Covid, NEP created a world of blended learning in Delhi’s schools. Will it last?
New Delhi: Even as schools in the national capital have reopened for in-person classes of students from grades 9 to 12, several private and public schools in Delhi have had to opt for a blended model of teaching-learning to accommodate those students who prefer online classes for various reasons.
While this puts an additional load on teachers and demands infrastructural upgrades, the change brought upon by the Covid-19 pandemic is in line with the National Education Policy 2020 which calls for use of technological tools for teaching-learning.
The NEP policy document released last year stated, “Use and integration of technology to improve multiple aspects of education will be supported and adopted, provided these interventions are rigorously and transparently evaluated in relevant contexts before they are scaled up.”
On September 16, Union education minister Dharmendra Pradhan said during a two-day conclave organised by Hindustan Times that the main takeaway from the pandemic was that technology will play a crucial role in how we acquire knowledge in the future.
Pradhan spoke on how one of the largest education systems in the world moved online from offline learning. “Basing itself on the pillars of accessibility, affordability, equity, and quality, NEP 2020 aims to overhaul our education landscape for the greater good of our children. With a set of far-reaching recommendations, the policy has given us the road map for the future… one lesson from the pandemic is that technology will play a crucial role in how we acquire knowledge,” he said.
What does the policy say?
NEP stated that the new technologies involving artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchains, smart boards, handheld computing devices, adaptive computer testing for student development, and other forms of educational software and hardware will change what students learn in the classroom and how they learn. “These areas and beyond will require extensive research both on the technological as well as educational fronts,” the document stated.
The policy also calls for changes in pedagogy, online assessments, and training teachers to become suitable online educators. “Certain types of courses/subjects, such as performing arts and science practical have limitations in the online/digital education space, which can be overcome to a partial extent with innovative measures. Further, unless online education is blended with experiential and activity-based learning, it will tend to become a screen-based education with limited focus on the social, affective, and psychomotor dimensions of learning,” the policy stated.
While addressing the digital divide, the policy suggested that the existing mass media, such as television, radio, and community radio be used extensively used for telecasts and broadcasts. Such educational programs will be made available 24/7 in different languages to cater to the varying needs of the student population.
NEP also recommended central agencies conducting pilot studies to evaluate the benefits of integrating education with online education while mitigating the downsides; invest in the creation of open, interoperable, evolvable, public digital infrastructure; provide teachers with online teaching platforms and tools; developing a digital repository of content including the creation of coursework, augmented reality and virtual reality will be developed; and training and incentive for teachers.
The experience of private schools
However, several principals HT spoke to said that while schools have gained insights on blended learning during the pandemic, continuing it in a post-pandemic era and engaging in full-scale development would require significant financial investment and infrastructure upgrade among other things.
Meenu Goswami, principal of Bal Bharati School in Pitampura, said they are conducting in-person classes for a small group of students in the school which is live-streamed for students at home. “A large number of our classes have LED interactive boards in the market which had been installed during the pandemic. This allows us to ensure a live hybrid mode of learning as teachers can plug into their laptops in the classroom and everything being taught on the board is visible to students at home.”
Goswami explained that continuing this after the pandemic would require substantial structural changes. “Right now, we have classes in smaller groups so we are able to arrange for the devices and internet. If the numbers are increased to accommodate all students, we will need to upgrade the hardware. Schools have to be wifi enabled and we will need service providers which can provide high-speed internet. Also, a climate has to be created for this kind of infrastructure development across the education sector which will need significant financial investment. There has be to a plan on the policy front as well to see if there can be some assistance from the government,” she said.
Sangeeta Hajela, principal of Delhi Public School in Indirapuram, said in a school-wide survey, most parents expressed interest in continuing online classes this time. “When we attempted blended learning, it wasn’t very successful because parents were not interested in in-person classes. So we couldn’t go for a hybrid model because the beneficiaries were not interested due to the fear of Covid. But we all foresee that the blended learning – wherein classes would be conducted in online and offline mode throughout an academic year – will work out in the post-pandemic era,” she said.
Hajela explained that in the past, schools often had to close due to natural events or other reasons such as elections etc. “Often students are unable to attend schools due to pollution or seasonal extremities. A good number of teaching days were lost due to this across India. Now, since we have a system in place, it is likely to be used to ensure continued learning during such periods. Not just teaching-learning, but several other activities such as remedial measures for low-performing students on one-on-one mode or virtual parent-teacher meetings have also been successful during this time and can be continued throughout the year in a post-Covid world,” she said.
One of the major hurdles in dealing with blended learning has been student participation – particularly when half the students are studying online and the other half are studying in the classrooms.
Shashi Banerjee, Director of Education Shiv Nadar School, said they worked on this through different formats such as a webinar-tutorial format, breakout rooms and a personalised learning design including student-led research projects and collation of student learning into student portfolios. The school plans to continue with blended mode of learning in a post-Covid era as well.
“The ‘chalk and talk’ model of learning is not one that serves all learners well. Creating flexible learning environments which allow different kinds of learners to learn in their preferred ways will lead to overall improvement in skills, abilities and learner confidence. The primary difference from the pandemic era will be that the modes of learning taken up will be dependent on student choice, rather than perforce...Post-Covid, we can plan for a less volatile and uncertain environment, and focus on creating systems to address all social, emotional and learning needs of each student,” she said.
