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Guwahati: School campuses across the country wear a deserted look as the fourth phase of the nationwide lockdown comes to an end. In the battle against COVID-19, schools have shifted to online learning. The initiative of e-schooling was also implemented in government schools leaving the fate of the students in the hands of smartphones and mobile network connectivity. While the transformation has been seamless for those who could afford technology, many children from poor families have been left behind.

Assam has over 4,315 secondary and higher secondary schools with 13,11,593 students. Of them over 5,23,002 are between 6th to 8th standard, 6,49,749 in 9th and 10th standard and 1,38,842 between 11th and 12th standard.

The underprivileged lot

Many of the students in government schools come from an economically poorer section of society. With the given situation, these students have to struggle every day to get access to their study material and keep up with their syllabus.

Fourteen-year-old Dikshita Saikia, a Class IX student of Kuruwa Higher Secondary School in Assam’s Darrang district, is dependent upon her neighbour and classmate for her notes. It is because her father, a daily wage earner, cannot afford a smartphone. Dikshita has to go to her neighbour’s place to collect the notes shared by their teacher.

“We don’t have a smartphone at home since my father is a daily-wage earner and neither can he afford one. That is why I have to go to a friend of mine to collect the notes. Soon after the lockdown was announced we were told by our teachers about the online classes. Then they started groups in WhatsApp where they shared all the material. For a few days, we both started taking notes together but sometimes I am faster whereas she is quicker at other times. So now, she takes down the notes and later shares them with me,” Dikshita said.

Unprepared for the situation and economically underprivileged, most student of government schools do not have access to smartphones in order to actively participate in e-schooling

The situation took Dikshita’s father Ranjit Saikia by utter surprise. Saikia believed that he was earning enough to feed his family and send his children to school. However, owing to the present situation, he now has to work harder to buy a smartphone for his daughter’s education.

“We can’t afford a smartphone even if we need it. From the money I earn, I somehow manage the food and education of my children. There are many like us in this area who do not have a smartphone and are facing difficulties in studying. For example, if one of the classmates have a smartphone, the others go to their place to get the notes. Then they ask their parents to buy a smartphone. But we are daily-wage earners, where will we buy a smartphone from?” Saikia said.

WhatsApp schooling

The situation has created an invisible division between the economically privileged and the weaker section of society. While private institutions have easy access to sophisticated tools, for those in government schools, the only medium of sharing lessons is through WhatsApp and YouTube links.

The step was taken by the state government to provide students with course materials prevent learning gaps during the closure of educational institutes. Following this, several WhatsApp groups with students, guardians and teachers were created.

Parishmita Deka, a Class X student of North Guwahati Girls High School, has been e-learning ever since the lockdown was announced. At the same time, she has also gone through a shift in her daily schedule. Her morning classes at school has now shifted to a mobile phone screen.

While most private institutions have access to sophisticated tools, students of government schools are dependent upon WhatsApp and YouTube links for their lessons

“From around 8 pm till 12 am, I take down the notes given by the teachers and also finish our homework; that is how our classes are going on right now. Now the schedule is such that we freshen up after waking up from bed and soon it is time to take hold of the mobile phones in order to take down the notes,” Parishmita said.

Network connectivity

Internet bandwidth is another hurdle in conducting online classes. The problem has been flagged in several parts of the state including districts in lower and upper Assam. Guwahati has also been hit by internet connectivity issues. Even with 4G services, the buffer time in downloading videos causes distraction for the students.

“Teachers upload the videos in sites like YouTube and buffering is a common issue and you cannot concentrate when it is buffering. Sometime the video is for about 23 to 27 minutes whereas the period is for about 40 minutes. So we get only 13 minutes to find out all the answers and if we cannot complete within those 13 minutes, we have to finish it on Saturdays and Sundays,” Kaustav Medhi, a Class IX student studying at a private school in Guwahati, told EastMojo.

Eradicating the ‘Digital Divide’

The online education programme in Assam is conducted by Samagra Siksha Abhiyan, which is an amalgamation of three erstwhile schemes — Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) and Teacher Education (TE). Along with a goal to provide quality education and enhancing learning outcomes of students, SSA also wants to eradicate the digital divide between students of government and private schools.

Kalyan Chakravarthy, mission director of Samagra Siksha Abhiyan, told EastMojo that the teaching system is undergoing a change and several strategies are being explored in order to provide quality content to the students of government schools.

“There is already a class divide in society where the kind of education that the people who are richer will get cannot be the same as the people who are poorer. But education minister Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma said that there should not be a ‘digital divide’. What we did immediately is broadcasting both from radio and TV. We requested teachers to reach out to the children in terms of phone calls at least in order to keep them abreast to what is happening and since books were already distributed we asked to keep them a certain pedagogy alive. We are also undergoing a change in the pedagogy. Since not everyone has access to a phone so we requested a lot of private TV channels to come forward,” Chakravarthy said.

The mission director also mentioned that in order to promote students in all sectors along with academics, the education department will declare awards for students. This will encourage the students and provide them the boost to file for patents.

With a view to bridge the learning loss due to the lockdown Assam, minister Sarma launched a local educational television channel ‘Gyan Brikshya’ on May 23. It is available on channel 12 in cable television network and replicates the “traditional classes”. However, it is yet to be seen what initiatives are taken to avoid or eradicate the ‘digital divide’ between students of government and private schools and provide them with quality content.

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