India File

KITE, Corona and Kerala

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on May 05, 2020 Published on May 05, 2020

Focused MV Rajan at work. He heads a lower primary school in Kerala   -  Focu

Covid-19 shut down schools and cancelled exams but learning didn’t stop for students of Kerala’s government schools, thanks to teachers who tapped technology. Jinoy Jose P reports

At ‘Arghyam’ in Perinthalmanna, Malappuram, Kerala, MV Rajan mash (master) should ideally be relaxing. It’s May and Perinthalmanna, like most of Kerala, is under Covid lockdown. The middle-aged school teacher doesn’t have to travel the usual 30 km to the Government Lower Primary School, Vattenad, which he heads.

But Rajan mash is a busy man. He fiddles with a low-cost smartphone and personal computer, duly assisted, whenever a need arises, by his family members, especially his daughter. “I coordinate with all our teachers, and parents of our nearly 900 students, to make sure they spend this stay-at-home period fruitfully,” says Rajan.

Using the limited resources, and thanks to the multimedia training he received as part of the Kerala government’s KITE (Kerala Infrastructure and Technology for Education) initiative, Rajan mash and his colleagues prepare short videos, digital books, audio stories and poems, animated stories, informative memes and virtual classes and send them across to their students via WhatsApp and other forms of digital mass media. “We make sure our students, most of them coming from remote villages and not exactly from well-to-do families, are not deprived of study materials or infotainment content,” says Rajan.

Solid support from parents

The school gets good support from its parent and teacher association (PTA). “Ours is a close-knit family. Even before the coronavirus made schooling difficult for us, we wholeheartedly supported all the activities of the school and we still continue to do that,” says VP Rajeena, a lawyer, and president of PTA. Rajeena’s son, R Bhagath (“as in Bhagat Singh”, she reminds this writer with pride as we chat over the phone), a Class 1 student, regularly gets updates from his teachers who keep an eye on the child’s mental well-being as well.

“We don’t force-feed the children. They should enjoy the period as they should. So our content mostly focuses on quality infotainment anchored in Kerala’s rich tradition of poetry, folklore and legends, and stories,” says Rajan mash. The feedback from the little students is overwhelming, he beams.

 

“I love everything my teachers send to my mother’s WhatsApp; it’s so much fun,” says Niveditha NR, a Class 3 student of GLPS Vattenad. “I enjoy being indoors and I’m able to learn new things — songs, stories and other nice things — through what my school sends me.” In a short video, the school has shared with BusinessLine, Niveditha is seen narrating a beautiful slice of prose that blends a clutch of proverbs with routine conversational situations, making their learning pure fun. The headmaster’s phone is filled with such small videos and stories. “We’re so happy that our children are happy,” says Rajan mash.

GLPS Vattenad is part of a large network of government-run schools in Kerala that is transforming public education through well-planned, interactive, community-supported, and globally competitive activities, all planned and guided by the State’s education department. “Covid-19 and the lockdown came as a shock to the education department, which was getting ready to finish the academic year,” says Kerala General Education Secretary, A Shajahan, IAS. “We had to cancel exams and shut schools, but we decided to make sure the learning process never stopped.”

When KITE flies

Under the guidance of the Education Minister C Raveendranath, a retired chemistry professor, the entire educational machinery sprang into swift action. “We had all the apparatus in place. Kerala’s public education system has been going through a transformation of late and digital learning tools have already been part of that,” says K Anvar Sadath, CEO, KITE, formerly known as IT@School Project.

The body was set up in 2001-02 to power ICT-enabled education in Kerala’s government schools. “So, all we had to do was to make some tweaks here and there and make the system in sync with the new ground realities.” Kerala’s internet penetration rate is the second-highest in the country (54 per cent), with Delhi NCR topping the list with 69 per cent.

