No substitute for classroom

Online Education

By Dr S. Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

Closure of schools has led to a thoughtless rush to switch over to online education as a readily available remedy from even pre-school stage! It is indeed difficult to keep children and youth at home for 24 hours. How viable is the alternative?
It is reported that the Government of Rajasthan has signed a tripartite agreement with the Power Grid Corporation of India and the Educational Consultants India Limited regarding establishment of “smart classrooms” in 100 schools. Necessary arrangements are being expedited in many States to prepare schools and teachers for the change over from classroom setting. Student preparation is obviously taken for granted.
Slightly different is the experience of Karnataka where e-learning entered private schools soon after promulgation of Lockdown 1. It picked up fast with the enthusiasm of school managements and parents without foreseeing the consequences compelling the state government to ban with immediate effect online classes from LKG to Class V across all boards. Karnataka High Court has asked for guidelines on online learning. The government has also constituted an expert committee of educationists, health experts, psychologists and other stakeholders to discuss and report on the modalities for online classes for Classes VI to XII.
Maharashtra has banned online classes from pre-primary to Class II while Madhya Pradesh has extended the ban till Class V. Tamil Nadu has not allowed online classes and in fact issued a government order restraining educational institutions from demanding fees for online academic activities. However, the Madras High Court refused to stay online classes as demanded in a PIL writ petition. The court viewed the matter as too important and issued notice to the Centre and state governments.
Is online learning for school students a gift or punishment under COVID-19? The question is debated all over the country, but no other alternative is yet in sight to continue providing education despite pandemic. The Draft Education Policy 2019 outlines the important role online learning could play in reforming India’s education system and expanding access to education.
Soon after the announcement of Lockdown I, the Human Resource Development Ministry and the University Grants Commission began to prepare online classes. Deemed universities, and self-financing colleges were quick to respond favourably to the change. The UGC is considering permitting online education in 230 universities without diluting quality. It is working for expanding the eligibility base for online courses which presently limits it to 100 institutions.
The number of teachers taking to online teaching is increasing fast in Tamil Nadu. Attention is also given to review and feedback so that teacher-student contact remains alive and active to make education a lively experience.
IIT Madras, Bombay, and Delhi have decided to scrap face-to-face lectures for the upcoming semester and to offer all their programmes purely in online mode in order to safeguard student community. They are not likely to open the campus for the first semester in the next academic year. At higher levels of education it is not a big problem to introduce online classes. But the case is different at school level.
Education is not just learning some subject matter, and collecting pieces of information, and keeping them in memory to reproduce them in examinations. School education is full of social interaction between teachers and pupils and among students with different background and abilities.
Classroom environment is the most important factor conducive to better learning in schools. Most students learn quicker and better in groups rather than in solitude. Classrooms provide a positive environment in which students feel a sense of belonging, friendship and trust with fellow students, and get used to a life beyond their homes and families. Classroom facilitates dialogue between students and teacher whereas online learning without a school atmosphere and with no provision for chats, forums and discussion boards becomes a monologue boring to youngsters. Raising questions and getting clearance of doubts on the spot are important parts of learning.
Group learning is in many ways better than individual learning just as learning from a tutor is better than learning straight from a book particularly for children and youth. Clarity in thinking, communication abilities, debating skills, and presentation methods can be developed only in group setting. Critical and creative thinking abilities grow in classroom learning and not through video lectures.
A UNICEF Report on the impact of COVID-19 on the lives of 600 million children in South Asia states that despite measures to use technology for education, a large proportion of children are going to miss out on distant education as only around 24% of households have access to the internet. School closures have affected 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary stage of education and about 28 million in pre-school and anganwadi centres in India, adds the Report.
The 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report of the UNESCO noted that efforts to maintain learning community during the pandemic may have worsened exclusion trends. The reference is to children of low income groups, the disabled and children with learning disabilities. Their indispensable support systems are interrupted along with education – a multiple loss.
Further, rural-urban and gender divide also affects accessibility. There is now a big category of children of migrant workers in multiple disadvantages. Switching over to online education in their case is unthinkable.
Enormous digital divide is seen as a stumbling block in our country where incentives are to be provided to promote enrolment and prevent school drop-out. Our education system is totally unprepared to deal with prolonged curfews and lockdowns and need a shake up to rise to tackle the situation. NITI Aayog has pointed out in its report on the Strategies for New India that 55,000 villages are without mobile network coverage.
According to NSSO Survey for 2017-18, only 8% homes with young people have computer with internet link; while 66% of India’s population live in villages, only a little over 15% of rural households have access to internet; only 8% of households with members between 5 and 24 years of age have both computer and internet connection. Among the poorest 20% households, only 2.7% have access to computer and 8.9% to internet. In top 20%, the proportions are 27.6% and 50.5% respectively. State-wise and sex-wise differences preclude a uniform national policy.
All these point to the need to restore the classrooms as early as possible and make necessary physical changes in school structure and permanent behavioural changes in students. Online learning cannot be a substitute for classroom, but can be used additionally to lessen crowding in schools. To remove the drawbacks in online education, special sessions may be conducted from time to time to review the system and its efficacy.
At the same time, it is not wise to shun online education altogether thus moving away from the trend in the world. It can be introduced as supplement and in small doses along with measures to make technology available and accessible to all. It is a huge task. It seems that it is better to make schools safe for children and teachers rather than to make children sit before computers and listen to monologues and their parents to monitor them. —INFA