Most of the 122 schools under the National Progressive Schools’ Conference in Delhi have continued with blended learning models to accommodate the needs of all students. Several top schools in the city, including Delhi Public Schools, Amity International School, Sanskriti School, Modern School, Ahlcon International School, and several others have adopted blended mode of teaching-learning as many students are either out of town or their parents are not comfortable with in-person classes.
Chairperson Malini Narayanan, who is also principal of Army Public School in Shankar Vihar, said that even among private schools, the number of institutes that can manage blended learning are limited. “The infrastructural requirement is huge. For now, schools are trying stopgap arrangements in adversity like livestreaming with mobile and tripod. This is why in a post-pandemic era, we will not use blended learning for full-fledges classes like right now. There are benefits of the model so we may use it for activities such as teacher training, career counselling, remedial classes, attention to specially-abled children. We will divide the activities into two categories —the things that can be done physically in school and the other things online.”
The experience of government schools
While private schools in the national capital found it relatively easier to adapt to a blended mode of learning due to the demographic of students attending the institute and the availability of basic infrastructure in terms of laptops and internet, government schools had to introduce a semi-online model of learning to accommodate those students who lacked devices.
Under the semi-online model, students without access to smartphones and internet could collect worksheets from school which would help them stay up-to-date with their peers who were following online classes.
According to a survey conducted by Unicef, 10% of 6,435 respondents across six states said that students did not have access to devices such as a smartphone, feature phone, television (TV), radio, or laptop/computer. The study also found that at least 80% of students aged between 14 and 18 years reported lower levels of learning at home during the Covid-19 pandemic compared to when they attended classes in schools. This is also why principals emphasize on continuing with both online and in-person classes.
Rakesh Semalty, who earlier headed a resource-rich English-medium government school and has now moved to a regular government school, said there is a difference between the students studying in two types of government schools.
“We have adopted a blended mode of learning since schools reopened earlier this month and are discussing with other schools in the cluster how it can be improved. Public schools face an additional challenge because not all students can join online classes and face connectivity errors due to network issues or lack of means to pay for high-speed internet. The pandemic has helped teachers switch to this model of learning but more work needs to be done to implement it full scale. Though we don’t have the technological tools that are being used by private schools and would require investment and training in the coming years, the new learning model should be adopted because it would help students in becoming technology-savvy which is needed in today’s times,” he said.
In September, the State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) organised month-long discussions among principals and mentor teachers of government schools to discuss “building an understanding of possibilities in blended learning and roles.” Government school principals discussed several ideas including preparing digital educational content in local languages, recording audio lessons for those with limited internet data, introducing rotation and flipped learning, upgrading internet facilities in schools, and the need for more IT assistants in schools.
Leena Asthana, principal of Government Girls’ Senior Secondary School no.4 in Molarband, said, “Many of my teachers already have YouTube channels where they store their content. Students who cannot attend school for various reasons can refer to these lessons and it helps students to engage in self-learning. We also use the flipped classroom and rotation learning for our smart classes. In order to continue with blended learning, we need to upgrade internet facilities in schools to offer high-speed internet to teachers and students. Our current broadband connection does not cover all classes and teachers face network issues. Schools will also need to provide more IT assistants as well for troubleshooting,” she said.
The experience of students
Students across private schools said that while they initially faced difficulties in adapting to the online model of learning, it has made things easier for them.
Class 12 student Niharika Singh, who studies at a top private school in the city, said, “Initially, teachers too were struggling with establishing connect with students but now that too has smoothened. While we do miss learning through discussions with our peers and in-person interactions, having a blended learning model also helps students save time since they don’t have to travel. We can also learn at our own pace.”
Government school students, on the other hand, have mostly struggled due to lack of devices.
Anjali (first name), a class 10 student of a government school in Ambedkar Nagar, said that while her friends had a low-end smartphone in the family, she had a feature phone at the beginning of the pandemic. “We got a second-hand smartphone from a relative but I have to share that with my siblings. Besides, it is an old model and doesn’t have space so I cannot store lessons to access without internet. Having internet data packs throws our monthly budget off. Now that I can come to school, I can learn better,” she said.
What do experts say?
Taking lessons from the pandemic, NEP policy also advocated for preparing schools “with alternative modes of quality education” where traditional and in-person modes of education are not possible to prepare schools across the country for any situation similar to the pandemic.
“It [NEP] calls for carefully designed and appropriately scaled pilot studies to determine how the benefits of online/digital education can be reaped while addressing or mitigating the downsides. In the meantime, the existing digital platforms and ongoing ICT-based educational initiatives must be optimised and expanded to meet the current and future challenges in providing quality education for all,” the policy document stated.
Educationist Meeta Sengupta, who has studied NEP in detail, said schools should create a hybrid world of learning because the world and the market have changed. “The change is inevitable and it is only a question of when. Schools and authorities can work together to implement the change in either two years or in seven years and then they would be left to play catch up again. Schools will not be able to incorporate all tenets of NEP because the stakeholders still want to return to the old mode with only a few upgrades,” she said.
Sengupta advised that schools can go for slow changes. “All educators said that the pandemic came as an accelerator for online learning which has been around for two decades but schools did not adopt it. Now, they had to switch to it because of the pandemic. Governments also have to plan to provide internet as infrastructure just as they provide uniforms and buildings to government school students. Otherwise, these children will not be able to access the newer ways of learning.”