Vaishnavi Bhardwaj’s ‘school’ is her dadi’s pooja room. And her classroom is her Dadi’s smartphone. Every Monday-Friday, 9-year-old Vaishnavi is ready to ‘go to school’ by 9 am. Her mother Rashi makes sure that the fourth standard student at a private school in East Delhi has all the required text books and note books ready in time for her morning class prayer, signalling the beginning of her day in school.
Schools in the capital began for the new academic session on July 1st with technology driven classes over the Internet and on television. Private school students like Vaishnavi, every morning wear their uniforms, pack their bags, reach ‘class’ on time and start with their ”Good Morning Madam” followed by marking of attendance. All on Zoom, or on Google classroom.
Vaishnavi and her ilk, however, are among the fortunate few. Tens of thousands of other school students in the city have yet to get that ‘being in the classroom’ feeling the way they do. Most of them are tenuously connected to their teachers, homework and assignments, via a phone call or a YouTube video link, meant more as an aid to parents to home school their children.
On July 17th, the Ministry of Human Resources Development asked the Delhi government, and other state governments, to get feedback from parents on when the schools should open, and what they expected from the schools. State governments were expected to revert by July 20th, an impossibly short deadline for realistic feedback collection from parents battling work from home and slow lockdown exits.
On July 19th, a parents’ association from Delhi urged Union HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal not to reopen schools for the academic year 2020-21 or until children have been vaccinated against the coronavirus. Sources in the Ministry say states have asked for time to get feedback from schools and parents. States, in turn, are waiting for the MHA’s next guidelines on unlocking. But one source remarked that this entire academic session may include only “online education, online examination and online evaluation”.
Meanwhile, the Delhi Parents’ Association appears to have been smitten by the whole idea of taking online teaching, learning, evaluation and online admission to the next level. “Self-motivation has gone up among students as children are excited with the technology interface,” says a freelance consultant with a chain of private-aided schools in the capital, on condition of anonymity. “True, some parents who were not plugged into technology and actively involved with the teachers were reluctant, but most of them have worked their way through this and are now convinced that online classes are the best in the given circumstances.”
In fact, how effectively the online classes are being executed and absorbed have become a sensitive issue for school managements who find themselves caught between government instructions and parental expectations, even as they themselves have to learn to teach in a different way.
Asked if they had any short duration workshops to train the teachers on delivering lessons in a digital format, this consultant answered in the negative. “Some teachers said they were capable of it on their own, some said they were being helped by their adult children. At least in our schools, where students are middle class and the aspirational upper sections of the poor who want English medium education, there has so far been no decision on training teachers. Yet, they are managing pretty well”.
The Delhi government stance
Deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia, who holds the education portfolio, is deeply and personally involved with all aspects of school education in the National Capital Territory. He has even authored a book titled “Shiksha: My Experiments as an Education Minister”.
Among the early innovations he introduced in government schools are the now widely famous “Happiness” classes as well as the less known “Entrepreneurship Mindset Curriculum”. (Delhi has 1030 government schools,1700 MCD schools, 68 NDMC schools, 46 Kendriya Vidyalayas, six schools run by the Delhi Cantonment Board, two Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas, about 259 aided schools and 2812 public schools).
“Online learning may not be a solution, but it is a necessity today,” Sisodia told a batch of 50 government school principals on July 20, as they began their Principal Training Programme being conducted by the IIM, Ahmedabad. “I urge all school principals to fully commit to it”.
Sisodia has often said that the biggest problem with online education was its potential to create a digital divide between those who have access to technology and those who don’t. He describes the Delhi government’s “remote teaching-learning plan” as ”learning with a human feel.”
The Union Ministry of HRD has, in fact, classified households by available digital infrastructure into six different levels. And the Delhi government has clubbed students from Kindergarten to Class 8 into one cohort, Classes 9 and 10 in a second cohort and Classes 11 and 12 in a third cohort. Worksheets based on daily syllabus aimed at promoting reading, writing, understanding, basic numeracy and happiness among the children are WhatsApped by teachers to students of classes KG to class 8. Those in classes 9 and 10 receive worksheets with subject-related content.
For classes 11 and 12, live online classes are conducted for up to two hours a day in a dozen subjects. The education department has also asked principals to ensure that teachers maintain a constantly updated WhatsApp group of parents and students. For good measure, they have been directed to maintain telephone numbers of those who do not have a smartphone, and these parents are asked to collect the worksheets for the entire week. Government school principals have been directed to report on the completion of the weekly syllabus set for different classes.
That is the government design. But talk to the teachers and one of the most scathing criticisms from them was about the way online education was being conceptualised. It was simply transferring face to face classroom sessions to an online platform like Zoom or Google classroom, they said. There was little training or planning among teachers and school administrations and of course, little preparation in advance.
