Online education and related issues during Covid-19: Case Study of an industrial town in Rajasthan
Author: Prateek Khandelwal. Prateek completed his MSc. in Digital Anthropology from UCL in 2018-19 and is currently working as an Advocate in the Supreme Court of India.
Fieldsite: A small town named ‘Bhiwadi’ in District Alwar of state Rajasthan in India. The Ethnographic subject lives in the same housing society where my residence is.
The present Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the daily life of almost every individual. The lockdown initiated by many governments to break the cycle of transmission, to brace up the health infrastructure and to decide the future course of action has created distressing situations for the people. Against this backdrop, one sector that has been impacted profoundly is the education sector. In this article, I will try to analyse how the schools in the state of Rajasthan in India are tackling lockdown and pandemic to continue the education of the students.
The primary change is the replacement of physical classes, test or assignments with virtual classes, study videos, online test or soft copy of the resources shared with the students. I try to bring forth the experiences of these changes from the perspective of a class XI student studying and residing in an industrial town named Bhiwadi close to the National Capital Delhi, in Rajasthan and a teacher who teaches higher classes in a village 50 km away from this town.
The Case Study Of Amar
In India, there are various education boards which can be categorised as the state, national and international board. The ethnographic subject ‘Amar’ (name changed) has finished his Class X board exams (equivalent to GCSE in the UK) from CBSE board, a national Board[i]. However, the imposition of lockdown led to the postponement of the single remaining exam, which was subsequently cancelled and students were promoted. Amar, 15 years old, who is studying in private and the most well-known school in the town opted for Commerce stream for his final two years at school which will embark his future orientation. He was grouped in a class with students who opted for Commerce stream. Most of his friends, who opted for Science stream were grouped into separate sections. Only a few of the total students opted for the final steam Arts and humanities in the school. The reason behind this is a social preference of first two streams as they are in vogue for building professional careers in future.
Before the lockdown was implemented, the schools were closed, and exams were postponed because of COVID-19. However, most of the private schools, including Amar’s School in the area kept schools open digitally as per school’s yearly calendar. The government of Rajasthan launched the Project SMILE(Social Media Interface for Learning Engagement) to promote digital learning during the time of lockdown in all the state government operated and sponsored schools. This form of learning was initiated by the creation of a Class WhatsApp group, in Amar’s case, it was ‘XI S’. This WhatsApp group was administered by the class teacher, responsible for teaching a subject and general administration of the class. It consists of all the other subject teacher and, either parent of the student or the student. In Amar’s case, it was his mother as his parents had their own reservations in buying him his personal phone even though they can easily afford it. As per them, they do not want to differentiate between both their children as Amar’s elder brother, 3 years older to him got his personal smartphone only when he got enrolled in the University. When discussions were going on in the family about buying Amar a new smartphone because of changing requirements and circumstances, at the same time, a massive public outcry on mainstream media and social media took place after chats of an Instagram group named ‘Bois locker room’ were circulated[ii]. This group was formed by 15-17 years old boys studying in prestigious schools of Delhi NCR where they used to share indecent pictures of girls known to them and make lewd comments about them. After watching this, Amar parents became more apprehensive and clearly rejected the idea of buying him his own smartphone.
In the class WhatsApp group, the class teacher asked the parents to download apps like Zoom or Google class so that their wards could continue the education online. This shift from physical lectures to online lectures was difficult for both the parties. In the case of Amar, he was now in a new and different class altogether, and most of his friends were in separate sections. So, the sense of mutual bonhomie and camaraderie was missing for him. For teachers, it was difficult in the sense that they have to get adapted to operate their classes on a new platform in addition to moving their resources from physical to digital formats. In the middle of this, an advisory( figure ) by the central government was issued mentioning about the security concern regarding Zoom app for video conferences and team meeting. Hence, the classes were instantaneously shifted from Zoom to Microsoft Teams. However, for the maths teacher, this shift was challenging as he had become comfortable with the Zoom app. Hence, he continued taking his classes on Zoom, and the rest of the teachers were on Microsoft Teams.
A Break in Private Tuitions
In India, private tuitions and coaching supplements the school education system. It behaves like a shadow to mainstream schooling [iii]. As per NSSO survey report of 2015, 25% of students across India were taking private tuitions. In some states, 3 out of 4 students were enrolled in private tuitions for one subject or other[iv]. Almost all the parents, who can afford, sign up their ward for home tuitions or personal tuitions for one or the other subjects. Once in higher classes, the parents enrol their wards in coaching centres working at a commercial scale purporting to prepare students for various competitive entrance exams that they must undertake after their schooling to follow a professional career. This marketed rise in the coaching industry is also a result of deficiency of the schooling system and fear regarding exams among students.[v]
However, the advantages of private tuitions to those who can afford are many, extending from more attention to having a choice to select teachers, which is not available in schools, in a class of 35 or more students. In many schools, class strength can reach up to 60 students or more. Amar told me that he is struggling with Mathematics because the allotted teacher explains the concepts differently. He further said to me that this particular teacher has never taught him earlier, and his pedagogy is hard to follow by most of the students. Hence, the least number of students attend maths class. I asked him whether these problems were confronted in before as well, to which he replied that, earlier his friends cleared his doubts in the class, or, he was able to ask his tuition teacher, which is difficult now with a new class and no tuitions. He told me that he often chat with some of his classmates during the lectures, but it does not pertain to asking of doubts. The private tuition and coaching industry is in shambles(although seems temporary) because of the lockdown. Private tuitions had a competitive advantage over schools and coachings because they can provide more personal attention and overlook their progress which is not possible now. Moreover, they face fierce competition from other well-established players in online coaching.
