The Covid challenge to Indian school education: Reform or perish

Pratim Ranjan Bose Kolkata. May 10 | Updated on May 10, 2020 Published on May 10, 2020

The online education industry in India is expected to register a six-fold growth by 2021 to 9.6 million   -

Reluctant schools and teachers have been forced to adapt to e-learning

That modern technology added a competitive edge to e-learning was known. In India, online tutorials like Byju’s or Mindspark were gaining popularity before the Covid-19 pandemic struck. However, most boards and teachers were not ready to give it a try.

Lockdown changed the perspective. With schools closed for months, e-learning came to the forefront, across the world. Even in developed countries, students have been the primary movers of this initiative. Teachers grudgingly followed the trend, hoping to return to the classrooms soon.

However, such expectations are unlikely to materialise any time soon. As and when schools reopen, they have to operate with reduced classroom strength, to ensure social distancing. It means the scope for classroom education will remain curtailed and e-learning has to fill the gap.

And, that takes us to the big question. How will India respond to the emerging situation? Avoiding the question is of no use as students are keener than ever. Mindspark witnessed 10-fold rise in registration for trial or free coaching, in April.

In the absence of a comprehensive action plan, for the complex Indian school education system — divided by multiple boards of unequal standards — the benefits of technology will accruto a section of teachers and students that adapts to technology and can afford it.

Tech will spur changes

The problem is more complex than one can imagine. Take the case of Madhumita Dutta. A post-graduate in computer application, she is teaching mathematics in a premium private school in Kolkata.

As the lockdown began, her school was quick to resume classes using Google Meet. Teachers were imparted training in using the software. But as Dutta started taking classes, she faced a major problem. How could she do board work or assess students without eye contact?

The answer was found in creating short home videos of problem-solving and using the spare time in cross-checking students. “Taking class online is strenuous,” she says.

“Online teaching requires distinct skill sets that are not part of teachers’ training curriculum,” said Mayank Kumar, co-founder and MD of upGrad, which is into higher education. He is expecting technology to force a string of administrative changes in school education.

Anindya Mallick, Partner, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu India, confirms Kumar’s view. However, he is expecting such changes to be gradual. According to Mallick, the draft national education policy made an attempt to bridge the gap between online and classroom education.

The great divide

Dutta and her students belong to upper middle class and middle class background. She teaches in English. Her school has smart classrooms that include high-speed Wi-Fi, LED screen and provision of laptops. All students have smartphone or tab. Their parents do not mind spending for education.

This is still a dream for the majority of students in India. However, a concerted effort can mitigate many problems.

Bharatnet is connecting all the villages with high-speed broadband network. Part of the project connecting remote areas in North-East India is already complete. Ensuring digital connectivity, therefore, may be easier.

The 2011 project to distribute cheap ‘Akash’ tablets to promote e-learning in villages was unsuccessful due to quality and procurement issues. The scheme can be revived. Some States like Tamil Nadu have already taken the lead in distributing tabs to schoolchildren.

Vernacular content

There are bigger problems to solve. Adapting to online education is easier for English medium students and teachers due to ready availability of tools or content. The situation is diametrically opposite in vernacular languages that dominate the Indian school education scene.

Mallick is clear that unless the gaps are bridged, the benefits of online education cannot reach a wider population. However, he is hopeful that a competitive environment, if created, may encourage States to act. Let’s hope he is proved right.

Published on May 10, 2020

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