“It is worrisome that there is no thought being given to whether the online medium could be seen as an opportunity to prepare more creative, interactive content tailored to online teaching,” said a senior government school teacher. According to her, classes have now been reduced to mere one way delivery, with little or no personal contact, no way of gauging who’s getting it and who’s not. “The advantage of using multimedia is not there. There is also no mechanism in the present system of knowing what students feel, whether their needs are being met, how many are losing interest,” she said.
When you talk to parents and children, it is apparent that each school is flapping its wings to do the best it can, in whatever manner it can. “My daughter attends her classes on Zoom,” said the mother of a student in one of the Springdales schools. “There is no classroom feel to it. The teacher does not teach really, simply gives assignments and tells them what to do. Sometimes she sends a YouTube link where the teacher is generally solving problems. This is really for the parents; using it, I have to teach my daughter. Also, they do not repeat the syllabus they have covered.”
Issues of unequal access
In schools where the children are not from “well off” backgrounds, Sisodia’s fears of a digital divide is coming true. An alumni association of one such school wanted to chip in and help with a limited number of laptops, at least for the teachers. According to a member, the kind of laptops they wanted were not available in the numbers they wanted.
Rani Kumari. whose daughter and son are studying in a government school in east Delhi was close to tears when she spoke about how difficult it was for her to manage their WhatsApp lessons. “There is one phone between three of us. And when I am not educated, how can I help with my children’s home work?” she asks.
Rani’s daughter is in the sixth and son in the fourth grade. She pays Rs 700 a month for a lady in her neighbourhood to help with home work. And she is not convinced that their education is headed in the right direction.
A senior teacher in a School of Excellence—Pratibha Vikas Vidyalaya—pointed out that all students in the 11th and 12th in these schools had been given tablets in February. But that hardly solved the access problem or bridged the digital divide. In one case, the family had simply traded the tablet shortly after receiving it, perceiving it to be useless.
In another case, a girl said that she had to give her tablet to her brother’s son who went to a private school and was having online classes at the same time; never mind that she was in the 11th while the other child was in Class 1. Clearly, and not surprisingly, the gender issue is at play even in this.
Incidentally, the Delhi School Teachers’ Forum uploads lessons and tests students on lessons conducted the previous week, using their blog and Google forms. The blog also uploads links to all the online classes of the Delhi government’s education department, for students from KG to class XII. The multiple choice questions (MCQs) are based on these lessons. The MCQ test, however, requires students to be signed in, input their name and roll number according to the school record, name of the school (which drops down) and teacher’s name.
In a random check on July 21st, I looked at a test that had been held on July 20th. There were 10 MCQs on history. The blog said the DSTF would share the results with the students on Sunday. The link for Business Study tests redirects students to an identical Google form- based MCQ test — created by the Commerce Teachers Forum, Delhi.
According to the blog, 856 students wrote a political science test based on classes conducted on July 16th, and over 180 got 8 out of 10 points. More than 150 got 9 out of 10, and more than 150 got 10 on 10. Their names, the name of their school, and those of their teachers are displayed on the site. “All The students tried their best. Some students’ performance is very good and DSTF congratulates them and their teachers. KEEP IT UP,” says the post.
Going by the number of students taking these tests, the blog is growing in popularity, though it is too soon to estimate whether it can be a substitute for face-to-face classes and written tests.
The Central Board of Secondary Education has, as a one-time measure, reduced the syllabus for the new academic year by upto 30% in about 190 subjects. To ensure uniformity and standardization in the teaching and testing of the new reduced curriculum without compromising on the quality and learning level of students, the Board organised a virtual orientation programme for principals and teachers on July 17th.
According to a member of the Indian Principals’ Network,16 points were emphasised. “These included the need to face challenges with positivity and spread positivity,” said an IPN member. “The programme emphasised the important role of parents and that focus is not only on content but on learning outcomes and to extensively use the E-pathshala and Diksha apps where academic books and video content is available”.
The Education Directorate of the Government of Delhi has also launched a blog targeting primary teachers and students across the 449 Sarvodaya Vidyalayas. It is being used additionally to put out online teaching. The blog uploads week-wise worksheets in various subjects and there are separate blogs for teachers of English and Math.
All these efforts are inevitably facing teething problems given that it is still very early in the day. The over 32 television channels that have been roped into filling the learning and teaching needs have hardly received any eyeballs, while those who have seen it found them insipid. Clearly, the government will soon have to address the issue of how a majority of the device- and connectivity-challenged students of government schools can overcome their hurdles.