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Sunday, Nov 17, 2019

The e-way out of heavy school bags

Can digital learning help reduce the weight of schools bags? Some schools tried it and failed, while a few succeeded. HT tries to find out if technology can ease the burden on children and the challenges in implementing it

delhi Updated: Dec 09, 2018 16:29 IST
Manoj Sharma and Fareeha Iftikhar
Manoj Sharma and Fareeha Iftikhar
Hindustan Times
A class at Delhi Public School, Faridabad. The school has successfully implemented tablet-based learning and says it has been able to reduce the weight of bags by 70%.
A class at Delhi Public School, Faridabad. The school has successfully implemented tablet-based learning and says it has been able to reduce the weight of bags by 70%.(Biplov Bhuyan/HT Photo)

This week, a class-5 student of Springdales School Delhi brought home a long, terse note from the principal addressed to his parents: “…The Springdales has periodically requested you to ensure that importance should be given on reducing the weight of school bags.”

Prohibiting thermo-steel water bottles of a particular brand, which the note says weighs over two kgs when filled, the school goes on to warn the parents: “In the event of your ward bringing the bottle, it will be confiscated.”

The note urges the parents to “either personally pack the school bag, or oversee what your child puts into it”, and further says, “Your ward’s bags will be checked periodically in the zero period. In the event of the bag being heavy, you will be asked to meet the headmistress/supervisor/class teacher.”

The note follows the Union Human Resource Development (HRD) ministry’s recent directive to reduce the weight of school bags, which has prompted schools in the National Capital Region (NCR) to take measures to shed some burden off their students’ shoulders. After the Centre’s directive, the Delhi government fixed the weight of bags for students, putting a cap of 1.5 kg for class 1 and 2; 2-3kg for classes 3 to 5; 4kg for classes 6 to 7 ; 4.5 kg
for classes 8 to 9, and 5 kg for class 10.

“We have always promoted bagless schools. However, we could not implement it completely because of parents’ concerns,” says Amita Wattal, principal at Springdales. Her school, she says, recently conducted an exercise to weigh empty bags. “We were surprised to see these weighed between two to three kgs. You can imagine what will be their weight after putting books, water bottle and tiffin in them. So, the onus to reduce the weight of school bags is not just on us” she says.

Jyoti Arora, principal, Mount Abu School, Rohini, says her school has been following “no bag Fridays” for students up to class 6 for the last two years. “They only have to bring their tiffin and water bottles on Fridays. Now we are trying to redesign the timetable so that students do not have to bring more than two books a day; we will also promote book-sharing,” Arora says.

Is e-learning the way forward?

The issue of heavy bags may have acquired a sudden urgency after the government’s directive but it has been a matter of debate for years now. The government had taken many initiatives in the past few years such as ePathshala and eBasta to promote e-learning in schools and reduce the weight of school bags but these have so far failed to produce the desired results.

Many believe it is because of the reluctance of schools to adopt mobile learning. Tablet, not smart board, they say, is the device to take digital revolution to the classrooms. But digital initiatives of most schools have so far been limited to installing ‘smart boards’ used occasionally to explain certain concepts through videos in junior classes. “Smart board is a teacher-centric tool, not student-centric,” says Puneet Goyal co-founder, iDream Education, a company that facilitates tablet-based learning in schools, especially in rural areas.

Education technology companies say it is hard to get schools to adopt e-learning platforms, and they cite various reasons: multiple stakeholders in school (management, teachers, students and parents), fee regulation and a lack of any government policy for digitisation in schools.

“The education sector is highly regulated. The last ICT (information and communication technology) policy in school education came in 2012, and it has no specific focus on e-learning. Besides, digitisation has a cost and fee regulation makes it difficult for schools to meet it,” says Atul Kulshrestha, founder and chairman, Extramarks, a Noida-based ed-tech company. “But in the last one year, we sold 15, 000 tablets pre-loaded with curriculum-aligned content directly to homes.”

The Union HRD ministry recently directed schools across India to reduce the weight of school bags.
The Union HRD ministry recently directed schools across India to reduce the weight of school bags. ( Sakib Ali/HT Photo )

In the past few years, some schools tried to adopt tablet learning but switched to books. “Our school tied up with a company. The students who purchased the tabs faced technical issues regularly and hence the programme was scrapped,” says John Dinakaran, principal, Fr. Agnel School, Noida, which introduced the tablets in 2012. “Besides, the experience could not be assessed holistically as many parents did not subscribe to the idea.”

But does he think a tablet can replace traditional textbooks? “Tablets, if used judiciously, can make a difference. But the impact of screen learning on eyes is still a concern. Unless technology eases these concerns, books are here to stay,” says Dinakaran.

