How we support our educators will determine whether this pandemic will push India into a deeper learning crisis or sow seeds of resilience in our education system
The pandemic has disrupted education, primarily with school closures affecting more than 32 crore students in India. Whether children continue to learn, what they are learning and how so are questions that have answers in a wide range. However, a common factor across most schools, both private and Government, has been that teachers have stepped up to ensure that learning continues.
Whether it is by experimenting with various online platforms to see which one is most effective for their needs or spending hours preparing for online classes, uploading lessons on video-sharing platforms like YouTube or patiently guiding students (and sometimes parents) on how to use the interface, or by coming up with innovative solutions in resource-constrained areas. We know of teachers using loudspeakers to conduct classes in villages while practising social distancing where online learning is not viable.
Going by how the pandemic is unfolding, out of classroom teaching and learning is expected to continue at least for a while. And even once children go back to schools, blended learning methods seem likely. The recently-released guidelines for digital education, Pragyata, speak of “a healthy mix of schooling at home and schooling at school” to not let closures lead to loss of learning.
Pragyata outlines how various devices — computers, smartphones, television sets, radio sets or a basic mobile phone — should be used by educators to reach out to students and facilitate learning. However, the use of technology in education is not a fallout of the pandemic. Integration of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in education was introduced in various forms in different school systems.
In fact, the use of technology in education in India was adopted as early as in 1972 under the Fourth Five-Year Plan with the allocation of a budget for radio/cassette players and colour television sets.
Subsequent schemes, including ICT@Schools at the national level, and various others in the States reimagined teaching and learning to integrate technology-enabled pedagogy. Audio-visual classes became useful reinforcement tools for concepts taught by teachers, apart from being an attraction for students.
However, there has been considerable heterogeneity even within Government and private schools, not just between them. The usage of technology in classes varied with infrastructure and resources available in the school and then the level of readiness and comfort of the teacher in using ICT in the classroom.
Teacher readiness and preparedness in integrating ICT in pedagogy require relevant training and constant aid. Just as there are specific skills and competencies needed to impart lessons in a classroom — including ensuring basic discipline, eliciting responsiveness from students, using the board to write, developing and using other teaching-learning materials (TLMs), facilitating student-to-student interaction, adopting relevant pedagogy as per the concept being discussed, number of students and resources available among many others — there are additional skills that teachers require in order to conduct classes on digital platforms. These range from being familiar with the features of the platform on which the class is to be conducted, choosing pedagogy that is effective through the platform, designing activities and assessment that can be administered digitally while ensuring that the learning objectives are met, finding ways to ensure that students engage with the teacher and with one another, while also figuring out how life skills can be imparted within the space and time constraint.
According to a recent UNESCO estimate, around 2.7 million teachers in India, who have been impacted by the crisis, are untrained to tackle the situation. Being a major cause of concern, there are multiple levels at which teachers need to be supported. The first level, which is a prerequisite to out-of-classroom teaching and learning, is that of providing them basic and adequate infrastructural support. This includes power supply, availability of a computer and an internet connection. The second level of support would be appropriate training in using digital platforms for teaching and technical support for students and parents. ICT training for students would be essential to ensure that teachers do not have to answer repeated questions about how to connect, troubleshoot errors and can focus on other aspects of conducting the class. The third level is remote training in digital and online pedagogy. This is particularly critical because online classes or radio lessons may not work with reliance on conventional, in-classroom teaching methods.
A common concern shared by teachers is, in the absence of eye contact, how do we assess whether each student is paying attention in class or identify those that may have a doubt and are hesitant to ask. To address concerns like these, methods on a digital platform would be different from those in a physical classroom. Training and knowledge-sharing for digital teaching would be helpful to answer such questions.
The fourth level is socio-emotional support. The pandemic has altered everybody’s life and we must not overlook its effects on the mental and emotional well-being of teachers. In addition to tackling the pressures of remote teaching along with household chores, teachers are dealing with anxious parents and students. Online teaching, for most teachers, has resulted in extended working hours. For many of them, it is like learning a new skill, applying it and doing it — all at the same time.
Another source of worry is the fear of pay cuts as also potential job losses. Real, concrete measures are needed to allay such fears and keep teachers motivated.
After all, it is how we support our educators that would determine whether this pandemic pushes our country into a deeper learning crisis or sows seeds of resilience in our education system.
(The writer is an independent researcher studying public education)