Online education in Delhi’s government primary schools during COVID-19

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Author: Richard J Thornton, PhD researcher, University of Sussex

Fieldsite: Rich is conducting fieldwork with non-profit education organisations in Delhi. His main fieldsite is a public-private partnership primary school in which he has been volunteering as a part-time Drama teacher since April 2019.

A government-run primary school, Delhi, September 2019
Since April 2019 I have been volunteering with a ‘start-up’ education NGO in Delhi who send small teams of educators to work alongside government-employed teachers in the city’s government primary schools.

On March 2, 2020 – as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19 – the Delhi government announced that all primary schools in the city would be closed until March 31. Throughout March, cafes closed and events were cancelled until – on March 24 – PM Narendra Modi announced a three-week nation-wide lockdown (now extended till May 17).

I have written the following report in an interview format because most of the direct information I have been receiving from my fieldsite during the lockdown period has been from the NGO-employed School Leader (SL). Over three phone conversations and various text messages she has recounted the following events. I have not been in contact with teachers, children, or their families directly during this lockdown period.

Overview of the school: One government-employed Principal runs the school, and six government-employed teachers cover each of the six classrooms: Nursery – Grade 5 (ages 4 – 11). The NGO team has shifted throughout the year, but for the most part has consisted of one School Leader, one Assistant School Leader, and one Teaching Support Educator.

Reconstructed Interview

Me:      What was the in-school NGO-team’s first educational response when Delhi primary schools closed on March 3 2020?

SL:       We went to school and decided to use the existing year-based Whatsapp groups to send worksheets home to the children. We first started with Class 5 to whom we sent Maths and Hindi questions. We then began sending schoolwork to kids in all the post-Nursery year groups: Class 1 – 5.

Me:      Do the kids all have smartphones?

SL:       About 80% of the kids have access to a smartphone, normally their father’s or another family member’s.

Me:      How did the Whatsapp-based education continue?

SL:       We realised that children would have limited access to Whatsapp and limited headspace to concentrate while stuck at home, so me and the team chose one subject per class, per day, – e.g. Maths multiplication for Class 3, Hindi grammar for Class 4 – for which to send activities. We sent instructional videos from sites like YouTube, and activity sheets we found online or had previously designed ourselves.

Me:      What were the government-employed teachers doing at the time?

SL:       March is the end of the school year in Delhi, so there’s lots of paper-based admin for the teachers to finish. They also figured out how to grade the children using previous completed work as the kids would be missing their end of year tests planned for mid-March. The teachers’ first priority is to ensure this work is complete; within the bureaucracy of the government employment system this admin is seen to be very important.

Me:      When did the school close for your team and the teachers?

SL:       The NGO central team pulled us out of school on March 17, to practice social distancing, and the government teachers were directed to stay home a few days after that.

Me:      What happened next?

SL:       On March 18, working from home, I led a group video call with some Class 5 students to help them prepare for exams for scholarships to secondary schools. The kids reported that they were struggling to focus on the academic content that we had been sending and requested more energetic and artistic activities. From that day forward, me and the team sent early-morning yoga YouTube links and worksheets based around more creative, tactile learning.

Me:      When did the government decide to launch their program of Whatsapp-based primary school teaching?

SL:       The government were making plans during lockdown to help teachers provide online teaching to students from the first day of the new school year, April 1st. When I spoke to the Principal of our school on the phone, she was at first hesitant to call her teachers during the lockdown and ask them to teach the kids via Whatsapp. She said she was worried that kids would not be able to access Whatsapp, and that they might struggle to concentrate due to being stuck at home and the ongoing Covid emergency. I also think that she wasn’t sure her teachers would be ready to use Whatsapp to teach.

A bit of background …

During the school year, I have watched how the teachers interact with ICT. The teachers all have high-quality smartphones, some seem to be very comfortable using Whatsapp for personal use, others only use it rarely to check if they have received messages from the School Leader or Principal. Whenever the teachers have needed print-outs for their classrooms they have asked one of the three members of the NGO school team to find/design them and print them for them. When they need to log-in to online government data websites, they ask one of the NGO-team for assistance. In the past two or three years, the Delhi government have invested in an expensive interactive white-board, computer unit, and projector for select schools. When I arrived in the school in April 2019, the teachers were untrained in how to use the hardware. Over the year, part of the NGO team’s work has been to familiarise the teachers with this technology. 

Me:      How well-trained are the teachers to use ICT to teach the kids?

SL:       They can all use Whatsapp to forward messages etc, but they are not well-trained in using laptops/desktops. For example, they can send emails, but may not know how to add attachments. They are not familiar with slideshow presentation or spreadsheet apps.

Me:      What about the more senior government officials, what ICT training have they been receiving while in office?

SL:       The ones I’ve been in contact with also lack ICT skills. They struggle with tasks like converting files to PDFs; producing and sharing Google Docs; and making informational posters and presentations. I’ve been getting late night calls from high-up educational officials who want to know how to use technology, e.g., how to add folders to Google Drive. The problem is that a lot of these government officials are apprehensive towards using these computer programs; they feel they are expected to have these skills but have never been trained. One official suggested that I train the teachers on how to use the G Suite apps.

