eden.
The ruling CPM’s MLA, C K Saseendran, who represents Wayanad’s Kalpetta, “arranged 1,331 common study centres, mainly in tribal colonies”. “We have been on a massive mission, ensuring power connections and TVs. All facilities will be available in the common study centres by the end of this week,’’ he says.
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