School children in Odisha climb water tank to bridge digital divide on education

“The BSNL tower in our village is useless for joining the online class. If I climb the water tank, then I manage to get a faint network of Airtel 4G tower 12 km from our village. Sometime I also climb the Mahul tree to catch the airtel network from the tree,” said Roul.
School children in Odisha on water tank.(HT)
School children in Odisha on water tank.(HT)
Published on Aug 01, 2020 01:39 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, Bhubaneswar/Raipur/Ranchi | By Debabrata Mohanty and Ritesh Mishra

In Landimala village under Ghosharamala GP of Maoist-affected Naktideula block of Sambalpur district, Laxmidhar Roul, a class 10 student of nearby high school climbs a 150 feet under-construction water tank every morning so that he can access the online classes run by his school. Like him, Ramachal Swain, a std 9 student of another high school too climbs the water tank while jostling for space.

“The BSNL tower in our village is useless for joining the online class. If I climb the water tank, then I manage to get a faint network of Airtel 4G tower 12 km from our village. Sometime I also climb the Mahul tree to catch the airtel network from the tree,” said Roul.

Hundreds of miles away in Koraput district, children in Pottangi block climb trees everyday too catch mobile signal.

In Maliput Rajiv Gandhi High School of the block, children routinely climb trees and hills to catch mobile signal so that they can join the whatsapp classes started by the government. In Maoist-affected Daringibadi block of Kandhamal district, children most often come out of their homes to access the online education as mobile connectivity is erratic most of the days.

Months after the Odisha government started online classes for about 70 lakh school students due to Covid-induced lockdown and shutdowns across the state, students in the districts like Sambalpur, Koraput and Kandhamal are trying everything to catch that elusive mobile network. “In Landimala village, the BSNL tower can support not mroe than 30 mobile phones at a time. To get 4G signal of Airtel, children climb the water tank as well as trees,” said Mahesh Swain, a villager of Landimala.

While students in some districts like Khurda, Cuttack, Balasore and Bhadrak have somwhow managed to join the online classes, those in other districts have found it a huge task. “Our school has 100 students and only 41 have phones and few of them are Android. Even teaching those who have Android phones is not easy due to lack of mobile signal,” said Akshay Kumar Nayak, headmaster of Maliput Rajiv Gandhi High School in Pottangi block of Koraput. Of the 14 high schools in the block, schools in Ambabali, Kusuma, Digaguru, Nuagaon, Pukali and Chandka don’t have any mobile network.

The National Sample Survey on “Household social consumption: Education” done between July 2017 and June 2018 found that .on education, 24% of Indian households had an Internet facility while only 10 per cent in Odisha had access to Internet. For tural households in Odisha, it was starker - only 5 per cent had access to Internet.

Anil Pradhan, a Right to Education activist said the online education in a state like Odisha is a luxury for most of the students. “Not more than 20 per cent of the students would have access to smartphone. Even if they had a smartphone, it would have been with the parents. Then there are mobile connectivity issues and frequent power cuts. The government should have waited for some time before rushing off to start online education,” said Pradhan.

Senior IAS officer and project director of Odisha School Education Programme Authority, Bhupendra Singh Poonia, admits that it has not been possible to reach all the students through smartphones. “We are able to reach about 30 per cent of the students. But no one who has not been able to log in to the online classes should feel left out. We are trying to rope in NGOs for reaching out to all the students,” said Poonia.

In Jagdalpur district of Chhattisgarh, loudspeakers are being used for teaching in the villagers because most of the students don’t have smartphones. Niklesh Hari , a district administration official who is looking after the schools said it started with three panchayats and after people’s demand 53 more panchayats have started this program on their own.

“We teach English through Halbi-tribal language, telecast stories, nutritional awareness messages n direct lessons by teachers. There are about 50-150 kids per panchayats and more than 100 teachers are involved at field level. We have team of 10 teachers who develop content for English-Halbi program,” said Hari. “Bastar tribal kids are at disadvantage compared to rest of India . So as to ensure all possible means to learning, we have started this program,” he added.

In Jharkhand, school headmaster Shyam Kishore Singh Gandhi of Dumka district, has put up several loudspeakers across Bankathi village to teach over 200 students, who don’t have smartphones. The students sit near the loudspeakers which have been put up on trees and walls at different locations, and attend the classes.

“Louder speakers are put up where the number of students is more. Five teachers and two para teachers teach over the mike from the classroom, Gandhi said.Thousands of schools and colleges across India have switched to online as classrooms remain shut since mid-March amid the coronavirus outbreak. There are 246 students from class 1 to class 8, and 204 of them do not have mobile phones,” Gandhi said. “If the students have any doubt or want to ask any question, they can send their queries to me from anyone’s mobile phone and we explain it the next day,” he added.

Gandhi said the model is working and students are grasping well what is being taught.The students are receptive and are enjoying the new style of studying, said an elderly villager.Lauding the headmaster, Dumka’s district education officer Poonam Kumari said all the 2,317 government schools here should emulate the model so that the students would not have to struggle to complete the syllabus once the lockdown is lifted.

(With PTI inputs from Ranchi)

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