In India, when classes went from face-to-face to virtual due to COVID-19, students in remote areas and poor families who lacked access to the internet faced enormous challenges in pursuing their studies.
India's shutdown started in March and only in June saw restrictions gradually being relaxed. Classes went virtual despite the fact that only a quarter of Indian households have internet access.
An award-winning nonprofit start-up in Cuttack, the capital of the state of Odisha, has found a way to help families with financial difficulties: Using non-internet-based technologies such as voice calls, text messages and radio, it is offering a very affordable education for more than 5000 children in 400 villages.
Social entrepreneur Binayak Acharya came up with the idea five years ago. Together with community educators, Anganwadi (literally “shelter in the yard” in Hindi, they are rural childcare workers) and primary school teachers, developed an educational methodology for the first grades called ThinkZone. thinking) for children in low-income communities.
During confinement, these methods were effective. When the schools closed, ThinkZone partnered with Radio Choklate FM1 104, a local station from Odisha, to broadcast the lessons; Chandrima Banerjee reviewed the show in The Times of India: “It's like Zoom, no videos or interactions, but it works.”
ThinkZone educators also use voice calls, interactive voice responses (IVRs), or text messages to teach the modules. The system is free and operates in two ways: with “Pull Calling” parents call a number or send an SMS that will allow them to access the daily learning modules for their children, with “Push Calling” ThinkZone offers daily one-way calls or two minutes based on IVR and adapted SMS modules.
Acharya's organization also developed “home-made” activities for parents to use with their children at home, in combination with non-Internet-based technologies.
Children in four districts of Odisha – Cuttack, Kendrapara, Khordha and Bhadrak – have benefited from ThinkZone programs. The project also employed more than 300 women from the same districts.
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Celebrating #NationalParentsDayhttps://t.co/LfBUFYGPeO pic.twitter.com/lOcjmzkjzi
– ThinkZone (@ThinkZoneIndia) July 26, 2020
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Learning during a pandemic
According to UNESCO, more than 1.37 billion students in 138 countries around the world have been affected by the closure of schools and universities since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March and more than 60.2 million teachers are away from them. classes, many are teaching through some technology.
While the school year in India is due to start in September, there is still no clear national plan to return to traditional classes in the country.
“Many children will not return immediately as parents will hesitate and want to keep their children safe,” Acharya said in an interview with the International Youth Foundation.
Meanwhile, other nonprofits are using similar methods, like teaching through popular, data-intensive apps like WhatsApp, but there are no simple blanket solutions. The 5000 children of the ThinkZone project are a drop in the bucket when you consider that the 320 million Indian students affected by the lockdown.
On Twitter, Sangsan recalls that some students from the Indian state of Mangalore have to get to the top of the hill to attend online classes due to connection problems:
Dear @narendramodi @HPoonja Sir. Right to education is for every student / child. More than 100 kids in this remote village are struggling for the same by climbing hills in forest areas, facing risk from wild animals too. Please help. https://t.co/u8RDH4MxeR pic.twitter.com/NQEB7ipCGd
– Sangsan (@ Sangsan31796804) July 28, 2020
Digital Education: Students attend classes from the top of the hill in Mangaluru. A teacher and 14 students walk between one and three kilometers every day to a nearby store on the top of a hill for online classes in Mangaluru, due to connection problems (…).
Dear Messrs. Narendra Modi and Harish Poonja, the right to education is for any student / child. More than a hundred children in this remote village strive for the same thing, they climb the hills of the forest areas, they also face the risk of wild animals. Please help.
However, children in low-income communities are not the only ones suffering from the transition to virtual classes. Students with learning disabilities have also struggled to adjust, as researcher Seema Nath tweets:
Children with a disability across several states in India including Odisha, are facing a huge risk of dropping out of school as they are not being able to cope with online / digital medium for their classes during the Covid-19 pandemic.https: // t .co / LPStlO3X48
– Seema Nath (@seemanath) July 27, 2020
Report: more than four million students with disabilities across the country could drop out of school for not knowing how to deal with virtual education.
Children with disabilities in various states in India, including Odisha, are facing the enormous risk of dropping out of school as they do not know how to deal with online and digital media for their classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Janhavi Apte writes an op-ed in Statecraft urging the government to create better infrastructure for distance learning:
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the severe inequalities that exist between the rich and the poor, rural and urban households, and between males and females. These disparities lay bare the pitfalls in access to education in India, even on virtual platforms. While a push towards remote learning is understandable in these trying times, the current system is insufficient to serve as a suitable alternative to in-person learning. Following the current trajectory, an inability or unwillingness to build and strengthen the education infrastructure in the country will only push the poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged even further into the margins of society, and even worse, leave them behind.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed severe inequalities between the rich and the poor, urban and rural housing, and between men and women. These inequalities expose the difficulties of access to education in India, even on virtual platforms. While the push for online learning in these difficult times is understandable, the current system is insufficient to make it a suitable alternative to traditional learning. Following the current trajectory, the inability or unwillingness to build and strengthen the educational infrastructure in the country will further marginalize the poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged and, even worse, leave them behind.