In e-learning push, corporation schools in Mumbai left in the lurch

Little thought is being given to how students of corporation schools will be able to access this, given that for most of them access to quality internet connection and the devices required is severely limited.

As yet, there is no Standard Operating Procedure from the Centre or the state on this. But as uncertainty around reopening of schools drags on, at least some private schools in Mumbai have launched online classes to try and complete the syllabus of the current academic year.

But the online learning system and the way it is being implemented by schools, is finding little support from parents. According to a survey conducted by the India Wide Parents Association (IWPA), a four-year-old Mumbai-based pan-India parents association, 80% of parents it polled are not in favour of virtual classes for their children.

The main apprehension is that there is no coherent conceptualisation or standardisation of the way online classes are to be held. They still prefer that their children actually go to school, though parents recognise that may not happen in the near future. They also want that all students, at least till class 8, get promoted automatically.

But the Maharashtra education department is emphasising virtual learning for this academic year in Mumbai. All private schools in the city are gearing to start online sessions by mid-June. But given the different school systems — international board schools, CBSE and ICSE schools and the large number of corporation schools — the conversion from the physical to a virtual classroom is fraught with problems, especially as the virtual teaching and learning system is totally new for both teachers, students and there is no uniformity of online teaching systems, methodology and technology.

No access to smart phones

Also, little thought and attention is being given on how corporation schools and its students will be able to continue their education, given that most of its students are from poor families whose access to quality internet connection and the required hardware, such as smart phones, is severely limited.

It is estimated that less than 50 per cent of corporation school students have smart phones. In fact, most parents of BMC school students have said they will not be able to afford online classes. And given the social distancing norms still in place, sharing of devices among students is out.

Only 70% of students have access to electronic devices. We are still trying to figure out how to impart instruction to the remaining 30%.

Principal, St. Mary’s High School, Mazgaon

The plight of teachers

It is not just that that BMC schools are being used as isolation and quarantine centres. On April 23rd, a state government circular ordered that BMC school teachers and principals should supervise the conversion and functioning of such centres. BMC school teachers who had gone back to their homes following the lockdown were sent notices to return to duty within 24 hours. With no public transport available, teachers who were unable to report back were issued show cause notices.

BMC school in Dharavi that has been converted to a quarantine centre.

“The city has 450 schools under the civic body out of which 280 have been converted into isolation and quarantine centers,” said Anjali Naik Chairperson of BMC’s Education Committee. “For this purpose, all teachers and principals of civic schools were asked to remain available to work in the city. Most of the schools which are being used as isolation and quarantine centres lie in the containment zones. The civic body has therefore decided to introduce e-learning for the students of these BMC schools,” added Naik.

Facilitating online instruction

Naik added that the corporation’s push on e-learning is being supported by non-profit organizations like Pratham to create innovative learning methodologies to help government schools deliver quality distance education to students of these schools. “We were already working with the city civic schools along with teachers last year,” said Farida Lambay, co-founder and director of Pratham. “Training to teachers was an essential part of that program, but was discontinued due to the pandemic crisis”

Pratham along with several other nonprofit organizations have been coopted to create educational content for municipal corporation schools. “Teachers will connect with students who already have smart phones in their family,” added Farida. “Through WhatsApp teachers will form a group with students and the same educational content will be delivered to all students. Later, students will give their feedback and related queries will be answered by teachers”.

But neither the BMC nor the civil society organisations had any answer to the question posed by parent Kamala Chavan who works as domestic help in Thane. “How will I be able to buy three Android phones for my three daughters?” she asks. “I told the teacher that my daughters won’t be available for these classes. I did get some salary from a few families but arranging for the costly phones and the Internet packs for them is next to impossible.”

Internet access a major issue

With e-learning, students of BMC schools are likely to end up being worse off. “A parent told me that she works as a domestic help and since lockdown she has no source of income,” said Jyoti Thakur (name changed) who works at a BMC school in Byculla.

