Education in the time of pandemic

Online teaching cannot be a substitute for physical schools and the opportunities that schools offer for learning and building relationships.

Published : Feb 27, 2021 06:00 IST

Children in a tribal hamlet at Bhadradri Kothagudem in Telangana running to reach school on time, a file photograph. Nothing can substitute the role of physical schools in the lives of children.

Children in a tribal hamlet at Bhadradri Kothagudem in Telangana running to reach school on time, a file photograph. Nothing can substitute the role of physical schools in the lives of children.

IN the domain of education, the current pandemic (already over 14 months old) has made three things clear. It has proved beyond any doubt that we need schools. Irrespective of which country one talks about, students and parents want schools to open and function in full glory, with appropriate precautions. Secondly, it has shown that technology may prove to be useful in education if it is employed thoughtfully. Random surfing of the Internet may lead to a collection of pieces of information that do not add up to any meaning. As Noam Chomsky (2012) says, “You cannot pursue any kind of inquiry without a relatively clear framework that is directing your search and helping you choose what is significant and what is not.” Moreover, there cannot be any hegemonic techno-managerial solutions to the linguistic and cultural heterogeneity of students; technology must help us to respect individual, peer group and community needs and aspirations. Thirdly, a convergence of the efforts of the public, civil society and private enterprise will have to take place if we wish technology to meaningfully mediate between school and home, particularly among underprivileged groups.


The concept, structure and functioning of a school/college should not be trivialised in any way. This institution has survived since ancient times in spite of proposals for “de-schooling” of various kinds. It is true that schools to a great extent perpetuate the status quo and, as Ivan Illich observed, encourage “consumerism” and “obedience to authority”; but it is also true that those who produced some of the most revolutionary moments in history, including quantum jumps in knowledge, also went to school. The kind of web of learners Illich imagines may in fact have its roots in schools. There are also people who trivialise schools for the kind of investments they demand in terms of space, buildings, teachers, libraries and labs and other infrastructure. They would argue that the cost per child can be significantly reduced if students meet for a few hours in a rented room. The budget allocation for education as compared with, say, that for defence, IT or nuclear arms does need some reflection.

One thing you never forget is the school you went to, friends you made there and the kind of teachers who taught you; the kind of teachers you loved, the kind you mocked at with friends. You recollect nostalgically the sports and other co-curricular activities you took part in. Some of you may still have preserved your school blazer, trophies and photographs with a sense of joy. It is important to see school holistically; it is not a set of atomic items of rooms, library, assembly halls, canteen and playgrounds; it is all of these but in symbiotic relationship with each other, the contours of which are often far too obvious and often simply mysterious. You really understand what is taught in class when it is discussed in the peer group in the canteen or at home. There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction in the class and among friends.

Also read: Digital divide deprives have-nots of proper online education

Students in Europe and America, which may be said to have cutting-edge technology and where most students may have the needed device, connectivity and data, wish to return to schools as soon as possible. Both teachers and students are tired of faceless online talk. An online class largely sticks to the PPT (power-point presentation) or the notes already prepared; a face-to-face class is governed by the glow of comprehension or its absence in the eyes of the students. It is these processes that lead to content-based conceptual clarity at school; it is in the classroom and peer group that conceptual clarity is gained, not on the Internet. The much-talked about critical thinking, creativity and quantum jumps of imagination are not possible in vacuum; in the context of education and modern society, they are rooted in the conceptual clarity in various disciplines. It is school that provides you the framework to ask the right questions. Any meaningful use of technology in education needs to be in sync with the above characterisation of school.

Problems of online teaching-learning

Brig. P.C. Agnihotri helps the three children of his domestic help to study. The family has only one phone; thus, only one child can study at a time. And in the mother’s one-room apartment, there is no question of a dedicated corner for individual online learning. He points out that the children do not grasp the concepts being discussed online; in fact, there is always a temptation to explore the Internet for more interesting things. Shared links also encourage mass copying. What hurts most is that these students have to pay full school fees even when there is no real school. In fact, when the mother of these children failed to deposit the fee of Rs.13,000, her eldest daughter’s online link was disconnected. Agnihotri says: “Online classes are no alternative to physical/personal teaching, particularly for classes VII or VIII, where basic concepts are being explained. The students will not be as interactive online as in a class room.” Tushar Roy adds that the real classroom “does much more than merely educating a student; in the social context it gives solidarity, acts as a platform for social learning and behaviour, where lasting friendships are made and much more”.

