Students in a classroom in a school in Kasheli village, Bhiwandi, which reopened after a year in February. HT Photo
Students in a classroom in a school in Kasheli village, Bhiwandi, which reopened after a year in February. HT Photo

Online mode is a big lesson for the education system

With online learning the stark inequalities of class, caste and gender became immediately visible.
By Ankita Bhatkhande, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
PUBLISHED ON MAR 09, 2021 12:38 PM IST

Months after the nationwide lockdown started in March 2020, 15-year-old Sahil Gaikar’s life was upended forever. He found out that his parents’ savings were nearly over. His father, Sandeep, a dabbawala, and mother, Kavita, a home-maker, had no money left to pay rent, buy food, or pay the fees for his sister, Pratiksha, and him. Their only option was to live with his grandparents in Junnar, Pune district.

In October, Sandeep, Kavita, and Pratiksha returned to Mumbai. Kavita got a job at a local tailoring unit and Sandeep took up a job as a security guard. Pratiksha got admission in a college. Sandeep asked Gaikar to stay back with relatives in Sangamner in Ahmednagar, where he could join a junior college. Gaikar, who scored 73% in Class 10, wanted to join the Science stream, and that’s what he did, at a tenth of the cost. But living on a farm and attending college had its own challenges. His college does not have a proper functioning laboratory. Gaikar has no coaching classes nearby. Internet connectivity is poor and he barely attended classes after his college started in September 2020.

Affected by inequality

Millions of school and college-going students would agree with Gaikar. Online learning is revolutionary but when it became the only mode of learning during the lockdown months, the stark inequalities of class, caste and gender became immediately visible as thousands of children were forced out of the education system and thousands more faced learning setbacks.

Between April and June 2020 the state education department collected data from schools in two blocks of each of the 36 districts to understand the means of communication that students had access to. Nearly 16% of the students who responded had no access to any medium of communication (radio, television or mobile phone); more than 26% students in the state did not have access to even a simple mobile phone. Inequities varied across the state. In Mumbai, nearly 88% students reported having access to phone.

A survey conducted by the Maharashtra State Council of Educational Research and Training (MSCERT) and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) found 5.98 million students had access to a smart phone, but only 57% had internet connectivity. 737 schools (private and state-run) and 6,855 students (between classes 1 to 10) were surveyed. Students in remote parts of the state were unable to attend online classes due to poor network and lack of digital resources.

Reshma Agarwal, an education specialist at UNICEF, said, “When we did the survey in June, we got the phone numbers of a few students picked in a random sample and within that lot 3-4% students could not be reached. We got their contacts from their teachers, but we still couldn’t track them down.”

In December 2020, Leadership for Equity, a Pune-based NGO conducted a community survey. The NGO reached out to 382 teachers and nearly 400 parents across six districts. Almost every teacher reported that at least two children from their class had failed to return to school.

In Mumbai, data compiled by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) last month revealed that more than 60,000 of the 628,000 students studying in 2,387 municipality-governed schools have not been able to attend online classes due to varied reasons, including migration and lack of access to devices.

Challenges for teachers

“I started with a revision of all that was taught to the class over the last 10 months but realised that students had not understood quite a bit. It was shocking because I had never realised this until I took a physical session with them,” said a math teacher in Osmanabad about her Class 9 students on the first day back at school.

Vikram Adsul who teaches at a Zilla Parishad school in Karjat, Ahmednagar also realised what the loss of learning in a physical space meant. He said, “Their ability to take up complex tasks and understand concepts in various subjects had drastically reduced. ” The state education department allowed schools in the state to reopen for classes 9 to 12 from November 23, 2020 and for classes 5 to 8 from January 27, 2021.

Ashwini Sonavane, block education officer in Bhor in Pune district said, “I worked in Bhamragad, Gadchiroli earlier and there, majority of the households barely have electricity. How can you expect students to attend online classes?”

Efforts made

On March 1, the state education department began a drive to identify the number of students who are not attending class across 100,000 schools in all districts. They will halt this drive on March 20. MSCERT and UNICEF have compiled some of these experiments into a small booklet which will be released this month.

One of the teachers mentioned in this booklet is Smita Kapse, a 43-year-old Math and Science teacher in a Zilla Parishad school in Malewadi, Solapur.

More than 50% of her students did not own a smart phone and could not attend her online classes. So Kapse reached out to her former students and formed a group that called itself Corona Fighters. This group, comprising 16 to 25-year-old students many of whom are either in college or working, began to hold physical classes and between April 2020 and January 2021 have taught nearly 150 students.

Snehal Suryavanshi, a class 12 student said, “We are happy to make a difference.”

Meanwhile, Sahil Gaikar is keen to prepare for the army and navy entrance. “I miss my friends and my teachers and call them when I have doubts with studies,” he said.

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