It is possible to convert all homes into learning centres through the use of communication technology. But we were not ready for it
Health and education are the main concerns of all families and Governments during calamities. Governments which can think, plan and lead their country during difficult times are sure to survive any disaster. The world is passing through a great crisis right now due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Hospitals are being flooded with patients and schools have been closed. This is no time to find fault but it is definitely an opportune time to assess how prepared India was for this situation. And what we should do now, so that once this crisis is over the country is ready for a similar situation, if and when, it arrives.
What is in short supply during a crisis is professionals and experts. For now, healthcare professionals are in short supply and also teachers, because children can’t reach school and teachers can’t reach homes of the learners. In terms of medical facilities, we can convert school buildings into hospital wards but how can we turn every household into a classroom? By no means can we multiply the number of teachers and arrange doorstep educational facilities. But it is possible to convert all households into learning centres through the use of modern communication technologies. Thankfully we are able to maintain electronic communication right now and this can be used to beam academic lessons to all households. This is the time to review some of the initiatives we took in this direction.
In 2002, during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government, it was decided that we needed to launch a satellite for education as schools, teachers and related facilities were in short supply. As a consequence in September 2004, we launched a satellite exclusively for education known as Educational Satellite (EduSat). The cost of a satellite is massive and it is not an easy decision to dedicate one solely to education. But India definitely needed to do this because of the large number of learners, who could make use of it in the absence of good teachers in institutions established in different parts of the country. The satellite had a life of seven years but it died in 2010 and we could not even use ten per cent of its capacity.
In 2015, once again, the then Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister Smriti Irani took two initiatives. One was starting a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform known as SWAYAM and the second was a bouquet of Direct To Home (DTH) educational channels known as Swayam Prabha. Both the platforms cover content from pre-school to doctoral studies. Both have a larger participation than any other platform of any other country but still it is not able to fill the gap it was expected to, in the present crisis. A large number of Secondary school students are watching channel number 27, Panini and Senior Secondary students are watching channel number 28, Sharda of the Swayam Prabha DTH channels. However, compared to the number of learners, who are confined to homes, the viewership is minuscule. The broadcast is backed by a live question-answer session where the teacher answers queries of the students when they call on the toll-free numbers that have been provided to facilitate this.
This was the foresight of the leader and had we pursued with our efforts and hooked up all Secondary and Senior Secondary learners to these platforms at that time, we would not have had to worry about closing down our schools, at least for academic transaction.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi wanted India to reach out to learners in all the States and also our neighbouring countries through satellite and he had mentioned this in his speech in Parliament. In keeping with the PM’s wish Irani also initiated the Bharat Vani project wherein textbooks were developed in 100 mother tongues of India. And in keeping with Modi’s wish to provide content to the learners in South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries in their own language, Irani responded by forming a task force to develop learning material in text and media formats and many more. Our satellite broadcast reached 95 per cent of our landmass and also our neighbours. If we develop material in languages like Nepali, Bengali, Tamil, Urdu and so on, we would be beaming good content to not only our citizens but also to learners in SAARC nations. This was the best time to not only help our own schoolchildren but also children in the South Asian countries, stay back home and continue their studies. By not pursuing the Bharat Vani project, we have lost the opportunity to be of help to our students, neighbours and failed our PM’s mission. The National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS), the largest open school in the world, has in the last five years developed e-content which is available on the SWAYAM and has four 24X7 DTH channels. We could have filled the gap, which has been created by the closure of the schools across country due to Covid-19. Language and location would have been no barrier. The NIOS broadcast and live classes are becoming popular by the day. But it had massive potential and it could have played a larger role if we had prepared distance/open schooling through dual mode schooling. It is a missed opportunity and it is too late to do anything now. However, we must learn from our mistakes and take these initiatives to their logical conclusion once the Coronavirus threat is over.
(The writer is Chairman, National Institute of Open Schooling)