Prateeksha Sharma says that the “whole sham of children studying on phones is just that! Nobody can really study on a phone.” She is shocked by the fact that millions of people actually believe that students are being educated on phones. She says: “In a poor country like ours this intervention − I did not know it was a part of the NEP 2020 − will further alienate children from an, as it is, already dry and dead process of learning!” Prof. Aditi Mukherjee faces a lot of problems while “conducting online classes for the students at IIT who come from relatively privileged backgrounds. The situation with the students at the other side of the digital divide must be impossibly mind-boggling!!! The prospects look bleak if online teaching/ learning is to become a norm tomorrow.” The problems for the teachers working online are as daunting as those for students. Except perhaps from midnight to early morning, all their time is assumed to be official time. Staff and departmental meetings can be called at any time; the timetable can be structured any which way and the materials have to be prepared afresh to look learner-friendly in the online mode.

Also read: Online illusion

It is not the case that the class-wise digital divide does not exist in the Global North. Professor M.K. Varma from the University of York (United Kingdom) writes: “Even in a country like the U.K., some working-class families have the same problems if there are two or three children going to school. Not all of them will have a tablet each. Online classes are held at the same time! Not all the parents or grandparents are familiar with the technical details of the devices.” He also sent me the results of an Ofcom study which says that “approximately 1.4-1.78 million children in the schools in the U.K. do not have access to a laptop or desktop or a tablet/ iPad. Due to the lockdown children are supposed to receive their lessons on-line/remotely. Recently the Children’s Commissioner reminded the government that their £100 million package in April 2020 was not enough to fund laptops and 4G wireless routers to all the vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils in every group from Reception to Year 13. The COVID-19 has increased and intensified the Digital Divide which is going to leave a generation of children without basic education.”

Negotiating technology

Just as school is here to stay, so is technology in education. People are beginning to realise that there are several important things on which lakhs of rupees were spent earlier and which can now be done for free—no travel, board and stay and auditorium costs. Corporate, staff council, editorial committee meetings, discussions and debates are held successfully online. Webinars are no substitute for a real seminar, but they do help.

One may indeed learn a great deal from YouTube, LBRY, Coursera and EdX among others, but none of them is any substitute for face-to-face interactions. In fact, learning anything from these sources in any substantive way is based on the assumption that you have been trained to ask the right kind of questions and read and listen with comprehension in formal school and college structures.

For an optimal use of technology, the first thing we need to ensure is the availability of suitable devices and broadband connectivity for each student. The “Laptops for Kids” campaign in the north-east of the U.K. secured 200 devices in 24 hours from generous donors. M.K. Verma says: “In India we need such people to come forward and help end the ‘digital divide’. The broadband giants should offer to supply disadvantaged families with basic connections to allow access to online learning when the schools have been closed for months during the Coronavirus pandemic. This is where the government can put pressure on them. The campaign ‘Laptops for Kids’ will only succeed when we listen to our conscience and act.”

A small effort

Schools, colleges and polytechnics of Vidya Bhawan Society (VBS), Udaipur ( Frontline , January 15, 2021) have been trying to address the issue of digital divide in their own ways. In addition to running three schools of its own, VBS is also involved in improving educational standards in 90-odd schools in collaboration with the Rajasthan government and various CSR (corporate social responsibility) units of the corporate sector. In its president, CEO and education adviser, VBS has a proactive management and when the pandemic peaked, it made every possible effort to reach out to the last student in the remotest areas. Prasoon Kumar, the education adviser of VBS, points out: “For Vidya Bhawan, which largely depends on fees, the pandemic reduced many students’ ability to pay fees. That made Vidya Bhawan vulnerable with the challenge to sustain even its teaching staff. It could maintain its costs by drawing financial support through individual donations and sponsorships, to the tune of 1.25 crore rupees. Many business houses contributed to creating infrastructure to sustain online learning. Staff salary got deferred, reducing the immediate burden of expenses. On the teaching-learning front, materials got delivered to the students directly at their doorstep. The challenge of creating such materials rested with teachers: that which can engage students in learning in distant classroom mode. The teachers developed many such assignments optimising the use of resources available to students nearby.”

