The blackboard has been replaced by the LED screen, the sway of the ruler with the flicker of the cursor. “My school has launched an app through which homework and class notes are sent,” says Rishikesh Chandra Roy, a class IX student in Bihar, “I attend my classes online, even while sitting at home.”
The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown has inadvertently catalysed the steadily trotting growth of online education into a full gallop. Many K-12 schools as well as colleges have scrambled to move their curriculum online. The options being used include web platforms that offer course and reference material, video conferencing apps like Zoom to conduct ‘virtual classrooms’ and homework and study materials sent through WhatsApp and email.
But the precipitance of the pandemic has put many educational institutions in a spot. “Typically, it takes months, if not years, to develop an online (educational) platform,” said Pallavi, an edtech communication specialist. “For many traditional institutions, particularly those that have been slower to embrace online education, the challenge is even more formidable.”
While technology has come in to save the day, it has also highlighted the digital divide even more starkly.
This is where supplementary edtech platforms have sensed their opportunity. Many of them, from the domestic market leader Byju’s to the global player Coursera, promptly made access to their course material free. GradeUp, another prominent player, has launched a campaign, #PadhaiNahiRukegi (Learning Will Not Stop), while Vedantu came out with a #21daylearningchallenge, featuring messages from the likes of Hrithik Roshan and Shikhar Dhawan.
“We have seen a 60 per cent increase in the number of students using the app to learn from home daily,” said Divya Gokulnath, cofounder of Byju’s. “Queries from parents and students have more than doubled in the past week.” While the situation has prompted parents to encourage students to use online study tools, the spike is “especially true for JEE and NEET aspirants, with their entrance exams being postponed”, said GradeUp founder and CEO Shobhit Bhatnagar.
Globally, around 1.5 billion students have been affected, according to UNESCO. This includes some 250 million school-goers in India. UNESCO has launched a campaign, titled Global Education Coalition, to encourage companies to provide technology and content for remote learning. The Indian government has SWAYAM, or Study Web of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds, which has 1,900 free courses accessible online. Though running for the past four years, traffic on the site increased three times after the lockdown started. The courses stretch across NCERT textbooks, secondary and senior secondary courses, engineering and e-books for school-goers. Additionally, the UGC runs ‘massive open online courses’ for undergraduates and postgraduates, besides its e-PG Pathshala and Shodhganga platforms.
Schools have also latched on to the potential of the internet to tide over the unexpected break in the academic session. St Columba’s in Delhi has formed WhatsApp groups to send links and time tables, while Amity schools uses its own Amitranet platform. School management systems like LEAD School@Home (used by Telangana and Karnataka), Vedantu (Kerala and some metros), Entab-CampusCare (private schools in Bihar), Bright Tutee (government schools in Haryana and Rajasthan) and Next Education have all suddenly found mainstream acceptance for dispersing study materials and conducting live lectures. Schools in big cities also use conferencing apps like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Blackboard to conduct virtual classrooms.
The situation has also opened new avenues. “We anticipated this, and have been training teachers in the use of digital processes,” said Sunita Gandhi, director of GETI, which trains teachers to teach online. Teachers were taught how to use props and hand-made mobile holders to make teaching videos, while students were asked to make videos of their homework, explaining what they understood.
Adults, too, are turning to online tutorials to make use of the free time to upskill or pick up hobbies like music, yoga and drawing. Shine Learning, from the leading Indian job site shine.com, uses an algorithm to figure what new skills a professional might need in a post-Covid-19 future workplace by analysing their resume, job sector and application history.
“This shift in user behaviour toward online learning is here to stay,” said Zishaan Hayath, CEO & cofounder, toppr.com. “As parents and students continue to explore various features, they will realise that online learning is a lot more powerful than an offline class.”
While technology has come in to save the day, it has also highlighted the digital divide even more starkly. The virtual classrooms on Zoom and homework on WhatsApp still remain the preserve of the privileged. Sachin Sharma, the son of a driver, studies in a village school near Kanpur. He blinks when asked about online classes. For him, the Holi break has just extended into a long summer vacation. Then, there are the practical difficulties. Teaching Hindi, for example, has run into a digital drawback—the limitations of the keyboard. Drawing is another. “How do they expect my son to study drawing over the internet, I don’t know,” said Bindu, who lives in the Khan Market area in Delhi, and has been struggling to balance her job, a husband who is working from home and a son who has online assignments. “How many people can afford three computers in a household? I am associated with the health care sector and the maid is not coming since the lockdown started. I also have to sit and learn the online content and then teach my son.”