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Education in the Time of COVID-19 #047 – Khanapurkar et al.

By CEID Blogger, on 2 June 2021

Online Education in Covid-times India: Putting the Cart Before the Horse

by Rammohan Khanapurkar, Shalini Bhorkar, Ketan Dandare and Pralhad Kathole

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted set patterns of livelihoods and upset economic normalcy at a global scale. In a first of its kind, many countries including India witnessed nationwide school closures for the entire academic year. The situation offered preeminent position to online schooling in the lockdown period. This article discusses a key initiative by the Indian government to facilitate online transition of formal learning. The article argues how this ad hoc initiative was akin to putting the cart before the horse in a haste to prove online-worthiness of formal schooling.

Alternative Academic Calendars for Students (AAC)

As part of its mitigating efforts, the Indian government stipulated guidelines in the form of Alternative Academic Calendars for Students (AAC). These guidelines carried suggestive measures to continue formal school education in the online mode in the 2020-21 academic year. The AACs are a set of four documents, for primary, upper primary, secondary, and higher secondary schooling. It outlines measures for educators to ensure continuity in curricular learning from the safety of students’ homes. Individual state governments were expected to take the lead in implementing the AAC and were tasked with providing the necessary support to teachers. The AAC documents outline specific procedures for conducting a blend of online and offline daily school activities.

The presumptuousness of the AAC begins with the supposition of availability of devices such as computers, tabs, smartphones or mobile phones with all students. It negates the pecuniary hardships of people from low-income groups, accentuated by the economic jolt of the pandemic. The AAC also calls upon resourcefulness on the part of teachers, parents and students to implement the stipulated guidelines for online schooling. However, this call is not backed by any definitive metric to assess students’ learning as well as teachers’ efforts. Against this backdrop, the plan to implement AAC guidelines hobbles on several fronts. It gives teachers and school authorities leeway to simply adopt a “tick the box” approach than adapting a pragmatic model rooted in grim realities.

The following four example sentences from the introductory note of the AAC document highlight the improbability of its implementation. Although these are just a few examples, they are emblematic of the AAC’s approach to lay out a roadmap with the right intentions but in a cavalier manner.

  1. Currently, there are various technological tools and social media tools available for imparting education in fun-filled, interesting ways, which can be used by children to learn even while at home.

This clause is based on the assumption of easy availability and accessibility of technological and social media tools with children. Even a single phone at home is generally owned by a male earning member, usually the father of the child. The father is often at crossroads if there is more than one child at home expecting an access to the phone. Also, in the case of first-generation school-goers, especially those at early ages, it is difficult to learn these tools on their own. Further, there could also be other issues such as unreliable electricity and network/data/Wi-Fi connectivity which hamper the usage. More importantly, for any kind of “study at home” initiative to be effective, children need to be in possession of skills and motivation for self-learning.

  1. Fortunately, almost everyone owns a mobile…the solution is that students may be guided through SMS on mobile phones or mobile call; for very young students, this can be done with the help of their parents.

For those students and families with no access to any desktop, laptop, iPAD, tablet, smart phone, the suggested alternative is an ordinary mobile phone. The premise that almost everyone owns a mobile is a far-fetched understanding of the reality of digital ecosystem prevalent in India which indicates low mobile penetration in remote areas. Furthermore, expecting parents, who have not completed formal schooling and are now caught up in providing for the family in the midst of dire circumstances, to get involved in children’s learning process does not seem realistic. Expecting teachers also to engage in a tedious regimen by relying on calls and SMSes to provide guidance in the case of students having an ordinary mobile phone comes across as additionally problematic. Under these circumstances, such an experiment calling upon multiple engagements between teachers and students may fizzle out within no time.

  1. The purpose of mapping of themes with learning outcomes is to facilitate teachers/parents to assess the progress in students’ learning…the elder sibling can guide the younger one.

The AAC document does not provide any detail about assessment metric or any pedagogical rubric to measure learning outcomes of online mode. In its absence, monitoring a child’s learning at home is likely to be incomprehensible. When teachers themselves have little guidance and knowhow about tracking children’s learning through the suggested remote methods, involving parents or older siblings to become part of the assessment process remains a theoretical supposition, especially in the learning of students who have already been underserved.

  1. In case tools such as WhatsApp, Google Hangout etc. are being used, teachers may do audio and video calling with a group of students and discuss with them in small groups, or all of them together. Teachers may also guide students for peer learning or group learning through these tools.

Using messaging apps for video calls require fluent and high-speed connectivity. This cannot be applicable in regions with erratic connectivity and limited video-supportive mobile devices. Vast swathe of rural regions remains out of ambit of this suggestive measure. Also, merely running a video call cannot be construed as teaching and learning. The AAC leaves this part to teachers, leaving it to their pedagogical fecundity to handle the digital interaction. Similarly, concepts such as peer learning or group learning needs a proper interactive and dialectical framework. Using these terms in a trite manner may not yield the intended results.

The recommendations of AAC appear impractical due to woefully inadequate digital ecosystem and vague conceptualisation of “online education”. As a result, teachers may end up resorting to a “trial and error” method based on rudimentary understanding of the digital pedagogy. The trial-and-error methods would not only deviate itself from established pedagogical norms but also make students struggle to grapple with the learning process. Considering that the pandemic situation is already enervating for students’ wellbeing, any unvalidated and random teaching efforts would further add to their morass. Hence, culminating and cumulative effect of it may result in aggravating the learning loss of students. Methodical enhancement of teachers’ digital capacities carries more wisdom than putting the horse before the cart approach.

Rammohan Khanapurkar is a public policy researcher, educator and international development consultant. He has a MA in Education and International Development from Institute of Education, University College London, UK. Shalini Bhorkar and Ketan Dandare are doctoral candidates at the Institute of Education, University College London, UK.  Pralhad Kathole is a primary school teacher in Zilla Parishad School, Baliwali village, Palghar district, Maharashtra State, India.

Opinions expressed on the CEID Blog are only those of the author, not the Centre for Education and International Development or the UCL Institute of Education.

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