Many people have raised concerns about a digital divide, with schools in India being forced to take up online teaching en masse, in view of the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown. But, it is clear that India desperately lacks the required digital infrastructure to enable migration to virtual classrooms on such a massive scale. And that, maybe unwittingly, we are also accentuating further the existing divide between the haves and the have-nots. Even as it looks pretty much like a bleak and despairing scenario, there are many heartwarming stories about inspiring men and women, and nonprofits as well as Government authorities, from all corners of the country, who have taken it on themselves to work out solutions and mitigate the problem.
- ‘Wise’, a Zoom-integrated mobile phone app developed by two young engineering graduates from IIT Bombay – Mubeen Masudi and Bilal Abidi – which makes it possible to impart online teaching even on low Internet bandwidth (2G connectivity). This app is now being used by more than 3,000 teachers and 2,50,000 students across the country. It has come as a great boon, especially for the students and teachers in Kashmir.
- ‘Bolki Shaala’ (‘Speaking School’), an initiative of the nonprofit ‘Diganta Swaraj Foundation’, which enables hundreds of students in many remote villages in the tribal belt of Maharashtra to continue their learning, with the help of loudspeakers. The teachers record the study material in advance and this is then played out through loudspeakers for students, who gather in small groups in open spaces. A volunteer is available at hand to answer questions and clarify doubts, if any. The students talk of the loudspeaker as ‘Speaker Brother’ or ‘Speaker Sister’, and they have taken to this novel teaching method quite enthusiastically.
- A remote learning kit (containing workbooks with a lot of visual contents, and requisite stationery), developed specially for deaf children, by ‘Bleetech Innovations’ (the brainchild of two young industrial designers – Nupura Kirloskar and Janhavi Joshi). These learning kits enable deaf students to remain in touch with their studies, even as their schools are closed.
- ‘Support Our Students’, an initiative started in Bengaluru by five passionate individuals, which collects old and unused desktops, laptops and tablets from willing donors, gets these refurbished, and then donates these to underprivileged children who are in urgent need of such devices.
- Nonprofits ‘Stree Shikshan Sanstha’ and ‘Lodge Trimurty’, who have joined hands to donate pared down versions of tablets that are ideal for reading and browsing, to girl students from the slums of Nagpur.
- Teachers from Government schools in Karnataka, in districts such as Koppal, Gulbarga and Chitradurga, who are bringing schools to the students’ doorsteps in the hinterlands. The teachers have been travelling daily to remote villages in their talukas – a distance of anything between 5-20 kms. – to teach students who gather in public areas in their villages, such as in temples, in community centres, under the shade of trees, etc. The teachers have also been conducting story sessions and singing competitions, and have been playing games in between class hours, to encourage the students and to keep them engaged.
- The ‘neighbourhood classes’ in Tripura, where students attend open-air classes in playgrounds, fields, etc. in the vicinity of their schools.
- Similar ‘mohalla classes’ in Chhattisgarh, where small groups of students gather in mini classrooms set up in community spaces.
- ‘Pen-drive schools’ in Nagaland, where pen-drives loaded with study materials are being distributed among students. A similar initiative in Dadra & Nagar Haveli, where teachers prepare workbooks for students, containing study materials and solved examples, and these are then delivered to students’ homes by the administration.
- ‘Home-schooling for elementary education’ in Sikkim, a scheme under which Government school teachers visit students in remote villages, at their homes or in community centres, to teach them.
- The ‘Radio Pathsala’ program in Odisha, where lessons are being imparted through the medium of radio, parallel to the online version.
- The laudable initiative by the teachers of a Government middle school in Dumarthar (a remote village in the tribal belt of Jharkhand), where they painted the mud-baked walls of some houses in the villages and converted these into blackboards, to facilitate open-air teaching.
There are countless other such examples.
Many amongst us would argue that these are at best small as well as fragmented efforts, well-intentioned yes, but perhaps rather inconsequential, if we look at the larger picture. We tend to disagree. These may be small steps at the moment, but it would be a big huge mistake to write these off. There is undoubtedly a groundswell of awareness at present, and along with it there is also a lot of active willingness to do something about it. And, yes, there is a huge reservoir of untapped talent, which can effectively take on the challenges. We need to harness all these and build on the many amazing innovations that have been tried out. Maybe we need to use this pandemic and the lockdown as an opportunity and do our best to usher in an all-inclusive education. And, at least in the short term, we very much need to encourage the local non-tech innovations, to help us reach this goal.
Another point that has been forcefully brought on the table, and which we need to acknowledge, is the central position that schools and teachers occupy in the lives of our children. Schools play an important role, not only for studies in a narrow sense, but in the overall development of a child into an all-rounded individual. We need to equip our schools suitably, to enable them to fulfil such responsibilities.
And we need to bring back the respect for our teachers. The teachers, by and large, have risen to the occasion admirably in the face of acute uncertainty, when they were suddenly expected to take on much-expanded roles, without much of training or guidance or support. We need to acknowledge this, and we need to show them our gratitude.