By Eleanor Sangma
The digital divide in Garo Hills stretches even wider as the quality of learning in rural areas is being affected because of the pandemic. Many households in rural regions are struggling with access to technology and reliable Internet connection required for quality learning.
Sarina A Sangma said her second grader Amana initially missed a lot of classes because they did not have a phone.
“We had to buy a new phone just for these online classes,” she stated.
They had to ask other students for notes from all the classes she had missed. Online classes are definitely not as effective as offline classes, according to Sangma. “Last year, they did some teaching but this year they just give pages and pages of notes,” she added. The students and their parents face a lot of difficulties due to online classes.
“The kids do not study at home. Since they have a lot of time to spare, they just play games,” she said.
Sangma expressed her concerns regarding her daughter’s upcoming exams, “The network this year has been extremely uncooperative. If it doesn’t work again, I don’t know how she is going to write her exams.”
A A Sangma, mother of a fourth grader from Chibragre stated, “We can’t really call them classes as there is no learning involved.”
Other schools are sending videos explaining the concepts and actually helping students learn to an extent, but that is not the case in her area, she said. Since there is no interaction on a personal level, the kids are also not interested in studying.
She added that even if the classes are online, it would be nice if the teachers could explain the required concepts through videos and send them to the students. “If not all the subjects, at least explanatory videos for Maths would be good,” she said.
Mother of two, Tenya Sangma has experienced the difference in learning for urban and rural students firsthand. Her youngest studies in Casarina Public School in Tura, while her tenth grader Jakrimbe studies in a school in Rongram.
The online classes for her youngest are as good as offline classes, while for her eldest she said, “There is no teaching, no explanation. They just forward notes.”
According to her, the level of knowledge of kids has decreased as compared to all those years when they did have offline classes.
She agreed that bad network has been causing a lot of issues for the students. The teachers issue a lot of complaints to parents as students miss out on classes because of bad connection.
Students cannot submit assignments, nor can they download the videos the teachers send them, and attending classes gets really difficult. Parents themselves also face difficulties. They cannot go out for any work as they have to wait till their children are done with classes. “When classes were offline, kids would go to classes while we could get our own work done,” she said.
Evie Pamade R Marak, Principal of Soudarian Secondary School, Allabagre, South West Garo Hills said they are unable to take online classes due to poor network connection. “Many families don’t own smartphones here. Out of a whole class, maybe only one or two have a smartphone,” Marak said.
They call the students to school a few times in a week and provide them with photocopied notes.
On those days, the teachers also take classes as short as 15 minutes for certain subjects such as Mathematics. “Even though we are taking a lot of risks at the moment, we have to think about the students first,” she said.
Although they cannot be fully functional, she hopes that the assignments and notes given to the students would be of help.
Most families in rural areas have cited network issues as a hindrance for their children. Vodafone-Idea Territory Manager, West Garo Hills, Diphlu Mondal stated that that the Vodafone-Idea connectivity in Garo Hills reaches only till the Western and the Eastern districts and not other parts.
He agreed that the network connectivity has been bumpy in the rural areas in the past year. Mondal said,
“Our company is struggling for funding. Once this issue gets resolved, the network connectivity will become smoother.”
DK Ojha, BSNL Sub-Divisional Engineer, Tura, said the BSNL connectivity reaches many parts of Garo Hills including Tura, William Nagar and villages in and around these areas. He stated, “As per the sanctions and guidelines of our headquarters, our connectivity reaches even the remote areas. Wherever our towers are placed, the connectivity is working well.”
Principal of Sherwood School Tyron D’Brass stated that children of parents who are struggling financially are missing out on education.
He said, “Nine out of ten children in the world do not have access to online learning. If you talk about Garo hills or Meghalaya, it’s only in the urban centers that some online learning is taking place. In rural Meghalaya, it’s practically non-existent.”
Connectivity is also an issue in areas where there is some online learning happening. “The biggest sufferers are the poor,” D’Brass said.
There are instances where a family has got two or three children, but only one smartphone in the house. Everyone is making less money because of the pandemic and only the more fortunate families might be able to afford a smartphone for their children. “Children are losing out on education and as much as you have online classes wherever possible, it still comes up short to a real classroom experience,” he added.
Speaking about how to tackle the issue D’Brass said, “If Doordarshan or even the private channels can allot some time, maybe two-three hours a day where we can have proper learning through television, that would help. So even if they don’t have smartphone, it’s okay.”
A common syllabus can be adopted and Doordarshan can collaborate with teachers to make lessons and then telecast them.
Sister Maria D’Silva, Principal of St. Xavier’s Higher Secondary School stated that the school did a research on itself, with the cooperation of teachers and parents. The school adopted two types of assessment.
“One is Tutor Marked Assessment where the focus was on critical thinking and shifted from rote learning to textbooks, with them making their own notes. The second one was done through Google Forms with MCQs. We also took into account the mental health of students,” she said.
Some students from the interiors are attending classes from paddy fields but even in such situations students are responding. Sister D’Silva said that she appreciates her teachers because they maintain a good connection with students. They try to track them when they are absent. “Our strategy is, as far as possible, to not burden anybody but use flexibility and adaptability,” she explained.
Network issues pose challenge not only for students but for the teachers as well.
It gets quite tedious for the administration as they have to follow up on how many students have appeared for the assessment, and give them another opportunity which means resetting of the question papers. “But we want everybody to be given equal opportunities,” she added.
Students in rural Garo Hills are suffering in the absence of adequate connectivity. In order to maintain the quality of education, students and teachers need to be better connected digitally.