• Abhilasha Iyer

Education and the Pandemic

By Kalyan Kumar Banerjee

When a family member falls sick, the attention moves to the sickness and the child’s studies suffer. If someone is admitted to hospital or ICU, the attention switch is even more and studies take low priority. When the nation moves to lockdown due to the pandemic, somehow we assume education must progress unrestrained even as all other aspects of society are severely constrained.

Why online education? Because we can

The prevailing sentiment has been: if the child cannot go to school, why can’t we have it online? Why online education? Because we can. This seems to be the reasoning with the schools serving privileged children in the cities. Apparently parents liked the idea too, it will keep the children busy while parents had to juggle between household duties and redefined professional responsibilities.

As for the “affordable private schools” serving less privileged children, online was existential necessity. Many state governments declared parents need not pay fees if they can’t, without thinking how schools can pay the salaries. Being exposed to the privileged schools they assumed “private schools” make a lot of money and meeting the fixed costs is no problem. Later governments clarified schools can charge fees if they provide “online education”, forcing private schools to online or perish.

How much students benefited from online is still unknown but the problems are many and varied. Which nine year old child likes to sit in front of a screen for hours? How many homes have a spare laptop for the child? Should the parents buy another smartphone for the child or inform their contacts not to call during the day? Is the atmosphere in the average home conducive to hours of online classes? Does the family stay quiet for those hours? Should they move around in formal clothes, mindful of the peeping camera? Should they go for a faster internet plan?

Mothers are struggling with how to force the child in front of the screen. Downloads fail sometimes, so parents keep trying. Intermittent internet interruptions prevented the click from going through and the child could not receive legitimate credit for the correct response. The “affordable private schools” serving the less privileged students faced problems of a different dimension. Many parents did not have a smartphone, their children were spared the torment. Among those who had a smartphone, many did not have a fast connection and downloading or uploading files through Whatsapp remained a challenge. Teachers found student output scattered all over the group messages, with pages mixed up. Even though instructed, students forgot to write page number or name on every page, and it presented a jigsaw puzzle to the teachers trying to make Humpty Dumpty together again. While the privileged schools are doing this out of choice, to demonstrate their technology prowess, the rest don’t have a choice as “online” lessons are the gateway to collecting fees and paying teacher salaries

If harms are known and outcomes uncertain, why are we pursuing the path?

The rush for “online” comes from the mistaken understanding that education flows out of the prescribed syllabus alone. And if teachers cannot deliver, let it be technology. There has been enough discussion on the digital divide and the tragic suicide by a Kerala girl has not deterred us from pursuing this perilous path. Despite NIMHANS reports on the harm to children and Karnataka government’s wise decision in June to ban this, online classes continue to prosper. Furthermore, the government has added pressure to the already burdened undergraduate aspirants by making the IIT and NEET exams mandatory this year. Harm and expert opinion apart, is this the right way to “teach”? If harms are known and outcomes uncertain, why are we pursuing the path?

Sal Khan, the digital education pioneer, does not suggest digital replacing the teacher in the classroom. He proposed the flipped classroom model where students consume digital content at home at their own pace and teachers support students in solving problems in the classroom. So if classroom is to be delivered online, the teacher must help students solve problems, not deliver a discourse over the wire. Sal Khan says it will take around 15 years for India to reach digital readiness in education – predictable access, contextual content, digital readiness of students and teachers, affordability of tablets are challenges along the way.

Even the elite schools must understand exposing your teachers online just for content delivery is a treacherous path. Unfettered parents will ask, why can’t we get the best teacher available? Some ICSE school in Kolkata has already proposed students must attend Ranjana Chatterjee’s Shakespeare classes rather than their own teacher’s. The upshot of online is not the subject of this discussion.

Even in these uncertain times, why must we chase the primrose way to studies shackled by screen when education could be delivered more effectively?

Let us discuss some relevant routes to educate and enlighten our children in these uncertain months.

Lockdown has unlocked bonds and time

First, with both parents at home 24x7, this is a God-sent opportunity for parents and children to stay connected – enjoy the mutual company that was difficult in the regular world. Children can learn more about their families, where their grandparents came from, life in the decades after Independence, how they lived their lives in the pre-internet world. They’d learn different perspectives of living, about society and social change. They’d be provoked to ask relevant questions and parents have enough time to encourage a debate. They’d learn about globalisation, abundance, the evolution of technologies and its impact on families. They would also learn about income skews, social inequalities and the redefinition of luxury – and hopefully form their own views of how society should be. Deeper debates can lead to spiritual discussions and Vivekananda or Aurobindo’s vision of India.

