Meet organisations bridging Odisha’s great digital divide to teach students
Odisha government’s push for online education for class 1 to 10 during the Covid pandemic ended up excluding a majority of students last year, but a handful of social organisations and individuals are determined to bridge the digital gulf in a state where only 2% government schools have internet facilities and just 28.22% internet subscribers as per the government data.
The school and mass education department admitted that online education could not reach more than one third of 6 million school students last year. But in its effort to provide continuity of education, amid Covid pandemic, the Odisha School Education Programme Authority started a WhatsApp-based teaching system and followed it up with YouTube live streaming classes for students of Class 1-10 from last month.
“As there is no clarity on when schools will reopen, we have to continue with online education. We are getting reports of children having to climb trees, hills to get net connectivity, but it is a Central issue and our chief minister has taken up the matter with the Prime Minister for expanding net connectivity in remote areas of the state,” said Odisha school and mass education minister Samir Dash.
It’s not just a signal issue, the fact remains that YouTube learning is able to cater to just about 1.2 million of the 6.6 million school students since tribal districts and rural areas lack internet connectivity and poor children don’t have mobiles.
“The pandemic has led to an ‘education deficit’ or the difference between the reality children experience and government’s commitments in human rights treaties. This not only undermines the fundamental human right to education, but has real dire consequences for global development and an entire generation of children,” said activist Radhakanta Tripathy, who has filed a petition before the National Human Rights Commission in this regard.
However, a few individuals as well as NGOs are innovating to bridge the great digital divide.
Headmaster of Mundamurai primary school in Dharakote block of Ganjam district, Surjya Narayan Sahoo makes video modelled on the YouTube classes which are encoded by cable operators and beamed on local cable network, accessible to students in 7 gram panchayats.
“All the students have TV in their homes and at least a feature phone. Whatever is shown on YouTube channel, I teach them the same through cable TV. I also address their doubts over ordinary mobile phones,” said Sahoo.
Binayak Acharya’s education start-up ThinkZone has been reaching out to over 10,000 children in the districts of Khurda, Bhadrak, Kendrapara and Cuttack even if they don’t have smartphones or internet access. Since the start of the pandemic last year, Acharya’s start-up has been teaching the students of class 1-5 through remote instructions by feature phone and simple text messages along with automated voice calls to engage with children.
Every morning, teaching content is sent to the feature phones of the parents and in the afternoon, the teachers check with the students if they went through the contents. The students have to call a toll free number and listen to the teaching. . The content includes a lot of home-based learning activities, focusing on foundational skills in Odia and Mathematics. The activities are very simple in nature.
“When lockdown started and children could not come to school, we started reaching out to children using feature phones as most of the parents are in low income groups. We regularly follow up and see whether a child is getting engaged. We are doing it for students of class 1 to 5 free of cost,” said Acharya, whose organization is now partnering with Odisha government’s Mo School programme for developing a home-based learning programme.
In the remote Malkangiri district, non profit organization Atmashakti Trust, through its ally Shramajeebee Sangathan, started ‘Mo Chatashalee’, a community-led remedial education centre in the village where children can study with the help of a trained volunteer.
Kawasiguda is a remote village of Kalimela block in Malkangiri with most of the inhabitants being Koya tribals, who have only 29.87% literacy, far less than the district and the state figures as per 2011 census. The village’s only school has been closed since mid-March last year following the lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus. With schools shut, children got involved in household or livelihood activities such as collecting firewood and forest produce, grazing animals etc.
“Parents almost lost hope and it was critical to strike a balance for them to address the learning needs of their children. Therefore, we mobilized them to open ‘Chatashalee’, a remedial education centre in the village where children can continue their education with the help of a trained volunteer. We are using the school verandah for this purpose where 56 children are divided into two groups and imparted remedial class in morning and evening shift respectively,” said Ere Madhi, president of Mahila Shramajeebee Sangathan, a women-led people’s collectives in Malkangiri.
In three tribal-dominated blocks of Kalahandi, Rayagada and Kandhamal Livolink Foundation, an associate of Tata Trusts, working in the education sector, began a home-based learning support program for tribal children as soon as the lockdown was announced last year.
“We knew that prolonged school closure would lead to learning losses in the tribal areas. Online classes were also ruled out. So we started organizing classes in school buildings as the concept of studying at home is largely absent in tribal households. Instead of textbooks, our volunteers used locally available teaching-learning materials such as flowers, pebbles, twigs or even toffees for over 140,00 pre-school and primary school children,” said Santosh Dash, programme manager at Livolink Foundation.
This year when the second wave of Covid started, the volunteers of Livolink started conducting classes at children’s homes, verandahs (porch), community areas or under shade of trees between 8 am and 10am and 3 and 5 pm. “The teaching process is not exam-oriented but rather fun and play based,” said Dash.
Educationist Pritish Acharya said if the government continues online education without necessary supportive measures, the prevailing disparity in the virtual world could translate into widening educational inequalities. “Education has become a distant dream for the students who are poor and those living in remote and inaccessible areas. The government needs to think of an alternative model to reach out to such children,” said Acharya.