By Dr Akhil Shahani
The media is abuzz with articles that talk about how schools and colleges have seamlessly adapted to providing online education during the COVID-19 lockdown. There are endless debates on which online platform is more suitable for lectures, be it Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Meet. Webinars are being conducted for faculty members on ways to make their online classrooms more engaging. However, with the focus on how educational institutions and faculty are managing their online classes, not much thought has been given to the other stakeholder in a student’s education, the parent.
The digital divide between parents who can manage their children’s online education easily, and those who cannot, can be explored along three main dimensions.
One smartphone per household vs. one smartphone per family member
Online lectures need a device that is connected to the internet, ideally a laptop or a tablet, with a large screen that allows a student to view the teacher and their shared screen easily. However, a majority of households only have access to smartphones, which gives a lower quality experience.
This problem is exacerbated when all members of an underprivileged household share only one smartphone. The parent may need the phone to make client calls or take instructions from their boss at the same time that the student’s lecture is on. They need to make the tough choice of deciding whose need is more important each time.
A possible solution to this issue is for the family to purchase a very low cost smartphone, which usually costs under Rs. 2000. With the lockdown and travel restrictions slowly being lifted, two students from the same class could sit together to share a smartphone/device, whilst keeping social distancing norms in mind.
One working parent vs two working parents
Even when the household has enough smartphones to go around, if both parents are working, there may not be any adult available to supervise the child’s online classes to ensure that they are paying attention to the teacher. Similarly, if only one parent is working, the other may be occupied with household chores and may not be able to spare enough time to monitor the child throughout the day.
The best way to combat this issue is for parents to take turns to participate in the child’s learning process. Each parent can dedicate a few hours daily when the other is busy, to ensure that they can pay attention to the child’s needs while also coping with work pressure. In the case of siblings, fixing a schedule and allotting time to each child can help. Alternatively, parents can also negotiate with their employers to enable flexible work-from-home timings that are target based as compared to activity based, so as to match with their child’s classes. Schools can also help parents by accommodating their needs so that the classes do not clash with their office timings, wherever possible.
Small kids vs older kids
The situation also depends on the age of the child. Younger children need more mentoring and supervision as compared to their older counterparts. They also have trouble being attentive for longer periods of time, more so when classes happen on a screen rather than in live interactive sessions. The situation can be especially difficult when they are locked up in the house with little to no means of physical play.
Some states are also banning online classes, especially for younger kids, given the negative impact that prolonged screen time can have on their health. As true as that may be, it also makes it difficult for teachers and parents to impart education and learning in a lockdown. To counter this, parents and teachers can collaborate by giving students workbooks and home-based activities, which do not require access to screens or smartphones.
Older students, although more attentive, can also have difficulty focusing in a class if the time period is prolonged and the lecture is a monologue and non-interactive. Parents can discuss with the teachers, and help implement innovative teaching methods based on their children’s needs, to ensure they gain the maximum benefit from a class. Engaging sessions that include student participation and activities, as well as application-based home assignments where parents can help and interact with the child can prove beneficial. Parents can also request for lectures to be recorded asynchronously for later viewing. This can work for children of all ages as it gives them the choice to willingly attend a class, thereby making it more likely that they will pay attention.
The Covid-19 pandemic has reshaped the education sector. Distance learning can be difficult for most students, as well as parents as they adjust to the new normal. The only way to cope with changing times is by setting realistic expectations and maintaining a balance between work and the academic needs of the child.
(The writer is Managing Director, Shahani Group)
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