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Online education is farce; time to move beyond textbook education and make it practical

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Suppose, the rise in corona cases continues unabated, and numbers don’t subside, what are we going to do? We will have to live with the new normal, isn’t it? Anyway, wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, sanitizing and washing hands regularly, have become new normal. Few more things can be added to it.

Government is pushing online education for school children and college students, as educational institutions are still not allowed to open, as a part of lockdown measures announced by the government to contain coronavirus. At the same time University Grants Commission (UGC) and Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) are pushing for final exams of the university students to be held, when it had already cancelled remaining papers of CBSE board exams. Irony, isn’t it? Few state governments, mostly ruled by opposition parties, are opposing this move, however, let’s not get into that right now. 

I see few problems with the online education system. I’m no way against the technology, but we should be making judicious use of it. In the name of online education, schools have started conducting online classes on video calling platforms like Zoom, Google Duo etc. This has increased screen time for children, as if what they were already spending in front of the screen wasn’t enough. We all know and have read about ill-effects of increased usage of screen, especially on children. So, I’m not going to preach you again. Online classes have given legitimate reason to children to be in front of the screens. Though MHRD has come up with PRAGYATA guidelines to limit screen time for students, other problems still persist.

Then there is a question of affordability and digital divide. Basic requirement of online classes is to have a smartphone, more preferably a tab or a laptop and data connection. While data has become affordable in India in the last few years, the same is not the case with mobiles, tablets and laptops. Many people, especially from lower income groups, have mobile phones for personal use, they can’t afford to purchase another two or three mobile phones for their children for online education. There are already few cases of student/parent suicides for not able to purchase a new gadget to keep it up with online education. In India, where the central government still has to distribute free food grains to around 20 crore families (80 crore individuals out of 135 crores), this reality is more starking.

Do these people have affordability to purchase new gadgets for their school going children? According to a recent survey by Maharashtra State Council of Educational Research (MSCERT) and UNICEF, only 60% parents of school going children have smart phones with most parents owning a single smartphone. Therefore, it becomes difficult for children, especially if there are two – three children in the family to pursue online education. This way we are making education exclusive and not inclusive. Imagine, if this is the state of affairs in Maharashtra, which is the richest state in India, what the parents and children of poorer states would be going through. A survey done in early April also throws up similar findings.

In the current situation, many people are struggling with reduced incomes, barely making their ends meet. How justifiable it is to force online education on such people? Delhi High Court has ruled that schools have right to block students from online classes, if their parents haven’t paid school fees. Can this be justified in the current situation? No matter how big proponent of the free market I’m, I find this move anti humanity. Will this not further create the gap in society? Who will be responsible, if a student/parent takes an extreme step tomorrow, distressed by this?

This is on the student side. Picture isn’t rosy on teachers’ side too. Teachers, especially the old ones, like into their 40s and 50s aren’t so adept at using technology. Human psychology makes it very difficult to learn new things in that age. Making a powerpoint presentation might be a small thing for younger people but a tedious one for old teachers. There are examples of older teachers losing their jobs due to their technological limitations. Teachers are also being bullied online, by the very students, whom they are supposed to teach.

Why can’t we think of an alternate system and out of the box solution. After all it is said that the necessity is the mother of invention. It is increasingly clear that we have lost one semester to the pandemic and may lose this educational year. Instead of forcing students for online classes, why can’t practical projects be given to them depending upon their age. For boards we would need a different approach and experts can brainstorm over it. Also imbibing practical education shouldn’t be limited to this year and should be continued in future, like European countries, which focus more on practical education than theoretical/textbook education.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi always says that he comes from a very poor family and knows the pain of poverty, and therefore he is able to take the decisions which benefit the poor. It is high time than he should intervene and stop this façade of online education, at least for the school children. 

(This article is written by Keshav, a media graduate who left journalism for an alternative career. Aviation entusiast. Indian, Marwari, Marathi- in that order.)

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