A year since the outbreak of COVID-19, online education remains a phantom in India. We are on a disruptive reset, educationally. The pandemic has revealed the value of the unseen curriculum represented by unofficial, unwritten, and unintended lessons, gathered from classrooms, family, and the broader culture of beliefs and norms. This is subtle and far removed from the formal syllabus. How does it enact in different proportions and how do we address it?
The first aspect is the lost certainty. Our conventional educational practice encourages a mental model of certainty. But the pandemic contradicts the false assurance assumed in a written syllabus. Subjects are being taught as if we have unlimited certainty of natural resources. We limit ourselves by discussing the opening of schools, institutions and conducting exams and continue to encourage a false sense of the required status quo. The second aspect is variability. Beyond the simplistic notion of replacing the classroom with the internet, subtle variables need to be studied. Not every online course is well designed, neither all teachers are well prepared and not everyone is capable of learning from home.
Challenges and the response
The shift to online education has various impacts on every person associated with it. Especially, the vulnerable and underprivileged sections of students and their families. Apart from poor access to digital data, the children were overburdened with household and farm works, especially the girls. Following closures of schools, boys became complacent to studies while girls, with lesser opportunities, were more involved in household chores. There is credible evidence that students, parents, and teachers were unprepared for this pedagogic shift. Government, on their part, tried to put in place measures to address the situation. The approach was to give a push to digital learning by focusing on the use of text, audio, and video content through WhatsApp, radio, and TV programs to reach out to students and engage them.
Attending School is not all about going through textbooks learning, examinations and results, but it enhances the overall personal development of a student. The long closure of schools has also meant the disruption of a range of activities such as sports, music, and other extracurricular activities. Peer learning has also suffered very badly. When students who did not study in English-medium schools come to colleges where English is the medium of instruction, they struggled. Yet surrounded by English speakers, however falteringly, many managed to pick up the language. Such students have been ransacked of this opportunity due to online education. While we have kept a facade of uninterrupted education, the fact is that the privileged are getting ahead not necessarily because they are smarter, but because of the privileges they enjoy.
COVID-19 has affected all sectors and needs a proactive approach to address every problem. For online education, first step should be highlighting a knowledge gap. Second, pointing out that we do not have the resources to solve it, if we continue to think and operate at the current level. Third, students need to be involved proactively to be a part of the curriculum. In hard-to-reach places, using radio, televisions, and content transfer through drives as practical emergency ways to make student feel connected; can be looked upon. Long-term pre-distribution measures involves equal access to resources through sustained investments. India’s true potential can only be explored if long-term pre-distribution measures are met effectively. Assuming that this period of uncertainty is fleeting will be an educational error. Instead, analysing it and taking this as a humbling moment for educational change may result in seamless learning.
Indeed, virtual classrooms may not be the perfect alternative, but such imperfections must be preferred over denial of right to access of education itself.