Tech opens a learning window as Covid shuts many a door
Once upon a time, two years before Covid, Rakhi was among the toppers in her class, a confident nine-year-old who held out her hand and asked, in English, “How are you? How was your day?” That was 2018, when The Indian Express visited her school in Dhaulpur, Rajasthan.
Today, with her school shut in the pandemic lockdown, her question is starkly different. “Papa ke liye koi naukri hai Dilli main (Is there a job for my father in Delhi)?”
Her father, a daily wage labourer, has been out of work for months. While the state government has launched an online programme linking 13 lakh families through WhatsApp groups, Rakhi isn’t among them.
Her family doesn’t have a smartphone.
Rakhi’s story shows how learning in lockdown is more messy than what advocates of online teaching would admit. Every roadmap is riddled with uncertainties. What will happen to the countless like Rakhi? Will they be the new drop-outs? And when schools reopen, what will change?
Nobel-winning economist and MIT professor Abhijit Banerjee is not despairing. His work at MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) has underscored the potential of technology to improve learning levels.
“Schools are wonderful ways for children to socialise, learn to sit in one place, listen to the teacher drone on and on. Those are essential skills. But the paradox is, some of the stuff online is so good, so compelling — a Khan Academy session, for instance — that without schools, children won’t learn these essential skills of learning to sit in one place, being bored, etc,” he says.
Getting bored may be a needed skill, suggests Anurag Kundu, member of the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights. He says education is more than about “learning algebra on a tab”.
“It’s about social behaviour, learning to understand others’ emotions and your own. When schools reopen, yes, educational technology will play a more dominant role than was earlier, but I don’t think it will change how we look at education in the first place.”
The Delhi government, which Kundu represents in DCPCR, has tried to keep learning going in its schools with live YouTube sessions and WhatsApp messages. Yet, Shailendra Sharma, principal advisor in the Delhi government’s Department of Education, says the government isn’t all gung-ho.
And that has to do with the realisation that in a country with deep social inequities, where barely 23.8% households have access to Internet, lakhs of children could be left behind.
“That’s why we are taking a very calibrated approach. We are not in a race to complete the syllabus. Personally, even if one child is left out of this learning process, it’s alarming. Because this is not about numbers or percentages. This is about children,” says Sharma.
Shashi Banerjee, principal of Shiv Nadar School, Noida, said: “What this moment tells you is that machines should be allowed to do what machines can do; what they can’t do – pastoral care, music, art, dance, theatre – schools will continue to do.”
But for an education system that’s long been criticised for being unimaginative and hackneyed, could this moment be the one of essential disruption?
“Yes, this disruption was needed in terms of how we were only becoming consumers, how we were relegating, delegating to a lesser someone, the excessive materialism that had seeped in, etc. So we needed someone to stick their neck out and say let’s redefine what school means,” says Banerjee.