Gangtok: Schools in Sikkim reopened for offline classes in October, much to the relief of many parents. However, what came to light over the course of the COVID 19 pandemic were the grave troubles that digital learning at home gave students in Sikkim.
While many suffered from poor internet connectivity, others simply did not have a digital device at their disposal. Another aspect that was revealed was that parents prefered giving mobile phones to an older child for digital learning with the younger ones mostly kept away from digital devices.
This disparity was clear among primary and elementary-level students when compared to senior or senior secondary-level students. The digital divide was also stark at the district-level, along with urban and rural spaces where these schools exist.
Overall, data reveals that in Sikkim’s government schools, at least 26.63% students till Class 8 did not have an internet connection or digitally-enabled device to access any kind of study material. Among those between classes 1 to 8, 19.48 per cent had no digital device whatsoever in their homes – no mobile phone, radio or television set.
While 30.04 per cent of students surveyed had access to a radio set or a basic mobile phone but no internet connection or television set, 30.38 per cent students belonged to households with only TV sets with DTH or cable connections but no 4G internet connection in their smartphones. Among the 55.49 per cent of those who did have 4G internet-enabled smartphones or a computer or laptop at home, their internet connectivity was questionable.
This data was revealed after a survey was conducted as part of ‘Pragyata’ guidelines for digital education issued in 2020 by the Union Education Ministry and was carried out by the State Council of Education Research and Training (SCERT) working in tandem with the State Education department.
The survey included 571 government schools, covering 74.5 per cent of the schools in Sikkim and 57,045 students. As per the UDISE Report 2019-20, there are a total of 89,876 students in government schools of Sikkim.
According to the survey of students in classes 9 and above, 76.94 per cent belong to households with a computer/laptop, smartphones with 4G internet connections as well television with DTH or cable connection. Considering only classes 9 and 10 in secondary schools, at least 70.06 per cent of the students had access to all these devices, while 76.24 per cent of those belong to senior secondary schools. Among students in classes 11 and 12, 84.33 per cent were found to have a computer/laptop, smartphones with 4G internet connections as well television with DTH or cable connections.
The survey revealed that at least 17.67 percent students from Sikkim’s government schools were without any digital device during the pandemic. While 28.79 per cent students were living in households with radio sets and a basic mobile phone but no internet and TV, 29.65 per cent students lived in households having only TV sets with DTH or cable connections but no 4G internet connection in their smartphones.
The percentage of students from classes 1-12 who were found without access to the internet or a digital device stood at 25.29 per cent. The percentage of students with access to either smartphones with 4G internet connection or with a computer, laptops or DTH or cable connections at home was 59.17, but their internet connectivity was found to be questionable.
Even in the 59.17 per cent households with either smartphones with 4G internet connection or with a computer, laptops or DTH or cable connections, the survey could not ascertain whether every student had access to 4G connections.
There are various means of joining the process of learning digitally – over the phone, through WhatsApp messages and voice messages, video calls, Google Classroom, Google Meet and Sikkim government’s flagship Sikkim Edutech App.
K. Inbaraj, Director for Secondary Education in Sikkim, told EastMojo: “The government did not issue strict instructions about following the Sikkim Edutech App as a mode of learning. If you see the number of students registered on the app, it was only 13,000, mostly from secondary and senior secondary level. Although it was meant for secondary and senior secondary level, those from lower level classes could also access it if they wished to.”
The director said the Education department focused mainly on senior students with internet access and smartphones.
“Almost 70 plus per cent of the students have smartphones among the senior students. 40 per cent of the senior and senior secondary level students were registered on the app. Comparing it with online learning in the country of reaching only 4 per cent,” Inbaraj said.
The other flagship endeavour of the current Sikkim Krantikari Morcha government has been to deliver television sets with digital connections to students during the pandemic. The government’s target group was students in Class 9 and above, especially those preparing for their board examinations.
However, the decision confused many as they asked how a television set could help when there is no digital content to access. Sikkim’s education department has not created any digital content for the students to access during the pandemic.
“The state has distributed 26,000 TV sets against a target of 32,000. However, the data on students accessing any educational content through TV is yet to be ascertained,” the secondary education director said.
“The television sets were given with a one-month free subscription to Swayam Prabha Channel, which telecast high-quality educational programme 24X7 run by Doordarshan. The channel airs content for Classes 1 to 12 on different subjects. Besides, a three-month subscription to educational channels like Vedantu was given along with the television sets. The All India Radio and local television Samvad Television were also used for learning, with the local TV channel telecasting 100 hours of education,” he added.
Sikkim had also distributed laptops with pre-loaded content and USB devices to teach in places with no access to the internet. But how much of the contents were made available to the primary level students is subject to be questioned.
Most parents, from both rural or urban areas as well as from private and government schools, have, however, complained that digital learning just didn’t happen for their children during the pandemic. Most parents were forced to home tutor their children, as they claimed that online learning methods of schools failed to make any impact on their children’s learning.
In defence, the secondary education director said, “Teachers were never given any holiday; they were instructed to take classes digitally or, in case of primary schools, they had to go to the school to use the laptops provided to ensure seamless learning. Schools were also given the authority to decide to call the teachers to school as and when required.”
But a look at the survey data shows that Sikkim failed at generating digital content for the students during the tough period of this global pandemic.
“Local content generation is focused on classes 1 to 5, while classes 6-12 follow NCERT norms. We know that primary students and schools had no digital access and that is why we focused on homeschooling them. Teachers would teach the students on a rotation basis. But without any device, there was no room for digital content generation. There is a dedicated team under the SCERT which is working on creating digital content for the Diksha App,” Inbaraj shared.
The director also shared that the department has approached the IT department and telecom operators on improving internet connectivity in the state. Internet connectivity in state capital Gangtok is mostly unreliable, and in rural Sikkim, negligible.
In September, the Sikkim government had announced the creation of a Sikkim Telecom Circle separate from the West Bengal Telecom Circle but it is yet to see the light of day.
Under such circumstances, the digital divide for the state’s students, especially for those from rural areas and poorer households, is bound to increase.
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