Education includes life skills

This is also the opportunity for children to help parents at home – from keeping the rooms clean to helping in the kitchen. Such support at home leads them to thinking about water and power usage, and how to reduce these. They’d be curious to look at the water, electricity, grocery bills at home, and with a little help from parents, begin with a Pareto chart, then understand the 80/20 principle, and more. Such learning at home educates them about living realities, leading to relevant questions, helping form their own perspectives and points of view on matters that matter.

Such interactions also connect them to other family members and their viewpoints in an unhurried manner. If significance of learning must be guided by school curriculum, there’s plenty that is aligned. They’d learn history, geography, environment, flora and fauna, carbon footprint. From the kitchen, they learn about varieties of food and nutrition, weights and measures, and the many instruments and containers that together provide us the cooking experience. They learn the cost of filtering water in every home – Reverse Osmosis and the consequent waste

Contributions to the community

At the high school stage, this is a wonderful opportunity to serve others and connect with community. With thousands thrown out of livelihood, many workers left without a roof over their head, or the need to ensure compliance to Covid avoidance measures, there’s plenty to do. Organizations like Reap Benefit go to school and introduce youth to public problem solving. Here’s the moment when public problems are there unannounced, providing our young boys and girls their first brush with learning responsible citizenship. Usually the Solve Ninjas (young problem solvers) are few and problems are many. In this unusual situation, can the city of Bangalore provide so many young learners that Reap Benefit runs out of ideas on what else to solve?Imagine every city bursting with young volunteers making a difference to the city. By the time Corona bids us goodbye, Indian cities are not just left more liveable and more vibrant with citizen engagement, we are also blessed with a few million inspired youth initiated into the path of building nation and society.

Lessons beyond the book

In the relentless chase to finish chapters and harvest marks, children and parents have been distracted from the education that is about connecting with society, responsibility with the environment, or about being consumed with the insatiable urge to make a difference to the less privileged. In the impromptu closure of the physical school, Corona seems to have provided us the perfect opportunity to unshackle children and parents. Should we squander the moment?

Curiosity provoking teams like QShala are now offering a Family Quiz every Sunday morning. This is the occasion for families to bond together, over learning experiences that masquerade as fun. Yet only around 500 families come together. Why not thousands of families embrace this joyous experience till the QShala learning platform crashes? Those who attend look forward to the Sunday event and demonstrate that even screened learning can be effective and delightful when the approach includes the family as an active agent in the child’s growth. The impact extends beyond the family bonding, parent awareness and knowledge boost that are the obvious consequences. Schools could just approach Walnut-like inspired teams to produce captivating learning experiences leading to the school’s desired learning outcomes. We need to remove the chains that learning happens within the confines of teacher and textbook in a traditional format. Such format was not too effective so far, let us try something different.

Students are not staying limited to just attending such programs – many young leaders graduated to starting their own problem solving initiatives or their own quizzing programs – entrepreneurship begins right now! This is what education was supposed to inspire anyway. Why can’t more parents, more schools explore this rather than chain the youngsters to structured, slotted studies all day long

Teachers, the heroes without capes

The flipped classroom model requires teachers to support students in solving problems in the classroom. It is genuinely difficult for a teacher to remotely attend to 40 students in a personalised manner within pre-defined time slots. Here’s the opportunity. Students of higher classes act as supervised mentors to students in lower classes. Suddenly, young students find a lot of individualised attention from seniors who traversed their path just a few years back. And the seniors are not doing any charity. Since teaching enhances our learning retention, the nouveau mentor gets better at the subject. Such osmosis across age groups can lead to some uncharted learning as well.

Till recently, the joining date at IT majors of a significant proportion of the graduating engineers sometimes extended to nine months after they graduate – and even later in recession years. Education bodies or colleges never bothered about that “lost time” when plenty could be done. The chapters we will miss now can be covered in accelerated fashion. In any case, students focused on these in the last few days before the examinations.

Let us treat this as divine opportunity to catch up with the real education of connecting with society, bonding with family, initiative in service and problem solving and other critical growth imperatives we missed because we were too busy with attendance and classrooms

About the author

Kalyan Kumar Banerjee is the Co-founder of Mindtree, Chairman of Klorofeel Foundation and Advisor - QShala. He is co-creating Klorofeel and Sakhi Scholars, both focused on education for the under-privileged through nurturing Curiosity and Aspiration experiments on education beyond the conventional classroom, with diverse methods that include Projects, Quizzing, Near-Peer learning and off-classroom learning events that involve intense engagement.He loves systems thinking and enjoys mentoring young professionals on Purpose, Conflicts, and Innovation.

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