A student learns from the T-SAT channel
‘How can you run a school on TV and internet?’
Sidika Sehgal, New Delhi
The teacher isn’t in the classroom but a physics lesson on electricity is on in full swing. The difference between conductors and insulators is explained to one set of children. The teacher then addresses an older class. Symbols of a simple electric circuit are described and students are taught how to draw a circuit using those symbols. The lesson ends with an explanation of the science behind a series circuit and a parallel circuit.
The entire session is on television and listening to it are children from Telangana’s social welfare schools which have begun virtual classes on television through the government’s T-SAT channel. There are four lectures every day, which are structured to cater to all classes.
Across India schools are trying to teach children who aren’t in school due to the coronavirus pandemic. A whole raft of strategies is being tried out with varying success. Schools are using WhatsApp, Zoom videos, learning apps, and more. Children from well-off homes are switching over with ease.
For children who don’t have laptops and smartphones because they can’t afford them, television, which has 67 percent penetration in India, is proving to be a useful tool.
“We are not going into a lot of detail, but trying to give a conceptual understanding to students. Obviously, it’s virtually impossible to run a school through television and the internet,” said Dr R.S. Praveen Kumar, secretary of the Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutional Society (TSWREIS) which has 268 residential schools for children from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities.
These TV lectures have turned out to be a viable solution. And students are happy with the classes. N. Snigdha, 13, studies in Class 9 in the Saroornagar social welfare school. “All the teachers who are teaching T-SAT classes are very well trained. The classes are very good,” she said.
Telangana’s social welfare schools are well known for being inclusive. Children from low-income and socially discriminated backgrounds are provided books, uniforms and hostel facilities for free. The schools admit everyone irrespective of the ability to pay. But although school is a level playing field, remote learning relies on what a family can or cannot afford.
About 60 to 65 percent of students have access to a smartphone and internet connectivity. The remaining 30 percent catch up on class via TV. But that still leaves out 15 percent who have no access to online classes in any form.
For B. Nikhita, who studies in Class 8, access to virtual classes is a struggle. Her father is a vegetable seller and cannot afford to buy a smartphone for her education. She borrows a smartphone from a different neighbour each day, whoever can spare their phone from 11 am to 4 pm when classes are aired on T-SAT. Still, internet connectivity in her village, Komreddipally, remains a problem.
There are many others like Nikhita whose families cannot afford smartphones, or, having lost their income, are unable to get their phones recharged.
Teachers do their best to help students access online classes. K. Salomi teaches science at the Medak social welfare school. “Sometimes I have to request parents or elder brothers of my students to let them borrow their phone so that they can study,” she said.
In her class, there are 40 students, 10 of whom do not have smartphones or access to a TV. She asks them to stay in touch with other students in their area who can help them keep up with studies. “We don’t want any child to sit idle,” said Pramodha Kamidi, principal of the social welfare school in Saroornagar.
Virtual class isn’t a substitute for real classrooms. Students of social welfare schools are used to living in hostels and find life at home boring. “I miss my friends and my teachers. In the hostel, we laugh, we cry, we scold each other,” said B. Bhargavi, a 15-year-old student at the Saroornagar social welfare school.
It isn’t ideal, but students and teachers are taking it in their stride, unwilling to complain and find fault. When asked if it’s difficult to concentrate at home, Bhargavi replied, “If I want to be a doctor, I should work hard.”
The schools have also tied up with OAKS learning app which provides students with free access to hundreds of lessons on all subjects. Teachers have formed WhatsApp groups to circulate subject-related videos and worksheets for students to do.
At a public school in Vasant Vihar and at Shri Ram Centennial School in Dehradun, classes are conducted online via Zoom. This is feasible because all students have mobile phones or laptops through which they can easily attend classes.
Priya Sharma (name changed), a teacher at the public school in Vasant Vihar, said that seven students in her class cannot join online classes on Zoom because of poor internet connectivity. These students left for their ancestral villages in Himachal Pradesh and Punjab before the lockdown was announced.
She plans to teach them through video calls on WhatsApp once the school breaks for the summer holidays when she has more time on her hands. Sharma teaches Class 2 students all subjects except Hindi, art and computers.
Teachers end up working round the clock to be available to students who might need help. “I don’t want to switch off my phone or put it on silent anymore because I don’t want to miss a call or message from a student,” Sharma said.
Although technology has ensured that school doesn’t come to a standstill, the online mode has thrown up challenges for both students and teachers. Some subjects don’t lend themselves to remote learning, say students.
“Computer programming is the kind of subject that needs practicals. Just theory is not enough. Our teacher shares her screen on Zoom and we see the process, but we can’t perform the actions ourselves,” said 17-year-old Vanshika Sahni who is in Class 12 and attends the Saai Memorial Girls School in Geeta Colony in New Delhi.
Teachers too are learning to use Zoom and monitor students via a screen, for the first time. The results appear to be mixed.
“Just by walking around in the classroom, I could tell who needs help or who hasn’t understood the concept,” said 24-year-old Aruj Saklani who teaches Hindi to Classes 4 and 5 at Shri Ram Centennial School in Dehradun.
Students are more inclined to pay attention in a classroom, she feels. Visual aids such as blackboards help. When Saklani gives her students idioms or words to use in their sentences, they are written on the blackboard. Students can refer to them whenever they want. “So grammar exercises like these become difficult online,” Saklani said.
“For me, scrolling on Zoom is like walking around in the class,” said Sharma, who at 54 is a seasoned teacher. When she takes a class test on Zoom, she asks students to keep their audio on. She notices if her students look to their parents for help.
Reading facial expressions on a screen is just like reading expressions in a classroom, Sharma said. “An active teacher keeps an eye on all her students. It really depends on the teacher.”
A week before they began to take classes on Zoom, Sharma and her colleagues conducted dummy classes among themselves. By simply practising, they learnt how to operate Zoom and use its features — how to invite people on a Zoom call, how to turn on their audio, how to share their laptop screen, and so on. At Saklani’s school, a basic briefing was given to teachers. TSWREIS also trained their teachers remotely.
“If we stop because of small problems, we won’t be able to go forward. And I think we have been able to achieve a lot through the digital medium,” Sharma said.
Still, students, rich or underprivileged, miss goofing around with their pals and the cheerfulness of school. Online classes cannot replace the environment of a classroom and of a school. “You can’t substitute a classroom, but when there is no option, you must adapt,” agreed Kumar.