Also read: An ode to the classroom

Pushpraj Ranawat, principal of the VB Senior Secondary School, says: “Our teachers started working from home right after the lockdown. They created worksheets, notes and lesson plans. We formed WhatsApp groups of classes from nursery to class 12 and started teaching. So far, 77 per cent of all the children have been added to these groups.”

It was a singular example of the convergence of the efforts of the State government, teachers and VBS field personnel, volunteers from different sections of society, corporate social responsibility, members of the panchyat body and the local community. Posters, pamphlets and WhatsApp videos were created to spread awareness about the precautions to be taken during the pandemic. Arrangements were also made to distribute food packets where needed.

Several innovations were made to the usual online classes and WhatsApp groups that all institutions organised with a fair amount of success. These innovations could be possible because of the collaboration between the Vidya Bhawan Education Resource Centre (VBERC) and different individuals and institutions across the country. VBERC has been working as a resource agency for a large number of institutions. Even before the pandemic it was common for VBERC faculty members to conduct workshops that involved an online component. Some faculty members would be physically present at the site of the workshop and conduct its work according to the specific needs of the target audience, be it teachers or students. However, there would often be a need for addressing a specific issue in, say, Language, Science or Mathematics when a senior faculty member would be contacted. He/ she would set some task or activity for the workshop, often to be undertaken in smaller groups. The senior faculty member would then listen to the presentations made by these groups, respond to them and to the queries of the participants online using a smartphone set on speaker or amplified volume through some device. This helped resolve local workshop issues and ensured an optimal use of senior faculty, which was often limited in number.

This approach was followed more comprehensively during the pandemic, participants working in smaller groups in different virtual rooms through the Internet. VBERC also acts as a resource agency for the three Vidya Bhawan senior secondary schools. Various VBS schools agreed to follow up on the proposals made by VBERC. One was that the senior faculty of VBS would undertake the capacity building of schoolteachers and help other volunteers, observe classes and give their feedback.

This worked very well, given the fact that no hiring was possible during the pandemic. Secondly, VBERC undertook the task of building a countrywide network of interested friends, students and acquaintances from all walks of life requesting them to give one hour of their time for online teaching to one student. A network of about 20 students and 20 teachers was thus built, and it worked very well for several months. Nothing works better than to have one teacher-one student for an hour a day. Every team evolved its own timetable and subject areas to be covered. Most students wanted help with Science, English and Mathematics. The feedback from the students, parents and the school bears witness to the success of this approach. Payal Patel, a Class X student at the VB Basic School, says: “Mansha Ma’am taught me online for an hour every day. She would ask me to identify topics I found difficult in Science and Mathematics. The way she explained things was really nice and effective.”

Also read: Street vendors’ organisation in Bengaluru opposes online education

Neerja Jain, Principal, Vidya Bhawan Public Schools, says: “It was an opportunity for students to explore new ideas and become self-learners. During the course, we did experience some ups and downs. One such problem was the non-availability of senior secondary teachers for English and Physics, for the vacancies that still lay vacant. Blessed we were when VBERC offered to help Class X students in Mathematics, Science and English. Henceforth, there was no looking back. The English classes for Class X and XII were worth a take for both the teachers and the taught. Kamal Mahendroo and Deepak Gupta took to teaching Physics to Classes XII and XI respectively. They were our saviours when we needed a Physics faculty badly. H.K. Dewan helped with Physics and Chemistry, Snigdha and Jyoti with Biology and Nishtha with Psychology. And there was indeed no substitute for nation-wide one-to-one classes that were organised by VBERC. Everything was like a blessing in disguise. So much support from all corners was something we had never imagined. Our students were fruitfully engaged and our teachers, with their mentors, were picking up the finer threads of the teaching-learning process.”

Ajay Mehta, president of VBS, suggested that there should be a comprehensive documentation of how education was handled during the pandemic. He also said: “Many others are now seeing the teacher in action than previously, including ‘educated’ parents and educationists—that can be quite anxiety-inducing for the teachers. All this also has substantive implications for how we think of democratic relations, and how we could reimagine things going forward.”

Rama Kant Agnihotri retired from Delhi University and is currently Professor Emeritus with Vidya Bhawan Society.

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