Jyoti explains that for many such parents, the priority is to first get work and sustain their fanilies, and only after that, consider their children’s education. “During the summer vacation, I had conducted an online class with three students. After an hour one student disappeared and when I called her, she said that her Internet connection recharge had expired. This issue is crucial for parents like hers and I see no point in starting classes when there are so many who will not be able to recharge their data packs, given the financial crunch they face.”

“How will I be able to buy three Android phones for my three daughters? I told the teacher that my daughters won’t be available for these classes.

Kamala Chavan, Domestic Worker in Thane

The BMC has 1137 schools with eight languages Marathi, Hindi, English, Urdu, Gujarati, Tamil, Kannada and Telugu with approximately 3 lakh students. 

“The schools will open on June 15th, by then we will send textbooks to all students,” said Mahesh Palkar, Education Officer, BMC. “We will be asking them to use Pradnya and Diksha, mobile apps designed for teachers, students and parents.”

Diksha, a multi-lingual app, can be accessed by students and teacher and parents. All class textbooks are also available. Pradnya is a govt-authorised app which can be accessed only if permitted.

According to Mahesh, all BMC school teachers have been trained by the UNICEF to impart online education. “We will broadcast lectures on government television and radio channels. For parents who do not have Android phones, teachers will connect with students through parents’ phones. The student will be assigned a particular chapter and the teacher will later reconnect with student and take feedback. Students’ queries will be explained over phone. Since most families have television, they will guided to watch the broadcast of the subjects.”

Education Minister Varsha Gaikwad said that “the state HRD ministry is designing the syllabus, and it is likely to be reduced by 25 per cent. I will be meeting parents to understand their problems. Schools will have to focus on three main subjects: Mathematics, Science and languages for now. Parents should sit with children to assist in virtual classrooms. The module will be designed so as not to detain any student.”

The minister, however, did not clarify whether promotion to the next higher class will be automatic.

No standard protocols

Private schools have their own set of issues. “Education experts are needed to design a concise curriculum for each standard for this year,” said Anubha Sahai, president of the India Wide Parents Association (IWPA). “Also, 5-6 hours of continuous classes online is impossible for small children. Many parents may not even be able to afford the extra laptop or phone that will be needed for this. The government should implement the no-detention policy.”

Virtual classes will be particularly difficult for primary and preprimary classes. ““One parent will have to sit with the student,” pointed out Vinod Rai (name changed) who teaches at an Andheri based ICSE school. “What needs to be accepted that each segment of schooling will require its own tailor-made systems and design”.

“Government can easily postpone this academic year for 4-5 months or can hold on till a vaccine is developed against coronavirus,” said Prasad Tulaskar a parent from Dadar. “My son is in the 9th class with King George High school, and in summer they had conducted 10-days of classes. Online classes will cause stress for children, and they will not be able to concentrate. And due to network congestion connectivity is often affected. Teachers do not bother to check how students are responding to their lecture. Many students switch off their videos or mute it. I cannot understand how a parent will control this when they resume work.”

“Parents of students in English medium schools, some of whom charge fees in lakhs, want high-end delivery for their children, so these schools are promoting online classes,” said Surendra Dighe, Managing Trustee of Saraswati Mandir Trust, a charitable school with about 3000 students. “Online teaching of subjects like mathematics and science will be easy as lots of material is available online on various platforms which is helpful to students and teachers. However it will not be that easy to teach social sciences and languages in a virtual classrooms.” The school has 2400 students in Marathi medium and 700 in English. The school has decided to use Google Classroom for virtual studies.

Father Jude, Principal of St. Mary’s High School in Mazgaon, which is launching online classes from June 15th, said, “Only 70% of students have access to electronic devices. We are still trying to figure out how to impart instruction to the remaining 30%. The NGO, Western Regional Schools, is presently training teachers from Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa for virtual classes. The NGO has trained volunteers on making videos for students and on taking interactive sessions during e-learning.”

Which all looks good on paper. But the reality on the ground is likely to be very different. Especially for BMC school students.

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