* A 14-year-old Class X student in Delhi spends close to four hours each day attending virtual classes and uploading assignments. Then, online guitar classes, weekly chats with family, streaming movies and music — her MacBook is powered all day.
* Across the city, in another virtual classroom, while most windows display children against designer décor and stuffed toys, in one, the child sits in the common landing area of his building, people walking past him.
* Two states away, the principal of a school in Nagaur, Rajasthan, which topped national rankings in math and reading outcomes in 2017-18, says less than 30 per of her students access the material she shares with parents on WhatsApp every day.
The Indian Express sat through several virtual sessions to find that the classroom is being reshaped, not just by technology, but also by who the children are, the state of infrastructure in their school and, more importantly, at home.
Access becomes key given that less than half the households (42%) in urban India have Internet facility, according to the National Sample Survey Office’s Education in India report for 2017-18. In rural areas, this number falls to less than 15%. Which further drops to a paltry 10.7% for households (both rural and urban) with a computer, laptop or other computing devices.
It’s this digital divide that has added another layer to this social inequity, one that always existed, but has only deepened in these times.
Yet, students and schools have responded to this in different ways.
Take a Zoom session for primary children of a Noida school, which has reserved 25 per cent seats for Economically Weaker Sections under the RTE Act and has a sensitive social integration programme. But virtual classes mean that the inequities, relatively flattened in the classroom – where they shared the same food and the desk — become more conspicuous online.
The screen, divided into multiple windows, had most children against fancy backgrounds — plush sofas, kiddie sticker walls, curtains and expensive stuffed toys. But in one of the windows was a Chhota Bheem bag, hanging from a hook on a peeling pink wall behind the child. In the background, the pressure cooker goes off, then the mixie, until the teacher mutes all participants.
But in another Central Delhi school that has had a long and successful EWS programme, these inequities are less jarring.
After her Geography class on Zoom, during which a 17-year-old raised a virtual hand to almost every question her teacher asked, the Class 12 student says she misses “the feel of my school desk”, but is glad that she has a way to stay in touch with teachers and friends.
Daughter of a taxi driver, she was admitted under the EWS quota and now, in her final year in school, is a proud recipient of four honour badges.
She uses her father’s Samsung phone for her classes. “Luckily, papa applied for a broadband connection last year, when I had a lot of projects to submit,” she says.
Speaking on phone from the terrace of their home, “since the signal at home is never strong”, her father says that with the lockdown on, his taxi has been idle since March 22. “We have been living off our savings. Baithe baithe kha rahen hain. Kya karen. My daughter will be in college soon, there are expenses…”
A few kilometers and a world apart is a 14-year-old Class 10 student of an upscale Noida school.
“With online classes, I am on top of my assignments. And I like electronic devices, so that makes this a more interesting way of learning,” she says, adding, “Of course, my mother helps me organise my work, and I keep turning to her for help every time the connection goes off – and that happens quite often.”
It’s this parental support that has determined the effectiveness of such online programmes. But many parents – especially those of smaller children and those juggling work at offices and homes – are struggling.
An illustrative case is of the parents of an 8-year-old special needs child who say they have had it especially tough.
“My husband and I are public health specialists. I work at a medical college and I have to go to work every alternate day. While our son only has two-three sessions a day, for 40 min each, even that becomes extremely agonising. One of us has to be constantly with him, so I work my schedule in such a way that my husband sits with him when he has lighter subjects like music and arts, and for maths and languages, I ensure I am home. But I am dreading what will happen after the vacations. What will happen once our workplaces open up fully?” says the mother.
For teachers, too, many of whom have rarely experimented beyond chalk-and-board classroom sessions, the shift to online hasn’t been easy.
Rekha Roy, 50, who teaches mathematics at Carmel Convent School in Chanakyapuri, says that “for a generation that’s not very tech savvy, this came out the blue”.
These days, Roy writes her math sums on paper and uploads them on her computer, before sharing it with the class. “There are others who use stylus pens and all that, but I don’t. Luckily, my son and husband are home, so they help with technical glitches. But I hope this doesn’t go on for too long. It’s almost depressing. I miss going around the class and helping kids with their sums,” she says.
This is a luxury for many, argues Rafiq Siddiqui who understands these times and these insecurities like few others. Siddiqui, who founded Holy Mother English School in Malvani, the very slums he grew up in Mumbai, bristles at the mention of online education.
“I get calls every other day from ed tech companies offering some package or the other. I am not even sure if my children who live in these slums are eating alright. Their parents are probably out of work. I try and arrange for food and when I call them to distribute those packets, their phones are usually switched off because they have no money to recharge. Can’t we handle the pandemic first? Can’t online education wait?,” he says.
Not quite, suggests the principal of a government school in Delhi, a state where the government’s education reforms are among its biggest success stories.
Admitting there are limits of access and many families are struggling to cope with the lockdown, technology is also an empowering tool. “We have started live online classes for 9, 10 and 12. And for classes 7 and 8, we send them activities on WhatsApp and SMS,” he says.
He admits that only 30-40 per cent students attend these classes. But he is not discouraged. Low attendance in government schools is an issue even in the best of times, he says. “These are summer holidays and at least there is some learning happening, at least more than what usually happens during vacations.”
(Tomorrow: Delhi to Nagaur: stepping, sometimes fumbling, over the divide)
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