As the government struggles to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic with a prolonged lockdown, teachers and edtech entrepreneurs across the country are bracing themselves for the ‘new normal’ in education. Recognising the health hazard posed by small classrooms packed with students, state governments are also exploring how digital education and virtual learning can be expanded and made more accessible amidst this global health crisis.
In Delhi, Edu MNC Career Launcher has collaborated with the Directorate of Education in the national capital to launch its pilot online learning programme — Aspiration Project (AP). The project was first launched in March to help Class 12 students continue their studies through the lockdown. “The Delhi government at the time was very worried about how to introduce online classes in less-equipped government schools. We already had a platform in place called aspiration.ai, which we customised for government schools and introduced for class 12 students. Now, we have 1.75 lakh students with us on the twelfth project — which is the pilot project,” Neha Wahi, Associate Vice President — CLEF AP & Capacity Building, tells indianexpress.com.
AWS and Intel partnered with PA to upload all the lectures on YouTube, so that students could access them on their own time. The teachers who were conducting the classes were all from government schools. “About 300 teachers were selected by these schools, out of which we shortlisted about 70. These teachers were rigorously trained by us and now there are 4-5 subject experts for each subject,” Wahi says.
But could this shift mark the end of the traditional brick-and-mortar classroom as we know it? Raghav Chakravarthy, co-founder of Bengaluru-based edtech startup Walnut Knowledge Solutions, does not think so. “Once the vaccine is out and there is more comfort, there will be interesting ‘blended’ models that will emerge — online classes will happen along with offline interactions,” Chakravarthy explains to indianexpress.com.
Spotlight on edtech firms
There is no denying that the nation-wide lockdown — now entering its third month — has caused disruption and hardship for students across the country. India’s burgeoning edtech sector, worth over Rs 15,000 Crore (as per a Google-KMPG report), is cashing in on the captive audience — in this case, millions of home-bound students — that the lockdown has thrown its way. According to a report by BARC India and Nielsen, there has been a 30 per cent increase in the time spent on education apps since the lockdown commenced.
Several major players — including Byju’s, Unacademy, and Scholastic India — began offering courses and other e-resources free of cost at the onset of the lockdown. Their aim was to widen their demographic to include audiences they had previously ignored.
But it has also given educators and entrepreneurs the opportunity to experiment with technology and to engage students at a more personalised level, Chakravarthy says. Over the course of the lockdown, Chakravarthy and his business partner Sachin Rai — both passionate advocates of the use of quizzing as a learning tool for children — have been hosting quizzes on Zoom for families to participate in every Sunday. They launched their flagship product Qshala in 2014 and have since worked with schools across the country with the aim of building children’s learning potential through quizzing.
While they had conducted the occasional online workshop pre-pandemic, the lockdown was their “tipping point”, Chakravarthy says. “You can’t just turn your offline session online, it really needs tweaks to ensure online engagement. We wanted to know how our sessions, which were fun and engaging offline, could be replicated online.”
There is more high tech in the offing. Randhir Kumar, founder and CEO of edtech startup BasicFirst, believes Artificial Intelligence (AI) will play a more prominent role in post-COVID learning. “AI can lend support by monitoring and mapping the learning graph of students. Once the data has been acquired from an individual, it’s scrutinised using advanced analytics for generating insights (strengths and weaknesses),” he says.
Changing attitudes towards virtual learning
People who were earlier on the fence about virtual learning are quickly realising that it is here to stay. “Before lockdown, I hadn’t considered it. I still feel learning things like instruments and dance require contact classes, but having seen my children transition so beautifully to online classes, I now see their potential,” says Shraddha S, a Bengaluru-based teacher and parent to a 10-year-old and 17-year-old.
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The flexibility offered by virtual learning also allows for primary caregivers, women in particular, to learn skills that they would have otherwise been unable to pick up. “There were a few things that I wanted to learn but wasn’t able to leave my children at home to go out and do. I always wanted to learn calligraphy and doodling, and I was able to do that online during the lockdown,” Shraddha reveals.
Glaring digital divide
While virtual learning opens up many possibilities for students, India’s glaring digital divide and systemic inequity makes online education more challenging for a large number of students, particularly those from less affluent ‘one device or less’ families. Caste and gender are also seen to have an impact on access.
According to data from the National Sample Survey report (2017-18), only 24 per cent of Indian households have an internet facility. The situation in rural areas is far more bleak as compared to urban areas, as only a little over 15 per cent of rural households have access to internet services.
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Low internet penetration (36 per cent as of 2019) and often unsupportive home environments makes the transition to online learning more difficult. Across India, there have been many protests by students who are unable to cope with this new normal.
The fact remains that schools offer a support system beyond traditional education for a lot of children, especially those from economically weaker backgrounds. This is why policymakers have to figure out ways to address the nutrition needs of school children, which were earlier being met through the mid-day meal scheme, under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). Instances in Kerala, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi, where anganwadi workers continued to provide nutritious meals to children during the lockdown, could be replicated in other states.
The Centre’s intervention
With Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announcing the PM eVIDYA service to encourage technology-driven education, it is clear that both the Centre and states will have to increase spending on digital infrastructure for education. Incidentally, in 2020-’21, the Ministry of Human Resource Development budget for digital e-learning was reduced to Rs 469 crore from Rs 604 crore in 2019-’20.
Modified seating arrangements, change in timings and further division of the class into different sections all are part of the government’s game plan for the eventual opening up of schools. But in a socially distanced post-COVID world, educators will have to turn to technology to ensure the learning experience for students isn’t adversely impacted by the pandemic.
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