Substantial Increase in ON-SCREEN time
The virtual classes of the school are scheduled similarly as regular school except for the free-class or ‘Zero period’ as it is called. The students used to undertake different co-curricular activities in this period. This has led to a significant reduction in school hours but has increased the on-screen time of students by a considerable amount. Amar joins his classes through his mother’s phone or via his brother’s laptop, mostly its the former. Moreover, earlier, he daily used to play PUBG for around one hour on his mother’s phone, which has now increased to two hours during the lockdown. He also watches videos of gameplay of PUBG to improve his gaming skills. When not on the phone, most of his time is spent watching TV. He hardly spends time in extra reading or revising his class notes. Primarily, it is because he is not able to go out of his home and play with his friends because of the lockdown in place. The only physical activity he does every day is helping his mother in some house chores and playing with his dog.
The government of Rajasthan launched project SMILE to continue the education of all the students enrolled in government-owned and sponsored public schools. Under this scheme, the teachers have to create a WhatsApp group for the students based on their respective classes. They have to share the reading material or assignments for the day on this group. There is also a provision of posting daily lectures on this group. Upto Class VIII, common video lectures are circulated throughout the state of Rajasthan. For higher classes, the teacher creates new videos and post them. There is no provision of live classes or webinars.
Jai( name changed), a high school teacher, teaching science in one of the government school in a village, 50 km away from Amar’s school, mentions that the access to the benefit of this scheme has been limited for the reason of lack of digital resources in the village. As most of the students enrolled in such schools are from poor families and do not have laptops, computers or smartphones. For some students, there is only one smartphone belonging to the whole family, owned by the elderly working male in the family who work as daily wage labourers in villages. So, once they are back at home after work, only then their ward can access their phones to study. This becomes difficult in cases where the family has more than one school-going child.
He further emphasises that most of the parents are unable to check whether their wards are using phones to watch study videos uploaded by the teachers or something else as they feel inferior to their kids concerning the usage of digital devices. According to him, another issue at hand is that as the numbers are visible in these WhatsApp groups, the boys get access to the girl’s contact number and start texting them. This type of behaviour is frowned upon in the society to which they belong. Hence, there is an additional liability on teachers to check such conduct which is difficult for them. Free and compulsory education till the completion of elementary education is a fundamental right under Article 21 A of the Indian Constitution supplemented with Right to Education Act, 2009. The onus is on the government to provide free elementary education to all the children between 6-14 years of age. However, with the closure of schools and the movement to digital platforms, this right is severely restricted for people belonging to lower strata of society as they have no or minimal access to digital resources.
Through the case study of Amar and Jai, I have tried to bring forth the perspective of student and teacher and highlight some inherent issue between private school and government schools in the state of Rajasthan. For the former, the focus is on conducting regular school online with daily lectures, and the students have the liberty to attend or not to attend. Whereas the latter do not have that option as their freedom is limited to the accessibility of digital resources.
On one end, digital technologies have acted as a boon for the education sector around the world during this pandemic and lockdown. On the other hand, It has underlined some inherent problems, and inequality prevailing between the have and have-nots. Lack of digital access limits the learning for many and restores the vicious cycle of lack of education, unemployment and poverty in India. Moreover, online education reinforces conventional pedagogical techniques which have led to the mushrooming of the private tuition industry in India in the first place. Ancillary issues like privacy, unlimited on-screen time are also a matter of concern on which there is no discussion by the government and civil society.
[i]LearnMor(2017,Februaury 8) Education boards in india|education system in india|CBSE,ICSE,IGCSE,IB,SSC.[Blogpost].Retrieved fromhttps://www.academia.edu/31364994/Education_boards_in_india_education_system_in_india_CBSE_ICSE_IGCSE_IB_SSC
[ii] Clarance, A. & Perera, A.(2020). Bois Locker Room: Indian teens’ lewd Instagram group causes outrage.BBC news. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-52541298
[iii] Harshita Sharma. (2019). Equity Related Concerns: Impact of Private tutoring in India. Journal of Education Culture and Society, 10(2), 299-308.
[iv] Nanda, P. K. (2016). Private Tuition thrives in India: NSSO survey. Live mint e-paper, 2016.Retrieved from https://www.livemint.com/Politics/Dk8ry9VQkyRXcsJVHp9aNJ/Private-tuition-outside-schools-colleges-thrives-in-India.html
[v] Dhall, K. (2014). Private Coaching poaches mainstream education. Alive, (376), 110-111.