Around 9 am, two WhatsApp groups in Hudeel, a gram panchayat in Nagaur district of Rajasthan, come alive. One is of parents, the other of teachers and education officials. Messages range from an NCERT video on “body movements” for Class 6 to a YouTube link on remainder theorem for Class 9.
Last year, Rajasthan topped national rankings for Class 8 math and language outcomes in NITI Aayog’s School Education Quality Index, with Nagaur district scoring the highest. Today, as a Covid red zone with 221 cases, five deaths and 126 recoveries, it’s an illustrative example of how locked-down government schools, hamstrung by inadequate digital resources and infrastructure, are keeping learning going amid the pandemic.
One of the foot soldiers is Sushma, principal of Nagaur’s Hudeel Senior Secondary School. She ensures that WhatsApp messages, sent directly from the education department in Jaipur, land in the two groups. Of course, it is a one-way push unlike the interactive video sessions of private schools in metros, but at least it’s some way to reach out to students, she says.
“Our teachers have been assigned five families each, whom they call and find out if they have trouble with the assignments and the links,” says Sushma, who, as Panchayat Elementary Education Officer (PEEO), is in charge of eight schools in the gram panchayat.
At the end of the day, she compiles feedback from teachers and students and sends it to block-level officers from where it goes to the district and then the state capital.
Among the parents in the Hudeel WhatsApp group is Sarita Kumawat, 32, a mother of three, who has a B.Ed and an MA. She helps her daughter with the links on her Samsung phone. “Earlier, I didn’t give her the phone much, but now she has free access. Anyway, this is at least better than doing nothing and watching TV,” says Kumawat, whose husband is a technician with the Rajasthan Roadways in Sikar.
The Nagaur programme is part of the Rajasthan government’s Social Media Interface for Learning Engagement or SMILE, an e-learning plan launched on April 13. School Education Secretary Manju Rajpal says at least 13 lakh families across the state are connected through these WhatsApp groups.
Rajpal admits there are limitations. Of the 13 lakh who get the messages, barely 2 lakh use them. Many don’t have smartphones. “And even among families with devices, it’s usually the man who has the smartphone and is less invested in the child’s education. But we are trying and learning as we go. For instance, on weekends, we send revision videos, followed by a quiz. We also send a Google form every day, asking for feedback from students,” Rajpal says.
More interactive is what the Delhi government is trying in tune with its record on education reforms. The state has tied up with a tech partner to start live YouTube sessions for an estimated 1.6 lakh senior students in state-run schools.
For an hour and a half last Saturday, Abrar Ahmad, a geography lecturer at the Kalkaji Government Boys Senior Secondary School, sat in front of his laptop explaining the chapter on ‘Economic Activities’ to Class 12 students.
Ahmad and his two co-teachers log in from their homes through Zoom, which is beamed lived on to YouTube. In between slide shows and quick posers, the teachers brief students about questions that are likely to appear in the Board exams. In a chat box below, messages from students flow thick and fast. At the end of the class, Ahmad asks students to rate his class with a thumbs-up emoji or on a scale of 1 to 10.
For someone who has taught for over three decades and is “not very technologically sound”, Ahmed has been quick to learn. “This is definitely exciting. I have to make Powerpoint presentations and think of ways to make the class more appealing — these are things we would have never done in a regular set-up,” he says.
Shailendra Sharma, Principal Adviser to Director, Education, in Delhi, says the department has enlisted around 60 senior teachers such as Ahmad for the live virtual classes.
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While insisting that these classes are not a replacement for classroom learning, Sharma says, “The whole point is to engage with students who are transitioning to Class 12 so that they are not anxious about losing out in a crucial year. So that when school reopens, they can refresh and move beyond what they have learnt.”
But for every story of opportunity that this crisis presents, there is one of exclusion.
“Barely 20 per cent of the 550 children in the panchayat are able to access these resources,” says Sushma, the principal at the Nagaur school, talking on the phone from a Covid care centre set up in a school in the panchayat.
According to government data, only 30 per cent of all households in Nagaur are on these WhatsApp groups.
A few districts away, in Karimpur village in Rajasthan’s Dhaulpur, a district which, along with Nagaur, scored high on learning levels in the NAS survey, Rakhi, 11, hasn’t heard of any special classes.
“Online? We have our vacation, we sit around all day doing nothing,” she laughs, quickly moving on to the biggest event in her life — “apni bakri ko bachchi hui hai (our goat has given birth)”. Her father, a daily-wage labourer, has been out of work for months now. The family doesn’t have a smartphone and hasn’t heard from her teachers.
While Rakhi may represent the yawning divide that makes online learning seem like a lofty target for many, there is an unmistakable sense that given the circumstances, an online classroom empowers — more than one that is empty and locked.
Says a Rajasthan government officer who has been closely associated with its learning programmes, “When you say only 30 per cent of children in, say, Nagaur attend online classes, that may look small. But for these parts, that’s a huge leap — from absolutely no learning to 30 per cent online learning. The gap is closing faster than we think.”
(Tomorrow: Experts weigh in: Odds may be tough but change is coming)