Me:      Okay, so what happened when the teachers were first asked by the Principal to begin online teaching?

SL:       We, the NGO team, had already created one Whatsapp group per year, so the Principal ensured that each class teacher became the admin for their respective class’s Whatsapp group. Then the Nursery teacher called each family one-by-one to explain the new situation: each day their child would be given tasks by their class teacher via Whatsapp and the child would be expected to send back a photo of their completed work.

Me:      What methods and content were the teachers expected to use?

SL:       The government decided Whatsapp was the best medium to contact children [presumably because it is the app both teachers and children have best access to]. The Delhi government allocated each municipal zone (North, East, South) the responsibility to design Whatsapp-deliverable teaching and learning content for each different school subject, all of which would then be shared between all zones. The director of education for each zone then chose people to take part in ‘content creation groups’; I was asked to be part of a group that designed material for Social Studies. Each school Principal was then responsible for ensuring teachers received this material.

Me:      And how has it looked in practice?

SL:       It took time for all this material to be made. We at the NGO had already designed a digital ‘toolkit’ which we were sharing freely to all educators in Delhi. These toolkits are based on the government textbooks used by the teachers in school. I also didn’t see much point in creating new content when there is so much excellent digital material already available for free online.

A ‘social-emotional’ learning activity for parents and children from the NGO toolkit

Me:      So what’s the communication been like between you and the teachers throughout April?

SL:       Each day I send the teachers suggestions for what they could send to the kids on the Whatsapp groups. This is normally video links to relevant things I’ve found online. The teachers usually say that my suggestions will be too difficult for the kids and instead they find something similar at a lower academic level. In order to make this process smoother, I designed and published a ‘mobile-friendly’ website to help teachers locate content. This website uses NCERT [official Indian government body for curriculum production] curriculum to help the teachers use it alongside the textbooks from which they are basing their online teaching. Some of the teachers have really taken to the new medium, they send explanatory voice notes to the students, and even record selfie-videos to talk them through the worksheets.

Me:      And how have the students responded?

SL:       The students have been active in guiding the teachers’ choices, or at least, they have been contacting me directly to say what is and is not working for them. For example, they criticised our NGO’s toolkit for having heavily worded instructions, so we’ve been trying to re-design it to be more accessible. The interactions between the teachers and the kids also seemed to have changed. The teachers only send schoolwork during school hours (9am – 1pm), but the kids – with their intermittent access to smartphones – sometimes send back photos of their work late into the night. But even at midnight teachers are responding with words and emojis, and they seem to be giving more praise to the kids than they do during normal school. I also feel that some kids’ academic work has improved during lockdown, perhaps being at home it is easier for them to concentrate than in class.

Me:      And what about parents’ involvement?

SL:       From my view parents themselves have been more involved than ever in their children’s learning. Normally they work long hours as drivers, domestic workers, or fruit sellers, but now that they are stuck at home during lockdown some of these parents seem to be watching closely as their children do their schoolwork and take proud photos of their kids holding out completed worksheets.

Me:      What else have you observed in the digital interaction between teachers and kids?

SL:       In some ways the teachers seem more confident, perhaps the extra composure gained from being able to rehearse beforehand – and the intimacy/barrier of the screen – allows them to be more vulnerable with the children in these acts of communication. I feel that kids are more likely to approach teachers directly for help, whereas in the classroom they fear being bullied for doing so.

Closing Thoughts

A large part of my ethnographic fieldwork has been with start-up education NGOs – like the School Leader’s – wishing to partner directly with government schools by working day-to-day with government teachers, or in some instances, replacing these teachers entirely. These NGOs have made slow but steady progress since the first such partnership was launched in Delhi in July 2015. Now, amid the COVID emergency, these NGOs (and the individuals employed by them) are being bestowed with a new level of trust: they are providing digital training to government bureaucrats and designing bespoke digital content for the children they know most intimately.

In my school, the School Leader has spent two years building informal yet professional relationships with the children. It is this pastoral work – as opposed to academic instruction –  that seems to have now encouraged the children to be honest with the School Leader about what kind of teaching engages and fails to engage them. These relationships seem especially important during times of crisis when the families of the school children might need extra support – both academically and materially. (The School Leader’s NGO has also been instrumental in helping children’s families access food and hygiene rations during lockdown).

With support from technically skilled educators like the School Leader, the government teachers – who, according to the very same School Leader, ‘know how to teach their kids better than anyone’ – are learning new skills and developing new ways to build relationships with their students. These relationships are especially important as Delhi primary schools employ the ‘mother-teacher’ concept where one teacher stays with a group of children from Class 1 all the way through to Class 5. Despite low tech-literacy – and all the tragedy of the COVID pandemic notwithstanding – this crisis, according to the reports of the School Leader, has provided new energy to the primary school teachers in our school.

The social, psychological and political dangers of a much larger systemic shift to online education are too vast to approach in this blog, but seeing the examples of well-designed, locally-specific, personally-connected online education that have surfaced in these times of need hints that the intricacies of an integrated combination of face-to-face and digital teaching is ripe for India’s government schools to explore.

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The below is a three-page English activity for Grade 1-2 from the NGO toolkit