Online learning became a growing trend worldwide during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: RTHK

“I feel drained by the end of each day, can hardly remember what I learned, and have started isolating myself. It seems to me that my day begins and ends before I even know it.”

“At first, I sat with my child and ‘attended’ classes, but then I became so tired and restless with the passage of time that I gave up. I wonder how she manages to continue.”

“During my 20 years as a teacher, I never felt the need to be tech-savvy; of course, basic MS Office and internet were needed; since the pandemic, I am overwhelmed: forget about understanding the nuances of holding an online class, I miss the physical interaction with my students and peers so much so that I find it hard to conduct classes.”

“The school has never been the same again; we did try to resume classes, but parents are worried, and express concern about sending their kids to attend regular classes, no matter what age the child is of.”

The pandemic has brought havoc into the lives of many, personally and professionally – loss of lives, lifestyles, jobs, routines, rhythms and with it all so much more; the list is endless. The domain of education is no different.

Where education imparted in schools was heavily dependent on human interaction, it shifted to a situation where a fine balance was maintained between human and tech intervention, to a situation where education technology became a must – this domain has, indeed, witnessed a paradigm shift.

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to the closure of schools in 188 countries, affecting more than 1.5 billion students and 63 million primary and secondary teachers worldwide.

These are mind-boggling figures, and the question that pops up spontaneously is how diverse stakeholders in the domain of education have coped: coped with the loss of jobs, the shift to online teaching and learning, conducting and appearing for exams, maintaining interaction with peers during lockdowns and thereafter, while maintaining social distancing, adjusting to designing and delivering curricula, and so much more.

One acknowledged fact, however, remains: Access to the required tech equipment, stable Internet connections, and consistent electricity supply was necessary for the smooth and regular conduct of online classes. 

According to McKinsey, “India had 560 million Internet subscribers in September 2018, second only to China.… Indians download more apps – 12.3 billion in 2018 – than any country except China and spend more time on social media – an average of 17 hours a week – than social-media users in China and the United States.”

On the other hand, “India’s digital divide remains huge as more than 400 million people still have no access to the Internet. Spatial divide is also huge, with the internet density in rural areas, where more than 60% of the people live, is still low at 25% compared [with] the Internet density in urban areas (90%).

“The digital divide is also big across the leading and lagging regions, with states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh with very low Internet use density. Gender digital divide is also huge within India, with far fewer women with access to mobile phones and Internet services.”

Having said the above, the pandemic has also served as an opportunity to rethink challenges in order to find innovative and customized solutions. So if electricity supply and Internet access are erratic, and/or if the target audience has limited or no access to a smartphone, how can regularity in education be ensured?

One solution that emerged in India was dissemination via IVR (interactive voice response), which found resonance despite initial hiccups. In situations where even this was not possible, dissemination of education, while maintaining social distancing was implemented, once the lockdown was eased.

In either case, it was not a substitute for the regular bricks-and-mortar model, but what did happen was that the link with formal education was not completely broken. 

A 14-year-old Indian pupil remarked: “I didn’t have consistent access to a smartphone, once the lockdown eased and my parents resumed work, but what worked for me were fixed hours during which the phone was with me, and I could take instructions from my teachers, and discuss the work given prior and which I had attempted subsequently.”

Another young student, residing in an urban slum, couldn’t attend regular online classes, but found a way of joining one of her fellow students, a few houses away, where Internet connectivity was more stable.

“At the end of the day, it also depends on how committed one is to complete one’s education or in other words ‘remain in touch’ with what’s happening in the ‘virtual’ classroom,” she said. “We even discussed problems and solutions in a common WhatsApp group; these challenges were not limited to the classroom and studies only, but also other mental and emotional issues. We all became like an extended family.”

What also needs to be understood is that designing and imparting of curricula need to be fine-tuned. One size does not fit all, especially in an extremely diverse country like India; so how does one address this?

A life and soft-skills trainer reminisced about one of her online batches: “At the beginning, I was nervous; I am a technically challenged person; I hadn’t met my batch personally; and I had to teach them verbal English communication skills.

“I took it step-by-step; I learned what I could beforehand in terms of technicalities; some I learned during my journey, with the help of my students, and the others, we – my students and I – jointly found a solution to.

“The idea is not to know everything; one can’t; just accept that. What I ensured was that the video option was on, and the sessions were heavy on interaction, which is what a ‘normal’ class should also be like.”

A language teacher said: “I, as a child, always learned better when I learned via fun and doing, rather than rote; of course, when I was a child there was not much choice, rote being the mode; now, things have changed drastically, and for the better.

“Curricula design is being given the attention it deserves and content development is an art and a science. If we make learning fun and entertainment, encouraging children to explore and learn, with technology serving as a facilitator for, both, children and teachers, then that is an ideal situation.”

Of course, online classes can be exhausting to the mind and the body. Hence correct posture, optimum number of breaks, quality “me” time, “study at your own pace” models, edutainment platforms and such have helped address the challenge of mental and physical stress to some extent. However, caution is still advised in order to strike that delicate balance. 

Valuable inputs such as the above are a part of quantitative and qualitative data that help improvise teaching and learning processes, and the crux of this lies in data – it collection, filtering, and extrapolation. 

McKinsey reports, “Every three years, the OECD uses PISA [the Program for International Student Assessment] to test 15-year-olds around the world on math, reading, and science. What makes these tests so powerful is that they go beyond the numbers, asking students, principals, teachers, and parents a series of questions about their attitudes, behaviors, and resources.

“An optional student survey on information and communications technology (ICT) asks specifically about technology use – in the classroom, for homework, and more broadly.

“In 2018, more than 340,000 students in 51 countries took the ICT survey, providing a rich data set for analyzing key questions about technology use in schools. How much is technology being used in schools? Which technologies are having a positive impact on student outcomes? What is the optimal amount of time to spend using devices in the classroom and for homework? How does this vary across different countries and regions?”

The importance of data can be gathered from the above, which goes to emphasize the importance of collection of the right kind of quality data, in an efficient, a non-partial and timely fashion, in order to impact policy making and implementation, for the empowerment of those who hold the future. 

Having said the above, the main element remains: balance; a balance between the contributions of diverse stakeholders in the education ecosystem; a balance between the application/contribution of technology and physical interaction in the domain of education; and the balance between what constitutes ‘education’ and its dissemination.

Though this is a thin line to walk, it is essential to execute, more so now, than ever before, thanks to the pandemic and the changes it has propelled. 

This article reflects the thoughts of the author solely and not of the organization the author represents.

Sarah Berry

Sarah Berry is head of communications, Centre for The Digital Future, based in Haryana, India. She is also outreach adviser for the organization.