Remote learning options are temporary

Remote learning options are temporary

Representative image. Credit: iStock

Even though the pandemic has disrupted children's education around the world, we should recognize that children continue to learn based on what they are exposed around them, even in their homes. What is disrupted is a very specific kind of education- geared towards achieving well-defined curricular goals, imparted through school-based structured learning.

Providing education to our children is critical. Hence, the sudden absence of this form of learning is quite a serious concern for any country.

UNICEF released a report, which quoted a study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, warning that the world could lose nearly 9 lakh children due to Covid-19 related issues in the next 12 months and many of these children would be Indian. Therefore, we need to focus on areas with the greatest risk of infections; this is clearly in the urban areas and wherever the infection has already spread.

The opening of schools across the state should be seen in this context. For instance, schools in the village can and should re-open as a local community school. In such places, the reality is that children have not stayed cooped up in their homes and are anyways playing together in their local communities, so the risk of rise in infection is very low.

This also provides some solutions for urban areas, where education can be provided at the community level.

We have to think out of the box and work towards solutions where children can come together to learn, as any impersonal model of teaching is totally inadequate for education. Hence, remote learning options (with or without technological aid) are to be only stop gap arrangements and must not lead us to believe that we are doing ‘education’.

The focus of any non face-to-face approach should be to ensure children’s well-being and engagement. Therefore, going purely online, with exclusive internet-based platforms, is an erroneous way of trying to do education. Neither does this approach help achieve educational goals, nor is it healthy for children.

Many private schools had merely shifted regular face-to-face in-school approach onto an internet based platform and started calling it the new normal for education.

Educationists have to call this out, as these are extraordinary situations and whatever is done now cannot become the new normal – at best, it is only a short term arrangement till learning at school can be brought back. Additionally, some schools even sought extra fees and sought parents’ investments on digital devices; this was done without giving any thought to the serious economic crisis that many are facing, which is only widening with every passing day.

This had to be stopped and the Government of Karnataka took the right decision of banning online education and constituted a committee to study the issue comprehensively.

The question in front of all of us is how to enable our children’s education given the pandemic situation, which has limited the ideal option of an interactive face-to-face in-school mode. Research scholars in the US have shown that children’s learning has significantly dropped even after going online, and more so for the disadvantaged groups there. Given that in India we already had a pandemic of ‘poor learning', one can only imagine how much further our children would have slid in the learning curve.

Therefore, till learning at schools can begin, we have help our children continue their education through something which is meaningful and educationally sound.

The balanced solution is to have a blended model; a blend of different technologies available as well as face-to-face modes that are feasible. The latter should be the priority and can be done in small groups at school and with teachers visiting the community as well.

These decisions and grouping will have to be based on the age of the children. Whole schools can be opened in many of our villages, given that the size of the community itself makes it low risk for any increase in infection. In other places, there can be student batches to reduce the school size. Other protocols to protect ourselves from the virus needs to be in place and given high priority.

Though the least preferred, any technology-based solutions should also include electronic devices and not only digital ones. The television and radio should be used extensively as the Government already has the infrastructure in place for both. Private schools could also utilize it and the Government could take help of experts and curate appropriate teaching learning material. A recent survey by the Karnataka education department has revealed that on an average 90% of the households have the television in the State, with Yadgir district recording the lowest at 72%; whereas half the parents across the State do not even have a smart phone with internet access and the percentage drops to less than a third in disadvantaged regions. The access to radio was not found out, but at less than Rs 500 for a radio set, the access can become 100% overnight.

Finally, for the situations where digital technology can be used, it is imperative to keep the child’s best interest in mind. The absurd explanation that ‘urban children are watching the ‘screen’ anyway and hence having them online for the duration of a regular school hour is not a problem’ should be discarded without a second thought. If parents are not educated enough to keep the children engaged without access to screens and want the school to play the role of the nanny, schools at least should be mature enough to communicate what is best suited to educate a child.

These decisions will have to be made keeping the best interest of the child which would include not only its learning needs, but also its health as well as socio-emotional well-being. Maximum amount of daily screen time that can be allowed, the frequency at which children can use a technological device, suitability of various platforms for interactive sessions, the need for parental supervision, the different parameters for different age groups, re-imagination of the assessments and so on need to be taken into account for devising meaningful plans.

NCERT is our country’s nodal academic body which has evolved a set of guidelines called PRAGYATA detailing out eight specific steps and the enormous efforts required to enable our children’s education. All these guidelines clearly state that in these times the focus ought to be on building skills rather than force fitting content. For instance, the skill of ‘learning to learn’ gains tremendous importance in these times as self-learning is a crucial component to help children continue
their learning.

This is also the time to re-think on many things in education and reform the way we do education. The draft National Education Policy submitted by Dr Kasturirangan’s committee should be adopted as it provides a number of practical solutions to the myriad problems we currently face.

(The writer is Associate Professor, Azim Premji University)