This piece is based on a conversation with a government primary school teacher in Uttar Pradesh, India.
By Akash Kumar
It has been more than fifty days of nationwide lock down in India. The country is in halt with the rest of the world. As educational institutions remain closed, the demand for online content has increased. With differential access, various educational institutions are working at multiple levels. While private institutions (mostly in cities) have been running classes on Zoom, WhatsApp, and Google meet, government institutions are extending the holidays officially. Amidst this, the government schools are failing to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of students enrolled with government primary schools (mostly belonging to marginalised communities) are left in the dark. Government primary school teachers are helpless as they have no training and infrastructure to handle a situation such as this.
This pandemic has unleashed many questions on the preparedness of government school education system.: Are our teachers equipped to handle a situation like this? Is rural infrastructure capable of addressing such advanced technologies? And, what is the impact of deep-rooted patriarchy on women teachers at this time?
A thirty-three years old female teacher, Nisha, had shared concerns over taking online classes with me. In this piece, I discuss her perspectives towards online teaching during the lock down. She teaches in a Hindi medium government primary school situated in a village in the most backward district of Uttar Pradesh, a northern state in India. Her school has three teaching staff members including a para-teacher and headmaster with an enrollment of around 125 children from nearby communities. Most of the children enrolled belong to the lowest socio-economic strata of the society i.e. Scheduled Caste or low-income families from other lower castes. The school does not have any computer nor internet facility, not even pipe water or electricity.
During the lockdown, she was asked by officials of her school to conduct online classes through WhatsApp. She owns a smartphone but does not have any experience or training of conducting online classes through this medium, which she already struggles with. Just a few days ago, when she was instructed to attend an online training on conducting online classes, she mentioned to me,,
“I got this message but have not checked it yet. When I try opening the link, I get confused sometimes, it just opens while sometimes it shows ‘link copied’. I also do not get time from all the household work.” With inadequate preparation and literacy about this medium, these teachers and their classes are likely to face a lot of hurdles.
Further, this teacher does not have any data about her students’ and their parents’ contacts, and has to rely on either the para-teacher or students living near her house to help connect with them. With her hard work, she was able to convince ten students to sign up for class on WhatsApp. Another hurdle to conducting classes online is that most of the children’s families cannot afford a smartphone or internet. One of the parents, whom she contacted, remarked that he could not afford to recharge the internet pack on his mobile. Another father told her that he had to take the mobile phone with him to work and cannot leave it with his children.
During this lockdown, governments are promoting the use of mobile application (Diksha, Prerana, and Samvad) based teaching-learning. A daily class wise link is shared under ‘Mission Prerana’ (an mobile application service run by U.P. government) with teachers. The link need to be shared with students. But Nisha does not receive these links. She tells me, “I have not signed up to that mobile application as only one teacher was added from each school.” The system of dissemination is so broken despite the illusion of digital connectivity.
In addition, there is a lag in internet bandwidth in villages. Nisha is unable to make video calls that could offer live interaction with her students or a constant connection with them. Because of a lot of call lags, she shares that, “students keep calling whole day. So sometimes, I just need to switch off my phone to take a break.”
Even though she tries to take classes against all the odds, a large number of students will still be left behind in learning, particularly the primary school children. “I am not trying to connect with children of class 1 to 3 as they do not study in school and so how they will be willing to learn on mobile" she mentioned.
During a regular school day, she teaches around forty children. With online classes, she is barely teaching ten students through a new medium. Will this not require her to be equipped with a new pedagogy? Like most government school teachers, she simply follows the 'textbook culture' (Kumar, 1988). That is, she picks a chapter from the book of that specific subject period and either asks children to read from the book or writes something on the blackboard to allow children to rote learn the written numbers or words. For online classes, she prepares worksheets of Hindi, English, and Math subjects and shares them with students in the group. Though much like regular classes she also gives children some class and home work. Not much has changed in the pedagogy. Only the medium has changed from physical notebook to photos of her notebook.
While in regular class she could check on the large number of the students and could interact with them on one to one basis, on WhatsApp she hardly gets responses from students. Most of the students have very little access to mobile phones and are also probably perplexed by this new form of interaction with their teacher. They also do not complete or return their homework, and she wonders what is the whole point of this exercise: “We are not getting enough responses, only one or two children are sending worksheets back. I check their responses and send them feedback.”
A major hurdle for a female teacher to cope with such a situation is handling her profession with household work while bound indoors in 24×7 lock down. Unlike male teachers, this lock down has burdened female teachers with the constant chaos of managing their own children, cooking, taking care of the elderly and her husband as well as her professional work. In a village setting, being a mother of two children has not left Nisha any time to learn about online classes and work as the time demands. The autonomy which she could acquire by going to school has gone, and so has her personal space and time.
All these hurdles have paralysed a female teacher’s ability to take online classes. With ill-equipped educational infrastructure, lack of online curriculum training, and the demands of f a patriarchal society, teachers (mostly women in anycase) and students are reduced to helpless subjects. Unlike private and some premium government educational institutions (such as Kendriya Vidyalaya and Navodaya), teachers and children of government primary schools are far away from access to, and literacy of, a technology-driven education system. We can only hope that this pandemic will further the demand of an inclusive educational infrastructure, training, and a system that can survive during such a crisis.
Akash Kumar is currently working as a Communication Consultant for La Via Campesina South Asia. He holds an MA in Development Studies from Azim Premji University, Bangalore. His areas of interests include: education; gender; and development induced displacement.