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This article is more than 2 month old.

Online learning here to stay, but poor access to technology may hurt many

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A survey by UNICEF across six states found that parents, students, and teachers believe that learning and overall progress, including social and cultural skills and fitness has slowed down considerably amid the online learning regime

Online learning here to stay, but poor access to technology may hurt many
Most of us surely remember how our parents dragged us to kindergarten, while we cried all through the way, and only stopped at the promise of a treat. Once in class, we made all sorts of friends, the one who ate his/her tiffin before the break, the one who complained the most or the one who often ended up messing his pants, not to miss the one who constantly kept looking out the window... a few weeks in school and we all became good friends.
Those were glory days in indeed, and we were fortunate to attend school physically, unlike the children of today. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, students have been forced to stay indoors and attend classes on laptops or tablets.
These children would have different stories to tell, like how many times poor internet connection didn’t let them attend classes. Or, how they used that as an excuse, similar to, "I did my homework, but forgot the notebook at home".
But this excuse can only be given if a child has access to technology. Else, days are just passing by for countless children across India, as the country juggles between total and partial lockdowns.
UNICEF surveys 6 states
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) recently surveyed nearly 6000 parents, adolescents and teachers across six states in India for a rapid assessment of learning during school closures.
The survey found that during the lockdown, students have been studying on average three to four hours a day. However, parents, students and teachers believe that learning and overall progress, including social and cultural skills and fitness have slowed down considerably.
“Only 60 percent of students have used any remote learning resources; and even among those, nearly 80 percent report that they are learning less or significantly less than in school,” the report suggests.
Why students are unable to grasp during remote learning?
The UNICEF study cited multiple reasons, including lack of access to technology and poor mental health, for students not being able to learn concepts amid the online education regime.
The report published in May this year found that digital channels are not as accessible as often perceived. Overall 10 percent of students do not have access to any devices like smartphones, feature phones, television, radio, laptop, or computer.
Even when students have access to devices, awareness around using them for remote learning may be low, the study said. Fewer girls, younger students, rural students, and government school students use high-tech tools, it added.
The idea was mirrored by Sandeep Rai, India's chief of city operations at Teach for India. He told CNBC-TV18.com, “Online education has potential over time, but the technology isn't there yet. You're seeing it work where kids have really high technology. Unfortunately, that's only for high-income kids for the most part, which is a very small percentage of the Indian population.”
The UNICEF survey of six Indian states suggests that the availability of key offline resources, textbooks, and teachers remains far from universal for students. “Nearly 30-40 percent of students are not in touch with their teachers, though this varies significantly by state,” the report said.
How are kids in the elementary section faring?
When asked about the teachers’ support that students in the primary section need, Piya Marker, Director - Head of School, The Aditya Birla Integrated School in Mumbai, said, where physical support is required it is essential for a parent to provide that at home. “School and home need to work as partners to help the child stay abreast of what’s needed at each stage of development and learning,” she added.
However, the process may not be all that simple. Dr Preeti Parakh, psychiatrist and head at Mpower - The Centre, Kolkata, said a child’s education will suffer if, for some reason, parents are unable to do what the teacher would have done.
According to the UNICEF study, a third of elementary students (as perceived by their parents) and nearly half of secondary students feel that their mental and socio-emotional health has been poor or very poor since May 2020.
“It is contributing to making both parents and children feel crankier and irritable. Children feel that they are being scolded by their parents from morning till night. Children generally tend to behave better in school since there is an inherent desire to impress the teachers and other classmates. So, parents may find it more difficult to discipline the children as compared to teachers,” Dr Parakh said.
What about students in the lower secondary classes?
While the learning experience via technology is new and exciting, experts are divided on how much clarity students have when it comes to concepts and clearing of doubts.
Ms Marker of The Aditya Birla Integrated School said the online mode of teaching has made lessons more audio-visual and interactive. “This method is more impactful and hence I feel concepts will be clear. All schools are delivering the curriculum in sync with the academic expectations at each level. Children are learning!” she said.
However, Dr Parakh is of the view that in the online education model, it is difficult for teachers to assess each student’s face and body language to identify those who are not able to understand what is being taught. “Some students may not be confident enough to draw the teacher’s attention to themselves and clear their doubts,” she pointed out.
How are discussions on sensitive topics taking place?
When at school physically, adolescents are made familiar with sensitive issues like menstruation, infatuation, and other topics that they may not be very comfortable talking about with their parents. While such sessions are possible via the virtual medium, privacy and comfort level remain key concerns.
“The past year and a half have called upon all parents to step up and partner schools more now than ever before. These are conversations that need to start at home first. For parents who feel uncomfortable discussing these things, the school counselling team is always available to help them,” said the head of The Aditya Birla Integrated School.
However, Teach for India’s Rai says while courses, like reading material and videos, are available online, for most cases, the subject has been deprioritized. He said, “Usually, these sessions happen at school with a small group, there are counselors available afterward, questions are answered. And that stuff is usually just much harder to facilitate online.”
Psychiatrist Dr Parakh too thinks the school environment is necessary for the social development of children and adolescents. Children observe their peers and teachers interacting with each other and learn the same. Lack of this is a major drawback of the online education model, she said.
How will online education impact the students’ years ahead?
Amid fears of a third COVID-19 wave that will reportedly affect children more, it looks like the online mode of learning is here to stay.
As students have lost about 15 months of instruction, Rai pointed to a UNESCO study, which he said, suggests that many students have actually gone backward by about a year and a half or more.
He spoke about a hybrid model or blended learning as a possible solution which basically means, educators blend both in-person instruction and online instruction.
Meanwhile, Dr Parakh seemed hopeful that students, who are not Class 10 or 12, will have an opportunity to make up for the deficits when schools reopen.
Marker, on the other hand, thinks children are overall very resilient and adaptable. “I see a short-term fear of illness, worry about the safety of their loved ones and insecurity of socialising with abandon. I don’t think they would have long-term adverse effects on the students,” she said.