In the first week of March itself, KITE let its plans take flight. “We undertook a five-pronged mitigation measure,” says Sadath. First, the department conducted a specific, five-day online IT training for 81,000 primary school teachers. This helped them refresh their digital skills and put them to good use during the lockdown times, in such a way that their students benefited as they stayed at home observing social distancing.

The next move was Avadikaala Santhoshangal (Happy Holidays). As part of the initiative, an array of online edutainment content was released online on the education department’s portal, Samagra. This included content that promoted learning through stories and poems; small and hassle-free experiments; paintings, other forms of creative work, readings, magic shows, IT tasks, mathematical experiments, etc.

The next was the Akshara Vriksham (Tree of Letters) programme, which aims to collect, curate and publish creative content such as stories, poems and articles prepared by the students. As they stayed indoors, the students were asked to create content on themes such as environment, hygiene, Covid-19 prevention methods, and so on. “The response has been quite impressive,” says Shajahan. “We received over 50,000 entries from across the State and one collection of these is already out digitally and we are going to publish more.”

Another key initiative under KITE during the Covid lockdown was to air special programmes on KITE’s Victers TV channel. The medium has been functioning for years now but has been revamped recently. It now broadcasts lectures, curriculum-based programmes, extra-curricular edutainment content and more. The channel is delivered by all direct-to-home and cable providers in the State. It also has a streaming segment, accessible online, especially on YouTube and KITE’s website.

During the lockdown, the Victers channel included the health department’s special notifications and live interactions with the nodal officer for Covid-19 prevention, according to the authorities. KITE has now customised the free software application BigBlueButton — a remote learning tool based on GNU-LINUX — to be effectively used for online training and meetings. “In addition to the video conferencing facility, the app also features screen sharing, multi-user whiteboard, public chat, shared notes, etc, and is a perfect web conferencing software for teachers,” says Sadat.

“As part of our E-cube English (Enjoy, Enhance & Enrich English) programme to improve children’s efficiency in the English Language, for we had already planned a specific vacation training for all primary-upper primary teachers during the April-May period,” says Sadat. “The system is functional now.”

KITE also provides KOOL (KITE’s Open Online Learning), arguably India’s first-ever, government-approved, massive open online course (MOOC). It enables a flexible training platform for teachers without affecting their teaching hours and over “12,000 teachers stand benefited by this”.

According to Shajahan, all textbooks are digitised and made online now. “Students can access them from home and prepare with the help of their teachers.” As part of its Hi-Tech Lab project, KITE has already deployed 57,843 laptops and 25,011 projectors for primary and upper primary schools, according to an official release. Moreover, 61,211 laptops have been given to higher schools. Hence, teachers have been familiar with online training. The IT coordinators in schools assist the headmasters during Covid days to make sure their services are delivered without glitches, says Sadath.

These are some of the key initiatives, says Shajahan. “Kerala’s public education system is a grand exercise where the social and educational institutions are engaged in seamless coordination. So, in schools, several ad hoc, customised initiatives are introduced and implemented by enthusiastic teachers and parents. We welcome all of that and extend support.”

Trying their best

There are challenges, though. “Government schools are populated with poor students and their families are going through a difficult time as livelihood means have shrunk due to the pandemic,” says Anish, a higher secondary teacher from Pampady in south Kerala’s Kottayam. “We can’t ask them to get online and use the tools as many of them won’t be in a position to even recharge their phones.”

But teachers try their best. “We are competing against private schools that use cutting-edge e-learning tools, but we try our best and so far the results have been encouraging,” says Jipson Jacob, who teaches English at AV HSS, Ponnani, Malappuram. “Many teachers feel the long wait owing to Covid would result in pupils losing touch with the subject. So, many of them have voluntarily started making videos of difficult topics and sharing them through blogs and WhatsApp groups,” says Jacob.

“We have a social duty, too. We work for the government and people pay our bills,” says Rajan mash as he starts forwarding to BusinesLine dozens of short videos and animated content his students and teachers have made. “They are going viral.”

Published on May 05, 2020

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