New Delhi: Online lessons are helping educational institutions around India beat the Covid-19 lockdown to push ahead with the academic calendar. But the trend has raised many concerns among educational experts, including those at UNESCO and UNICEF.
While some have expressed alarm about the potential dangers of internet exposure for young children, others say they are scared the digital shift may alienate economically disadvantaged students who don’t have access to the technology digital lessons require.
On 15 April, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which is engaged in humanitarian aid for young ones around the world, said “millions of children are at increased risk of harm as their lives move increasingly online during lockdown in the Covid-19 pandemic”.
According to the statement, the internet exposure puts children at the risk of “online sexual exploitation and grooming, as predators look to exploit the Covid-19 pandemic”.
Online grooming, a worrying product of the internet and social media age, involves predatory adults building online relationships with gullible children and tricking or pressuring them into sexual behaviour.
“Under the shadow of Covid-19, the lives of millions of children have temporarily shrunk to just their homes and their screens. We must help them navigate this new reality,” the statement quoted UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore as saying.
In a report issued on 21 April, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), a multi-dimensional agency, highlighted another concern about the online shift.
Giving a global perspective, UNESCO noted, “Half of the total number of learners — some 826 million (82.6 crore) students — kept out of the classroom by the Covid-19 pandemic, do not have access to a household computer and 43 per cent (706 million or 70.6 crore) have no internet at home, at a time when digitally-based distance learning is used to ensure educational continuity in the vast majority of countries.”
The issues highlighted by the two UN agencies are echoed by teachers in India as well, some of whom have been pointing this out to the government from time to time.
“After we received directions from Delhi University, we started teaching our students online, but there are many challenges with it,” said Manoj Kumar, who teaches at a Delhi University college.
“Students who are in Delhi and other cities with a good internet connection have been able to join in for the classes, but those who went back home to their villages or are in small towns struggle with the internet speed and are mostly unable to attend.”
Kumar added that the disadvantage would prove particularly unwieldy when it’s exam time.
“If the university plans to go for online exams, half the students who are in towns and villages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar will fail for sure because they will not be able to connect,” he added.
A teacher from Mahatma Gandhi Central University, a government institute at Motihari, Bihar, said, “How does the government expect us to teach students in rural areas through mobile and Zoom classes? We have decent network for a video call for a few minutes, but how will they continue a 40-minute class?”
The teacher added that many of the students didn’t “have the kind of devices, laptops, smartphones… or money to keep the connection going”. “These are real challenges that hinder the process of online learning,” the teacher said.
Speaking to ThePrint, some school teachers complained that they were themselves struggling to get a hang of the technology.
“The school wants us to make PPTs (Powerpoint presentations), record video lectures, take online classes through different apps, but they do not offer any clear instructions as to how this should be done,” Kavita Reddy, a 63-year-old who teaches students at a private school in Hyderabad, said.
“How do they expect a 60-plus teacher, not technically sound, to make this work?”
A new reality
The warnings come as the government itself tries to wade through the various challenges of the situation. Earlier this month, for example, the Ministry of Home Affairs flagged security concerns about the Zoom app for video conferencing, which emerged as the mainstay across India — for government meetings as well as private appointments and online lessons — in the early days of the lockdown. Many schools have since started looking for alternatives to keep the classes going.
Schools and colleges across India have been shut since mid-March in order to enforce social distancing, which is considered the best bet for Covid-19 prevention in the absence of a vaccination.
With a nationwide lockdown in place until at least 3 May, physical classes are unlikely to resume in the coming days. To ensure the academic calendar doesn’t suffer much disruption on account of the lockdown, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) has been constantly asking schools and colleges to teach students through online classes while making several platforms available to aid the exercise. The National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has also developed a curriculum to suit the online education pattern.
The Covid-19 lockdown, which has spawned an unprecedented dependence on technology to keep operations running across different sectors, and its potential long-term impact, has become a subject of research back home too.
The National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) has been studying the increased dependency on gadgets among adults and children amid the lockdown and monitoring its impact on mental health, sources in the institute told ThePrint.
In its press release, the UNICEF has given a host of recommendations for governments, schools and parents to tackle the new reality. It has suggested that governments bolster core child protection services to make sure they remain open and active throughout the pandemic, while asking parents to ensure children’s devices have the latest software updates and antivirus programmes, among other things.
UNESCO, meanwhile, has advised “the use of community radio and television broadcasts” as alternatives “to lessen already existing inequalities”. “These are solutions we are addressing with our Global Coalition partners,” UNESCO director general Audrey Azoulay said in the report.
The Indian government has been pushing for initiatives on the same lines by making lessons available on DTH platforms. Union Human Resource Development Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ told ThePrint in an interview this week that the government was also exploring the possibility of disseminating lessons through All India Radio.