Digital divide: Online schooling in Nagaland amid COVID-19 pandemic
Kohima: Due to the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, educational institutions across the country have remained shut since March this year. Since teaching moved online, several challenges emerged—the biggest being technology.
As classrooms were replaced by online learning, most schools and colleges across Nagaland—even those located in the remote corners of the state, were forced to adapt to the new educational system. This created a digital divide among the students—economically and geographically.
Connectivity problem in Nagaland’s remotest
In Tsuruhu village under Zunheboto district, students have no access to internet, compelling them to walk for 3 km, up to a mountain top where there is internet connectivity. Itili K Aye, a class VI student has mixed reactions about attending online classes.
Speaking with EastMojo, Aye said, “I do not like attending online class because I have to go far at the mountain top to attend the class. Walking to the mountain top is very difficult, especially during the rainy and cloudy days as it affects the networks."
Walking the mile and braving the odds has however paid off for the young student, as, it helped her stay updated with her lessons. She optimistically added, “But online classes are good for us as it helps us cope with our lessons”.
But the problems associated with online lessons continue. Vikipu H Zhimomi, another class VI student told EastMojo that as they are compelled to attend the online classes in the middle of a jungle, where the students have to brave insects and creepy crawlies. Besides walking the miles, he said that mosquito bites and leeches on the top of the mountain add to the difficulty. However, according to him, the main challenge is the monsoon weather conditions which disrupt the online learning process.
The state’s Mon district also shares a similar story of struggle. Zangkham Village, which shares border with the neighbouring state of Arunachal Pradesh, has no electricity connection. The residents are dependent on solar panels and electric generators, which is also not easily accessible by many.
T Nahman Konyak, a class X student, tells EastMojo that internet connectivity is also a major issue in the village. While there are many reasons why she dislikes attending online classes, the lack of electricity in the village is the primary reason.
“My village has no electricity. The only way to charge our phones is through generator and solar panels. I am lucky to have a generator at home but most of my friends do not have. So it is very difficult to charge our phones and to be able attend online classes even if we want to,” she said.
With no electricity connection, the village also faces poor mobile network connectivity. She said “Our village is very remote so the network connectivity is very poor. We have access to 4G network only in some places. So I have to walk a long distance to attend classes since I do not get a 4G network at home”.
Nahman further said, “In places with 4G, the network is [also] very weak. So even if I attend the classes, I can hardly hear what the teacher is saying, and cannot see anything from the blackboard. It is also impossible to clarify our doubts”.
In Zangkham village, there are few locations where they manage to receive proper telecom signal. The village church is one location where they manage to get 4G connectivity and students walk for miles to the church complex to attend online classes.
These troubles are not just restricted to school students, college-going students like Zangtam Konyak also downloaded notes from the network point and later share it with friends. “We do not have electricity and good network connectivity. But we have to prepare notes for the exam. Since we get no network at home, we go out in search of network towards the church and download the notes there through WhatsApp and later prepare it at home,” he said.
There are still many students who have no access to mobile phones. Zangtam said that his neighbours had no devices to depend on online learning.
“My neighbours are also facing problem as their parents do not have mobile phones. So I used to distribute it to them from my phone”.
Even as they manage to prepare notes, he said that none of the students in the village were able to appear for tests or examinations from home due to network issues.
Khuayoh Konyak, another college student says that students have to walk for 30 to 40 km to the town or a nearby village to appear for the online test and examinations.
Khuayoh said, “Whenever we have any exams or internal test, we never get to do it from our village itself. We go down to Namsa and nearby town and complete our task and our exam from there. We then get back to our village. These problems are because there is no full-fledged 4G network connectivity available from our homes and also we do not have electricity”.
However, long walk for any of their basic need is a regular affair for the locals of Zangkham village. They have to walk on foot for hours to go to the towns to get their household essentials.
How did the state government facilitate online learning?
Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, the education department came across an unprecedented challenge of continuing classing without the resumption of schools. Television and radio were the first solutions that the department opted. However, this did not work for everyone.
Principal Director of School education, Shanavas C said that Doordarshan (DD) and All India Radio (AIR) is a one-time broadcast. Once the students skip, the lessons are missed.
“We did not want that to happen because we have issues of power outage. There are some places where you won’t get Doordarshan also. And people are not using All India Radio much. So, we thought that we should start some YouTube page and Facebook page. Then we uploaded all the telecasted videos in those platforms. Later, JioTv also came into the picture. Initially, we focused on the higher classes and then came to the lower classes,” the officer said.
In the government sector, Nagaland has 1069 primary schools, 627 middles schools, 247 high schools, and 44 higher secondary schools. These institutions have a total of around 1,69,548 students. There are 2,752 private schools in Nagaland.
To keep the lessons uninterrupted, the education department tried various methods. Lessons recorded on pen drives were also distributed. “We cannot be 100% sure that every child in every nook and corner of the state is covered but we are trying our best,” he said.
Shanavas then said, “We came up with the pen drives, and it becomes a little controversial. But the idea was very simple. It was not about giving the pen drive to the student, but to reach out to places where there was no internet in the villages where the village or the community had a computer or laptop."
He cited that in Tsuruhu village, the village had a computer in the church and the community was ready to use the computer for the students. “They needed the lessons but they were not able to access Youtube or Facebook where they can download the lessons. Then we thought that we should give them the pen drive with lots of lessons so that the students can be called class-wise and have the classes with social distancing and make them access these videos,” the 31-year-old officer added.
