Devi Kar | Learning virtually: The key is to keep kids engaged

Columnist  | Devi Kar

Opinion, Columnists

The pursuit of higher studies involving admission procedures of colleges and entry into various professional courses will be very different

A student (R) carries a laptop to download study materials as others line up to collect text books before attending a tele-learning class at their home. AFP Photo

Six months have passed since the New Year was heralded with the usual fanfare. The number 2020 had a magical ring to it, and many joked about the need to develop a “perfect vision” this year.

Soon March came in, innocuously enough, but before we could even grasp what was happening, the entire nation was gripped in a fierce lockdown. This was a completely unknown phenomenon and bewilderment reigned everywhere.

From March to June, people underwent a drastic change. The cliché that “change is the only constant” was replaced by the truth of what we have seen firsthand.

It came home to all that a crisis forces instant and radical change. Indeed, Covid-19 succeeded in bringing about a total transformation in the behaviour of human beings and their way of life.

All of a sudden, people were called upon to adopt new habits, new attitudes and even new worldviews.

They found themselves consciously reinventing their lives. This phenomenon can be plainly seen in the dramatic way that school education has transformed almost overnight.

A month ago, I had written in this very column about a possible post-coronavirus scenario in schools.

At the time of writing this, educational institutions are still closed, so teachers and students haven’t yet experienced the “new normal” school life. India is now in the midst of the expected Covid-19 upsurge, so though the lockdown has been wholly or partially lifted in most parts of the country, people have to be extremely careful in order to avoid being infected or infecting others. In these conditions, the only way to keep the learning process alive was to “go virtual”.

People went through the classic stages of shock and denial, followed by resigned acceptance.

The eerily silent and empty streets that replaced the cacophony of traffic snarls, the clear skies and pure air that replaced the smog and poisonous vapours of the city, appeared novel and curious during the lockdown.

People philosophised about the world having to shut down temporarily for renovation and obediently stayed at home.

It is only when the realisation dawned that things were not going back to normal anytime soon that people began to get down to brass tacks.

How do we continue with the teaching-learning process? How do we make sure that children don't fall behind? How do we become tech-savvy overnight? It was with unsure steps that schools proceeded to tackle these questions. Those teachers who hadn’t quite embraced technology were now galvanised into action.

They knew that they had to make an effort to adapt to the new scheme of things in order to continue practising their profession. Thus, schools got into a frenzy trying to figure out which digital platform to use, getting their tech-shy teachers to learn on the job and worrying about students who were not equipped with devices.

As I look back on the past three months, I realise that we have come a long way since those early days of bewilderment and uncertainty. Most of us have accepted that distance learning is here to stay.

This is partly because there seems to be no departure date for the deadly Covid-19. The number of newly afflicted people is increasing exponentially every day. A false sense of near-normality prevails as the lockdown has been largely lifted in most areas.

The board examinations which were scheduled to be held in the first half of July were cancelled after much drama and, ultimately, judicial intervention.

At the time of writing this piece, the erstwhile candidates of the Class 10 and Class 12 public examinations are awaiting their results, which will be announced by July 15.

While the Class 10 students are now continuing with their Class 11 course of studies, I am not too sure what the school-leaving students are doing with their time.

The pursuit of higher studies involving admission procedures of colleges and entry into various professional courses will be very different this year. Even in normal years the interval between the completion of board examinations and entry into an institution of higher studies is fraught with anxiety.

Career, livelihood and indeed, life have all become uncertain. The future has never been so terrifyingly unpredictable.

At the moment, those who are associated with school education are preoccupied with all kinds of multi-tasking.

Having achieved a reasonable standard of competence in tackling the technological aspect of conducting online classes, teachers are now mastering the all-important pedagogical aspect.

They have discovered that there is an art and science of keeping children virtually engaged and entertained while ensuring that actual learning is taking place.

Then there are webinars, webinars and more webinars to keep everyone informed, to market new educational products and to share ideas on how to ride the wave of change.

Moreover, the vital question of “assessment” has to be resolved. How do educators move away from the usual testing environment of halls, written papers and teacher-invigilators? Software companies are already offering high-tech solutions whereby students can be watched and policed.

It appears that the focus on teaching students the right values has all but completely disappeared. Sadly, not the means but only the end seems to matter to most people. And the end happens to be “marks” rather than “learning”.

In the midst of coping with an alien and demanding environment, schools are also facing a strange and dangerous threat.

Parents are circulating the slogan “No school, no fees!”, while other groups are hollering “No vaccine, no school!” In other words, parents appear to feel that schools can pay their staff and maintain the school campus out of thin air. Instead of supporting educational institutions, they are actually colluding to ruin them.

I wonder if they know that in the process, they are ruining the future of their own children.

It seems like a lifetime since we last entered the gates of our school. We are tired of listening to disembodied voices and watching faces on the screen. I am fervently hoping that we can ring in the New Year and ring out 2020 along with the coronavirus -- for good!

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