As the nationwide lockdown has made educational institutes shift to digital platforms, most institutes and students are struggling due to lack of infrastructure. For students whose mode of instruction is not English, an additional hurdle is to assess quality content in their regional languages digitally. Srilekha, an 18-year-old, from Karnataka’s Devanahalli, was enrolled in vocational courses to learn English and computer skills. But before she could familiarise herself well with either, the lockdown forced her mode of learning to move online. Unfortunately for her, the content is mostly in English.
Srilekha, however, is still among the fortunate ones since of the 150 students at her institute, only 50 have access to both smartphones and the internet. “This is the first time that I am learning digitally. When our teacher explained how the classes will work from now on, I was excited about the shift. We have been asked to download an app that throws questions like in a quizzing game and it is fun. But it fails to clear most of my doubts. I call my coordinator often to get them resolved. There is not much material available online which is easily understandable and therefore, I cannot wait for my classes to re-open,” she remarked.
For most schools in India have a three-language formula, where English is often taught as a second or third language (Hindi and regional languages being the other two). Such a model, however, is not available online. In December 2016, the then HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar had informed the Parliament that 49 per cent of students study in Hindi-medium schools while 33 per cent schools teach in the mother tongue of the state. Only 17 per cent students across India study in English-medium schools. Further, it is learned that in English-medium schools, not all the lectures are held in the language and many teachers use other languages to clear concepts of students.
Ganesh Pai, founder of YouTube learning channel ‘Don’t Memorise’, believes regional content is still an untapped market, digitally. “The first wave of the internet in India was for the English speaking audience. The next wave for around half a billion viewers consisted of Hindi and regional languages. We have realised there is a demand for high-quality content regionally. After having over a million subscribers for our English channel, we have just started creating content in Marathi. Within around 30 videos, we have already been receiving calls from state-based schools for using our content in their classes, which is evidence of how much good content is needed in the regional space.”
He added, “Most of the firms think that if we are making content, why restrict it to one state? Let’s create it for the global audience, hence they opt for English. But the audience for state-based content is also not that small. Being a Maharashtrian, I feel it is my duty to fill the gap for my state.”
Mrinal Mohit, Chief Operating Officer, BYJU’S believes that the lack of content in regional languages is because quality education is assumed to be equivalent to ‘English’. “About 75 per cent of our students come from outside the top 10 cities, a clear indication of high aspiration levels children and parents possess today, especially when it comes to quality education. The availability of learning programmes in multiple vernacular languages will make quality learning accessible for children in every nook and corner of the country and fulfill their aspirations of building better lives. We also want to change the perception of quality education only being associated with an ‘English medium’ learning system only.”
The situation is worse for first-generation learners. For Chhattisgarh’s Sumit, homework comes through community announcements. The staff at a local government school, with the help of NGOs, distributes worksheets to as many doorsteps as they can. Sometimes the announcements are made on a loudspeaker and students while sitting in their respective homes are made to note down the instructions, the student informed.
“I fill the drawing sheets distributed to us through NGO workers. To practice writing skills, my mother narrates a story and I write it on a paper, as instructed to us by a teacher, but my mother is not educated and there is no one to evaluate my work at home. So I do not know how much of it is right. In school, we also have library time, story-telling time, mathematics, social science and many other subjects which I cannot study at home. I miss my friends. I want to be a policeman for which I have to go to school, I do not know when that would be,” said eight-year-old Sumit who is being raised by a single mother.
Shobha Mishra Ghosh, assistant secretary-general, FICCI Arise believes, “The government’s focus has remained more on building physical infrastructure and creating access of education to the larger number of people. Emphasis on quality of content, developing digital content, pedagogy development etc has been very recent. Even as tier-I schools in both public and private space do have the infrastructure to support learning from home, as we go deeper into regional education, there is a lack of regional content digitally as well as the support of parents, especially for first-time learners.”
While the government has opened platforms including Diksha, e-pathshala, Gyaan Darshan and some of the education content being accessible through television in some regional languages, for rural schools and first-time learners, accessibility is a problem too. “The educational contents need to be user-friendly. The teaching-learning process is disrupted more as we go down to interior areas. First-generation learners find it difficult to cope with these platforms without support at home. For them, this could mean a loss of 4-5 months. In the post-COVID-19 era, we need to focus on digital personalised learning, capacity building for parents and necessary digital infrastructure where students do not only have access to at least one device but also content in different languages.”
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Since online is not accessible to all, Aekta Chanda, education specialist with ChildFund India believes that India needs a comprehensive distance learning approach in which technology is one part of the approach. “While on one hand there are children who do not have access to smart-phones and high-speed internet, there is also an issue of screen-time hampering a child’s cognitive and psycho-social skills. It is tougher for those studying in the regional language, as there is not much of it available online. While we had created such content in hard-copies finding it or replicating it in the online medium is a challenge.”