I hear the irate voice of the teacher conducting online classes of my daughter, who is in her 4th standard.
“Niladri! Go and wear a shirt! How dare you come to my class bare-bodied?”, she yells.
I see my daughter wince at the harshness of the voice of her frustrated ‘Miss’. I can barely suppress my laughter at the veritable comedy being played out, though.
My cousin, who teaches at a top school in Kolkata to the junior classes, calls me at 3 PM with a note of desperation in her voice.
“Dada, how do I transfer a document from my email to Google Classroom?” she asks.
Internet, to her, is basically WhatsApp and Facebook. Never has she been exposed to the vagaries of operating computers intensely for work, nor has she ever used Microsoft Powerpoint in her life before the last few months. However upscale her school may be in Kolkata, the use of digital media tools for the junior classes, so far, was extremely limited.
Another young relative of mine, also a teacher, is buying a high-end laptop online for editing videos, both educational and personal, using professional software. “So, you have much time? No online classes” I ask him. Then, I remember that he teaches at a Government Primary School in Kolkata, where students used to come only for their midday meals. Only recently has the attendance improved, thanks to the untiring efforts of some of the teachers in making learning interesting. But, online teaching was not even a remote possibility there. The students generally came from the lowest rung of society for whom a smartphone is still a rarity.
These three situations succinctly summarise what the COVID-19 pandemic has brought upon India with respect to school education. The need for physical distancing has suddenly led to most schools resorting to online teaching, for which the country was absolutely unprepared. This reaction to the pandemic, unfortunately, bears the signature of desperate stopgap measures that are typical of how we Indians, as a community, often respond to situations of crisis. This ‘plugging the hole’ and not ‘rebuilding the wall’ approach may work for certain cases, but when it comes to educating children, who hold the nation’s future in their growing bodies and minds, the jugaad culture can be utterly disastrous.
In this endeavour, we seem to have forgotten that uninterrupted internet facilities (four hours continuously during a day)—the first pre-requisite for hassle-free facilitation of online classes—cannot be assumed as a given, for most of the population. While statistics seem to point out that 30% of the Indian population own smartphones, how many can actually employ them for online meetings? Thus, by allowing a small section of the population to carry on their curricular learning, we are creating a serious class difference among students based on who can avail online learning and who cannot. This is completely unfair, divisive, and arbitrary, and is likely to create further division in a country that already suffers deeply from inequality.
A recent attempt at plugging holes has been made by the CBSE in the form of a 30% cut in the existing syllabus (or the exams only) so as to reduce ‘pressure’ on students for the current academic year. While I will not debate on the judgement exercised in deciding the omitted content (which rightly warrants another serious discussion), this decision itself, to me, is a tacit admission of the fact that the current online teaching is inadequate compared to classroom teaching. Moreover, does the CBSE really know when the pandemic will wind itself out in this country that they come with this modified syllabus? Will they plug further holes if the pandemic rages on till the end of the year, thus wasting three-fourths of the academic session for 2020-2021? What if the pandemic lasts longer than that?
I would argue for building a wall instead of plugging holes. So what would it take to build a wall? I propose the following:
I strongly advocate a thirteen-year school term for EVERYBODY in this country. A zero year is NOTHING in one’s career, having a strong foundation in basic education is. Introduce an additional Prep 0 at the entry-level for schools, so that students who are 6+ years can start class I—a step that also helps students in Prep 1 who cannot be promoted this year. This was indeed the norm when we were kids. Thus, I think, we do have the flexibility of increasing one school year for the kids of today.
Spend the rest of the year with online classes for those who can avail them, but DO NOT hold exams for promotion into the next class. Rather, spend the time for more creative study. Build and revise concepts, organise debates, quizzes, etc. This year can be used to basically develop a system that will lead to real learning, and NOT the usual cram-and-regurgitate-stuff, which unfortunately is what our system caters to today.
For those who cannot avail the Internet, let them use the time to develop their learning based on television, which is available much more widely throughout the country in present times. There are as many as 32 free learning channels in our country. But, is there any awareness at all about their existence? We could use this time to popularise those channels by heavy advertising and policy-level implementation through panchayats, NGOs, etc. and actually spend time in developing solid content tailored towards specific learning requirements.
Use this year to train teachers on online teaching methods, ranging from using Microsoft Powerpoint to sharing videos over YouTube, and whatever is required for successful remote teaching. This is critical for online teaching is here to stay. We need to realize that the pandemic may persist for MUCH longer than we can imagine now. We could use the help of teachers who are comfortable with digital tools, like those who teach at IITs or IISERs, for training school teachers. This approach will also help settle another raging controversy about schools needing to reduce fees in the absence of classroom teaching, for then, guardians will see actually useful knowledge being disseminated to their wards.
Relax the age limit of all Government jobs by one year, so that no-one suffers due to this one year stretch.
If possible, teach interested students more advanced concepts during the extra time gained by the pandemic, like a slice of the content currently taught in the first-year of college. That may not be included in the existing syllabus, though, which need not be touched.
This is the time where we should try to overhaul the outdated, completely rusted and rotten rote-learning-based system of school education we have in India. Let us be creative and use this opportunity to really make kids enjoy learning, and not worsen an already strait-jacketed form of school-education even further. We need thinking, creative human beings to take this great country to the place it deserves in the world, not unquestioning and unimaginative robots. Let's make an opportunity out of this pandemic, and make 'Aatmanirbhar Bharat' a reality, not merely glamorous speech.
Ayan Banerjee is a faculty member of IISER, Kolkata and an alumnus of IISc. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.