India: Living with coronavirus

Virtual lessons in improvisation

The World Today
2 minute READ

Oindrila Sanyal

Teacher of International History, The Cambridge School Kolkata

With schools ordered to close, teachers in India have shouldered the responsibility of introducing online classes during the coronavirus pandemic. Though private schools and some government schools in bigger cities have responded well to the challenge, the crisis has thrown pupils from ill-resourced institutions under the bus.

Problems threatening the success of these measures range from a lack of digital devices at home to the economic hardship that has befallen many families. For virtual classes to succeed, each pupil needs access to a working computer or a smartphone with uninterrupted internet connectivity.

For pupils such as Rinki, who lives in a slum on the outskirts of Kolkata, owning a smartphone is a luxury she can’t afford. For those who have a device, intermittent internet connections are another problem. Some of Rinki’s friends are often cooped up in few square metres, others simply lack the surroundings needed to maintain focus.

The sudden declaration of the lockdown has destabilized the entire education system and made printing, publishing and distributing materials problematic. The unavailability of books and study guides make it harder for pupils to grasp the subject matter being discussed over video calls.

In families where income barely provides for its members, ensuring the continuation of a child’s education is among the least of parents’ worries. For pupils, the deam of having a better shot at life is fraught with uncertainty in these days of pandemic.

Nevertheless, hope hasn’t died. A dearth of infrastructure and technical facilities have forced teachers to improvise. One technique adopted is to consolidate lessons in short video clips that can be sent through a social media application.

Through these clips teachers aim to slice up a topic into bite-sized lessons, complete with flashcards and easily digestible information and package it into a sort of lecture series for children. A typical video for a lesson in ‘multiplication’ would begin with the teacher explaining the mathematical rules. They would then solve some actual sums and set homework over WhatsApp. A follow-up video provides the solutions to the sums before the next lesson.

In literature classes, teachers will record a poem or a story on video and speak about the themes behind the text. Although there is no real exchange of words, pupils feel included, especially when the video ends with a question they are asked to answer.

The government has also arranged programmes in which teachers discuss specific topics on the television for pupils about to take their board examination. Non-profit organizations have teamed up with the government to distribute smartphones and tablets in select suburban areas. Attempts like these bolster hope and keep the aspirations of pupils afloat but questions remain about how effective they actually are. As an educator, I have witnessed pupils being enthusiastic about online learning but their intent wavers when there are more pressing needs that require immediate attention.