By Shilajit Kar Bhowmick

 The day, when the world shall watch the denouement of this bleak Covid- 19 episode, cannot be predicted even by putative soothsayers. In ‘The Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka, Gregor Samsa woke up to see that he was transformed into a gigantic insect and subsequently isolated from his near and dear ones. Similarly, the world has woken up in 2020 to see that things have been metamorphosed and are not running as usual, as planned and as expected. Many of us were planning to go ahead with our careers. But this pandemic has enforced the imposition of a lockdown. And this has arguably led to loss of livelihoods. Frustration has crept into our nerves and we are fed up. Therefore, we are eagerly waiting for a day when we shall emerge out of our cocoons and revel in our redemption from Corona.

One of the key sectors affected by the pandemic is education. Educational institutions have  closed down to avoid community transmission. But at the same time, we should not put a spoke in the wheels of a child’s future. Realising the gravity of this situation, online learning has been instituted and it predominantly takes over the lives of our urban students. Some say that owing to these circumstances children are getting hooked to the screens. But honestly speaking, children are always hooked to the screens whether it is in the form of television, mobile or computer. And yes, it has demerits. Exposing children to screens from a young age is not right as the light emitted from the screen can strain their eyes. This may lead to vision issues. It also makes children lethargic and impedes their thinking skills as watching a screen is a passive act.

On the other hand, e-learning is confined only to academics. It does not enhance the growth of a child as he/she is not able to make friends and interact with them. And this interaction with friends is essential because it forms a deep bonding, which forms part of our life. That is why we always attach importance to socialization. But as e-learning overtakes physical classrooms forcibly by extraordinary circumstances, socialization takes the back seat and it shall have a deep psychological impact on children.

According to a good section of guardians, their wards are missing the advantages of a physical classroom because e-learning lacks the holistic approach. Precisely, a student is attending an online class for Physics. He/she has doubts regarding practical-oriented issues. For example; a teacher imparts lessons on the ‘theory of acceleration’. The student has some doubt regarding the spot issues associated with the aforesaid lesson. He/she has to text the teacher via e-mail or Whatsapp. The teacher replies at his/her convenient time. But even that explanation does not clear the student’s doubts which is instead possible to be solved in a physical classroom.

Before we delve deeper into the disadvantages, we should remember that to solve a very complex issue, some hard questions should be frankly asked as well.

Is every student endowed with the same intellectual capacity? Is every student a topper? The common reply shall, obviously be given in the negative. If we realise this, we must not forget that subjects like Maths and Science cannot be comprehended by every student in an online classroom. There are practical issues associated with these subjects where most students are unable to score high. In a physical classroom, a teacher explains more than once. And that clears most of the doubts. But that is not possible in an online classroom. On the other hand, we often see that a student who is a topper from the first standard to the fifth standard often loses his/her grip when promoted to higher standards. Therefore, intellectual capacity is not  a stable entity. As we grow up, our mindsets change, our attitudes change, our choices change, our opinions change and so on and so forth.

So these issues should be taken into account and addressed innovatively.

The monetarily invincible children living in urban areas are benefitting to a certain extent from online education. They are at least not isolated from academics. But the sorry state of affairs is that their rural counterparts are not receiving an iota of education during Corona. Problems of the invisible i.e the poor and marginalized are not entertained yet.

First of all, the medium of instruction in rural India is vernacular languages. English is hardly understandable for them. On the other hand, internet connectivity is very weak in those areas. And thus, video chatting platforms like Zoom, Google Duo, Hangouts, Google Meet etc. are not functioning well in villages. Lack of cable TV sets also adds to the problem. Besides, a student cannot practically comprehend lessons through his/her smartphone. Again, smartphones are not available in the palms of rural inhabitants. Naturally, we can easily gauge that online education is available only to urban inhabitants.

On the other hand, according to the Key Indicators of Household Social Consumption on Education in India report, less than 15% rural Indian households have internet as opposed to 42% urban Indian households. The report was based on the 2017-18 National Sample Survey.

Besides, children belonging to migrant families might have moved far away from their schools. We have no idea whether they shall be able to return to the cities or what’s in store for them according to destiny. So despite the efforts of teachers to develop better online modules, based on activities, many children are not benefitting from it.

Our education system should be improved in such a way so that we need not have to keep schools closed in such situations. We have to ensure a safe environment for the students even during a pandemic. And we have to seriously mull over preparing action plans to deal with students who have lost out on education during the pandemic.

We also cannot leave our rural children to their own fate. Alternative ways should be devised so that they are brought at par with their urban counterparts. The Government should take steps to publish those notes that are dictated in online classes, in print form. They should be published as pamphlets and distributed to all the schools in rural areas. The notes should also be composed in a lucid style that makes it comprehensible for students of all types. The schools should subsequently ask the guardians to collect those pamphlets for their respective wards. That would be salutary to a great extent.

Obviously, there is no alternative to physical classrooms. But change often comes in the way and we have the instinct of adapting ourselves to it gradually, if not rapidly. To be precise, ancient India enjoyed learning through notes scribbled on palm leaves. Books written on paper were inconceivable. But soon that became a reality and the palm-leaves notes slipped into history. And as a matter of fact, e-learning was prevalent even in the pre-Covid world. Though it was conspicuous to a very limited extent in reputed Indian Universities and abroad. But an extraordinary situation has made it spread far and wide. However, we should not be satisfied with mere urban progress because that is tantamount to strengthening one arm of our body and weakening the other. And that does not augur well for the progress of this nation.

Changes are welcome but their benefits should be accessed by all and sundry and we should leave no room for partiality. The discrimination meted out to our children based on their habitation reminds this writer of a famous saying by Nelson Mandela, “Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mine worker can become the head of a mine, that the child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation.”

These homilies from a venerable leader can be transformed into reality only if we blur the distinction between a rural and urban student. And denying a child education based on his/her social status is nothing short of criminal.

( The writer can be reached at [email protected]   

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