Similarly, Naviks School in Bangalore introduced tablets in classes 6 to 8 in 2015 to leverage technology for better educational outcomes and reducing the weight of bags. Four years on, Lalitha Murthi, the principal, seems to have mixed feelings about her digital initiative. “For the first few months, every student came with tablets without textbooks. But about 50% of our students have since gone back to books,” says Murthi. “When the device developed a technical snag, the service centre would take 15 days to resolve it. Students cannot afford that and many switched to books. It was very difficult to bring them back to tablets.”

A success story

But some schools such as DPS Faridabad have successfully implemented tablet-learning. In 2016, the school introduced a BYOD (bring your own device) programme in classes 9 and 10.

On a Monday morning when we visited the school, students in different sections of both classes had tablets, and not books at the desk, listening to the Maths teacher, taking notes, underlining paragraphs on the e-books. About 650 students are using tablets with preloaded e-books. “We have been able to reduce the weight of bags by 70%; the academic performance of many children too went up after they started using tabs,” says Anil Kumar, the principal. “Multimedia content helps children grasp concepts better. Now we have adopted tablet learning as a standard procedure and would introduce it in higher classes too.”

The school has a teacher in charge of tablet learning. It uploads notes, tests, assignments online, and has introduced a new online objective test on Thursdays apart from its weekly Monday test.

And the kids seem to like it. “It has made learning science and English quite easy. I like the fact that all my books are always in a tab, and I can read them whenever, wherever I want,” says Nishant Kumar, a student of class 9. Anvita Jain, another student, says videos in the e-books have made it easier for her to better grasp some of the tricky concepts of Maths.

The textbook learning platform installed in their tabs is configured to control its use and also provides analytics of the students’ activities– what they read, when and for how long. The parents paid ₹16,000 for the tab with preloaded content. “If there is a problem in a student’s tab, we give them spare tablets that we keep in the library,” says Kumar.

The school partnered with Edutor Technologies, a Hyderabad-based company. Ramesh Karra, the co-founder, says his company is working with over 200 schools across the country — about 40 in Hyderabad alone.

The challenges

Like Kulshrestha, Karra feels it is not easy to convince schools to adopt e-learning. “Many parents feel why they should spend Rs 15,000 on a tab when they can buy textbooks for a few hundred rupees,” says Karra. “Tablets have also not evolved in terms of technology and cost. Once the tabs are cheaper and have unbreakable screens, parents will be encouraged to buy them.”

Many government schools, too, have been trying to introduce tablets in classrooms. In 2017-18, the Kendriya Vidyalayas Sangathan launched a pilot project named ‘E-Prajna’ and distributed 5,000 tablets with preloaded content among students and teachers of class 8 in 25 schools across India, including Kendriya Vidyalaya, JNU, in Delhi.

So, what has been the experience? “We are still waiting for feedback from schools,” says a Kendriya Vidyalayas Sangathan official. But project faced several hiccups at KV JNU. “There were many instances of devices going missing in class, and being mishandled or damaged by children. Now we have asked children to bring it only two days a week instead of every day,” says a teacher who does not wish to be named.

But while many schools say parents are not open to the idea of e-learning, the popularity of learning apps such as BYJU’s – launched in 2015 –is growing fast. BYJU’s has 25 million registered students with 1.7 million annual paid subscribers. “Nearly 75% of our users come from tier-2 and tier-3 cities. On an average, students spend 64 minutes on the app daily,” says Mrinal Mohit, chief operating officer, BYJU’s. “ Our Extramarks learning app boasts over two million downloads in the past six months,” says Kulshrestha.

The challenge, Mohit says, has been around changing the perception about ‘how children should learn’.

“While there has been a slow and steady progress, we are confident that with technology weaving in its presence in our daily lives, students, teachers, and parents will embrace the new-age learning methodologies that are enabled by technology,” says Mohit. “One needs to understand online learning is not just offline learning taken online by simply digitising content; it is about using technology to make learning better and more effective online.”

Ajay Singh, principal (CBSE), Genesis Global School, says presently it is difficult to adopt e-learning completely. “For that curriculum, classroom transaction and assessment have to be done digitally. Students cannot be expected to learn digitally and write exams with pen,” he says.

Noted educationist Shyama Chona says that a complete switch to e-learning may not be easy for all schools but they can certainly “overhaul” the way they impart education. “The schools should start redesigning their teaching and learning methods. Why can’t teachers prepare and design their own material and not remain dependent on textbooks?” says Chona. “After all, implementation is always through teachers, and they need proper training in how to make learning more experience-oriented and not textbook and homework oriented.”