The education department also introduced the school monitoring software to “keep an eye on the activities of the schools and their interactions with the students”.
In this regard, Shanavas said, “Those in charge contact the school heads if a report of the students’ activities has not been shared. So far around 95 per cent of the government schools across the state have been registered in the software”.
Online teaching, a challenge for teachers
Challenged with the new way of online learning, troubles are not just restricted to students. Teachers also faced an unexpected task of holding online classing, without having the physical presence of the students around them.
Vinoka Shohe, a math teacher from Government Middle school D Khel Kohima has never had the experience of holding online classes before the outbreak of COVID-19. He, however, believes that it is the teacher’s job to adjust to the environment according to the children’s’ understanding.
“From the classroom environment, suddenly switching was very difficult for me. As a teacher, we adjust to the environment according to the children’s understanding. We teach, they respond and accordingly we deliver our lessons. Online class is a new approach due to the pandemic but at the same time, we are also facing difficulty as we cannot go to certain extend and dwell very deeply into the details due to time constraint and other difficulties,” Shohe said.
With no feedback and interaction from students unlike classroom teaching, he said: “It is quite new for us and most of us teachers are also facing problem. It becomes a bit impossible for us to understand what the children have understood and it becomes very difficult to access also”.
Although the department is trying “very hard to reach to the students”, he said that teachers are also facing difficulty. “We are used to interactions. So somewhere in between we miss out on things where we could have tried to explore more into different topics. But I hope that it is helping the students,” he optimistically added.
Atseinuo Sekhose, a teacher in Fernwood School believes that the Naga culture of learning things from scratch will help students in making the process of learning more independent in the long run. Addressing the concern of digital divide, she said “Digital divide here is the same thing that people across the globe faces at this particular point of time. Education is important. According to some, learning online may be like creating a lot of havoc. But in the Nagaland context, we started from scratch”.
She then explained saying “Our forefathers did not know how to utter a single word or letter and yet they picked up the books, went through and learned it. From the little environment that they were exposed to, they picked up so many things and this is where we are today. So, on the brighter side, this is going to help us, learners, to be more independent learners in the long run”.
As students strive to become independent learners, she said that a child should also be able to learn by himself/herself. “We are in this together, towards building this new generation”.
Viwhekhonuo Vielie, a teacher at Mt Sinai higher secondary school challenged students to take up the present situation as an opportunity. “This is a time that we should make use of the little things we have. We know we are technologically backward and no one can deny that. But we have to keep in mind the little things we have at home. It is not about the number of gadgets that we have at home. It is our decision on how to work about it and if you are determined, though you be deprived, you have other options,” she said.
Lily Kez, a teacher at Vineyard school also opened up about her experience as an online tutor. “Whatever we are doing right now is not easy. It is so tough for us. When in classroom, we have textbooks, but here we cannot rely on the textbook, we have to focus on the camera, and keep the time management in mind. So it is difficult," she said.
Despite the hard work of teachers, Kez said that the teachers are also challenged with criticisms--both constructive and destructive-- as teaching Infront of the camera is a new thing".
"Some are observant and try to check our posture or point the mistakes we made. We are also trying our best. Teachers are staying overnight just to prepare video lessons” she said further adding that it demotivates the online tutors.
Keeping the process of learning uninterrupted
Along with efforts from the state’s education department and the teachers, several communities have stepped up to keep the process of learning uninterrupted. In Tsuruhu, a village located in Zunheboto district the student body has taken it upon themselves to bridge the gap between students and the online classes.
Tsuruhu is a small village under Zunheboto district, which is around 75 kilometres away from Zunheboto town, has a total population of around 400. The Tsuruhu students’ Union and the village community set up a shift school on the top of a hill, the only place in the village area with good network reception
President of the Tsuruhu Students' Union Iuka Zhimomi, in an interaction with EastMojo said, "With the initiative of online classes launched by the state government of Nagaland, the students’ union and the village community initiated the community school from where the students can learn their lessons which are being uploaded on Youtube".
Iuka also said that there are many challenges that the students and the community faces. While students are compelled to wake early and walk miles to reach the camp to attend the online classes, the frequent rainfall which not only affects the students but also affects the stability of network.
"Most of the villagers are daily wagers and so it is very difficult for them to buy smartphones and give their children to attend online classes", he said. With the available devices, the student body facilitated the online classes for students in the village.
Recalling how the students reacted to attending online classes on the hilltop, Iuka said, "At first the reaction of the students was not that positive because they had to walk miles every day to attend online classes but on the other hand, the parents were very happy because their children or their students are coping up with the present situation, even when the pandemic is going on".
The parents feel nothing but happiness since the student body made a mammoth task much easier. Rokato Zhimo is one such parent from the village
Itili's father Rokato recounted how the lockdown impacted the life in the villages. "The lockdown has added to our difficulty. Here in the village, since there is no road connectivity, we cultivate in the fields and do handicrafts to feed the children. Now, we cannot move freely and we have no vehicle. We are also restricted to go to other villages also," he said.
"But one good thing that happened this time is that the student body won our hearts. They wholeheartedly took the initiative, found a good network spots in the jungle and made the students attend classes and exam. We are thankful and will continue to pray for them," Rokato added.
Meanwhile following the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus has not only been on the state’s health sector. The education sector also received much attention. And this compelled the government, students, teachers, parents and the community to step up to the challenge together.
With the current relaxations, the state is limping back to normalcy. But as the world adopts a new way of life to live with COVID-19, will learning in classrooms be any different?