Studies must go on. Internet or no internet.

In the wake of successive lockdowns forced by the pandemic, state education department, teachers and NGOs are devising innovative ways to help students without smartphone and Internet access continue their education.

Ayesha is a 7th standard student at a Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) school at Chembur Naka. While earlier, she used to dress up and rush to school, these days, she begins her day with unread WhatsApp messages. Typically, the messages contain educational video links, homework assignments, and activities sent by her teachers in subject-wise WhatsApp groups.

Ayesha watches the videos to understand a concept, completes assignments in her notebook, and uploads pictures on the appropriate WhatsApp group. The messaging app, previously used by her mother to stay in touch with friends and family, is a substitute for Ayesha’s classroom.

The other most-used app in Ayesha’s mother’s smartphone is Zoom to attend online classroom sessions for subjects like Social Studies, Science, English. “Maths,” says Ayesha “is most difficult to learn online.”

Ayesha is among 34 students that class-teacher Elavarasi Guruswamy managed to get in touch with when schools were closed in March due to COVID-19. Three have been out of reach, and among the 34, 31 students have access to a smartphone and internet through their parents. At any given point, “at least four or five students are struggling with internet issues, especially with an expired internet data pack,” Guruswamy says. 

Soon after the lockdown, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) directed teachers to make use of WhatsApp to keep students engaged in studies.

In the meantime, training on using Zoom and Google Meets was held for BMC school teachers. They were also asked to use the DIKSHA app, developed by the National Council of Teacher Education, and to encourage students to use its comprehensive chapter-wise content. But these guidelines only cover students with smartphones and internet access—who are not more than 50% of those enrolled, according to BMC’s own report.

For students who don’t have smartphones and internet access, teachers are devising their own methods to keep the learning going. Guruswamy has been sending SMSs, urging students without smartphone and internet access to give her a missed call when they have access to a phone. She then calls them back and takes lessons on a voice call.

“The lessons are simpler,” admits Guruswamy, “like land patterns in Geography or understanding chlorophyll in plants as the intention is to keep the student motivated to self-study.”

The transition to phone-based or online learning has not been easy for schools. Especially for municipal school students whose parents’ livelihoods have been most affected due to the lockdown.

Many have left for their villages and others are reeling under severe financial stress. “If they have phones with internet connection, they don’t have the money to recharge it,” Inderjit Kaur, the Principal of MCGM’s Chembur Naka school, says. 

For BMC teachers, merely getting back in touch with students during the lockdown was a tough battle. “In April we had only managed to contact 30%-40% students, and by May, we reached 60%-70% students and began to engage with them,” Principal Kaur says. 

In June, BMC sent a circular asking teachers to distribute textbooks for the new academic year. “Hearing that we were distributing textbooks and also ration packets (rice), many parents approached us and we managed to reach 90% of our students,” Principal Kaur says.

Teachers now hope that textbooks can keep students who don’t have access to digital content, engaged. 

For Principal Kaur and her teachers, the idea of teaching itself has undergone a formidable change. “We have re-evaluated how we must teach considering our students and their families are under tremendous financial problems. We think it is important to alleviate their stress and divert their minds from the coronavirus,” Kaur says.

In an effort to keep studies relevant and fun, Principal Kaur contacted a Delhi-based NGO providing foreign language education and secured one-week of complimentary Spanish lessons for a few students. “Many teachers have gone out of their way to reach out to students, talk to the parents, and ensure that they’re coping well,” she adds. But at a systemic level, most of the initiatives of the state education department have been limited to students with access to smartphones and the internet.

Last week, the State education department launched three educational channels on Reliance-owned JioTv and JioSaavn for which students need access to Jio mobiles and an internet connection. 

The other initiative in the pipeline is academic instruction through the state broadcaster, Doordarshan. Maharashtra Government has floated a circular announcing the broadcast of educational programmes for standards 1-8 on DD Sahyadri, Doordarshan’s Marathi arm, from July 20. 

Representational image

“The Municipal corporation in Mumbai has been focused on online learning”, Nishant Baghel, Director for Digital Initiatives of Pratham, an NGO working towards the provision of quality education, says. Pratham has been working with education departments in other cities like Nagpur and Delhi on non-digital learning initiatives. “Under Delhi Government’s Mission Buniyaad, we’ve developed learning activities and audio (programmes) for their Interactive Voice Response (IVR) service,” he says. Under this, students or parents can give a missed call to a particular number and they’ll receive a callback where a lesson will be explained to them. It could be about reading, comprehension, or basic maths.

For Mumbai Municipal Corporation, Pratham suggested a teacher training programme where “teachers could be trained to take four-five students on a conference call and explain a concept, but the suggestion hasn’t been taken up by the department yet,” Baghel says. The government, he explains, has taken the primary approach of using the DIKSHA app and has also focused on making sure students have access to textbooks of the new academic year. 

Many NGOs along with Pratham are also experimenting with audio stories. “We’re piloting a programme for 10-11-year-old students where a volunteer will call on a parent’s phone in the evening and narrate a story,” Arun Jadhav, Asst Director, CHIP, another NGO working for children’s education, says. 

In the meantime, teachers at the Chembur MCGM school are addressing gaps to ensure seamless learning. Teacher Guruswamy’s English lessons for a student who doesn’t have access to a smartphone encompass telling stories and reciting poems. “I then ask her to recite after me,” Guruswamy says. 

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