The COVID-19 pandemic has had a great impact on the way children learn. The accelerating force of digitisation has created a disruptive online phenomenon across schools and learning spaces around the world. It is true that new challenges and opportunities have emerged for educators, parents and students, but we have also entered areas of many uncertainties. Will schools, functioning within old paradigms, summon the courage to shift their practices to support the personal growth of the next generation of learners equitably — whether they are the privileged, marginalised or the disabled?
The teaching landscape has shifted from the notion of a singular path, towards a much more elastic understanding of how we have to walk the tightrope between online and offline learning. Quite suddenly, teachers in the classrooms are learning to redistribute, benefit and liberate learners through technology. At one level, online classes will connect students, and on another, create limitations. This has made us reflect on the inequality not only in bandwidth, gadgets and devices, but also in the fact that most parents do not have the time or ability to support their children in this venture.
If schools do not focus on adapting teaching materials that can reach the last child, then the consequence could be a generation of young illiterates. This will be detrimental for the society at large. The definition of what is meant by quality of education will have to be constantly revised because too much emphasis on technology could also exclude many children from education.
Consider this Waldorf concept for education: “The danger lies in thinking that new technologies can substitute old realities or replace them without consequences. When basic experience in nature, in everyday life activities, social interaction and creative play are replaced with too much screen time, a child’s development is compromised. There is a great need to experience learning through all the senses. When children are surrounded by authenticity in the environment and in human interactions, a sense of self is supported in a positive way”.
Schools are larger ecologies that are both human and cultural. And classrooms are palpable living spaces which are diverse in many ways. Clubbing them into one homogenous online model will destroy diversity, inclusivity and dissent which is the essence of education.
In many private schools, despite the Right to Education, equality and equity are not integrated into the system. Reportedly, we only have 12 per cent of children from the economically weaker sections attending private schools across the country instead of 25 per cent. In Delhi, several of these students have dropped out because of the lack of facilities, or they have returned to their villages as their parents have lost their livelihoods. These children will be left behind because of their socio-economic condition.
The greatest poverty generally occurs in nations where education is not prioritised through investment in its funding by the state and central governments. The central and state governments must invest in uninterrupted free broadband and create apps like Microsoft teams/Zoom or Google platforms, to which teachers and students should have access — this will lessen the financial constraints. These apps should be synced with programmes like VidyaDaan and e-Pathshala, and a twenty 24/7 support system should be available for seamless functioning.
Unfortunately, millions of children are at severe learning risk now. They may miss weeks, months or even a year (and more) of education. Its impact will only be realised after a decade, when there will be a high rate of young adults who are neither in school nor employed.
Some states have decided not to conduct online classes for primary students because it would be inequitable. Their understanding is that if learning is not available to all, then it should not be available to one. Are we, then saying that everyone should stay unlettered together? Systems should come into place that can ensure a variety of methods to equip all learners — privileged, poor, middle-class and disabled. A child should always be a priority, not an afterthought. It must be remembered that disasters affect everyone: However, children from fragile families are more likely to be traumatised.
Educators must have the generosity to share resources, build communities of practice and develop design thinking as there are no copyrights to learning. This new mutuality will create a culture of engagement towards staff, students and their families.
The pandemic has really laid bare some of the deep-rooted problems in education. It has brought unprecedented challenges for educators, one of which is to recognise the highly excluded category of children with disabilities. The entire focus is on online education, but no announcement has been made about the learning that should be provided to children with disabilities. None of the open education resources (e-Pathshala, SWAYAM etc) have any beneficial platforms for children with special needs. Some progressive schools are negotiating the inclusive learning space independently. However, there are no provisions to ensure any kind of distance, open or home-based education for these children. Therefore, we need to develop a coherent and comprehensive national focus towards technology which also incorporates a humanised approach.
Online and offline teaching have to be embedded with emotional and social learning. This will help to create a psychological safety net, increase thinking conversations, decrease social conflict and encourage diverse opinions and questioning minds. Children are educated so that they can take forward primary values, culture and learning, and keep them alive. This can only happen if there is a holistic, empathetic and adaptive audit of online learning which includes without prejudice every child in the community with compassion and care.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 18, 2020 under the title ‘The new classroom’. The writer is principal of Springdales School, Pusa Road, New Delhi.
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