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When India announced a nationwide lockdown on 24 March in a bid to check the spread of the covid-19 pandemic, most schools and colleges were forced to terminate classes in the final months of the academic year. In the weeks that followed, they skipped end-of-the-year exams as well, promoting students on the basis of year-long aggregate scores while hoping to resume normal activities by June, in time for the new academic year. It soon became clear, however, that this wouldn’t be possible—and offline classrooms would have to transition online.

It was easier said than done. “The offline system is straightforward," says Mubeen Masudi, founder of RiSE, a Srinagar-based coaching institute for Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) entrance and class XII board exams. “You have a room, a whiteboard, you teach and give printed assignments." To replicate that online requires the right infrastructure: seamless internet connectivity, a certain degree of comfort with streaming apps and learning software and a phone with a large memory bank, available for use for the duration of the lectures. In Kashmir, Masudi’s students reeled under an additional problem. For months, only 2G internet speeds have been allowed for “security reasons".

Around the country, however, some educationists began working on solutions, scaling infrastructure hurdles and finding new ways to teach and keep children engaged.

Masudi and his colleagues, for instance, initially used a combination of apps to teach: Zoom for online classes, Google Classrooms for assignments and WhatsApp for discussion and sharing information. Each had its limitations. But the biggest impediment was that not everyone had a high-end mobile phone to keep up with the apps and their data demands.

“Say, you give an assignment on WhatsApp and ask students to take a photo and upload the solutions. By the evening, you would get 160 submissions. Each is 4-8 MB. For most teachers, their phones won’t be able to keep up the data overload and it would crash." Downloading notes and reference books was another challenge. “After a point, students are forced to delete old notes to make way for new ones on the phone. If there are two kids in a house sharing one phone, the challenge becomes 2x," says Masudi.

In July, Masudi had a discussion with Bilal Abidi, a former classmate from IIT, Bombay, who is also from Kashmir. “We decided to converge Zoom, Google Classrooms and WhatsApp into one and put the rest up in a cloud."

Their WiseApp, which went live on 28 July, is divided into four sections. The first enables live classes with automated sign-in and attendance. A “Discussion" tab allows students to post queries and clear doubts. An “Assessment" tab allows teachers to send and receive assignments. And a “Resources" tab makes study material available on the cloud. What needed hundreds of MBs of storage space now comes in a nifty 13 MB app. The duo dipped into their savings to develop the app, which cost nearly 4-5 lakh.

“It was born out of my need but while trying to figure out my problem, I realized it is the problem for all teachers," says Masudi. So he decided to put it on Play Store as freeware. By mid-August, he says, 1,500 teachers and over 10,000 students were using it across India. Union education minister Ramesh Pokhriyal congratulated the duo in a tweet on 13 August.

TEETHING TROUBLES

India isn’t new to online education. However, the absence of quality infrastructure limited its beneficiaries to a tiny subset of the population. According to a National Statistical Office (NSO) survey in 2017-18, nearly 75% of students in India did not have internet access at home. The number of internet subscribers has risen since—the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India pegged the number at 719 million in 2019. But issues of seamless connectivity and high-speed internet persist.

So the weeks following the lockdown were a trying time for students. According to news reports,students in parts of Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, were forced to walk up to 50km to access the internet. In remote parts of Rayagada in Odisha, some had to climb hills and trees to be able to connect to online classes.

Their troubles also prompted some innovative solutions: Teachers in Jharkhand’s Bankathi village, for instance, installed loudspeakers in the village to deliver lectures.

Amod Joshi, who lives in Girgaon, a tribal hamlet in Maharashtra’s Palghar district, witnessed the problems first-hand. For the past year, he has been running a phone-learning initiative, “Read a Story"; backed by the L&T Public Charitable Trust, it connects tutors fluent in English with students from his village seeking to learn the language. Joshi shares an English-language storybook with the tutor and the student, and they connect on phone and read it together. The tutors are supposed to guide the students on pronunciation, comprehension and grammar, all through the story.

When the lockdown came into effect, the twozila parishad schools in Girgaon—a village of a few thousand people, most of them from tribal communities—shut down. “Given the weak cellphone connectivity here, online education is not an option at all," says Joshi. “Barely 10% of the people have cellphones. For the most part, it’s one per household."

By June, the schools began distributing books to students but classrooms remained off limits. “So we decided to teach ourselves," says Joshi. Instead of a storybook, Joshi requested his group of tutors to use the English textbooks and teach the curriculum. “We were at an advantage here," he says. “Most of the tutors were working from home and had more time to spare. I saw the number of weekly teaching hours logged increase by 25%." At times, he would ask the students to gather friends in their neighbourhood and connect with the tutor on a loudspeaker to simulate a classroom set-up.

Joshi’s initiative reached over 200 students. “Some students were so enthusiastic, they finished the (English) books of their grade and the next year’s too."

Taking the cue, the local schools started teaching through conference calls. “We have mostly kept ourselves to teaching English but we are also exploring expanding this to other languages," says Joshi.

AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT

For some students, online education was less a problem of infrastructure than of quality. “Zoom fatigue", or the inability to concentrate during video-streaming for long hours, was a common complaint. Given the lack of shared physical spaces, many did not find the regular, lecture-based way of instruction as engaging.

“When you are in a physical classroom, learning comes with a structure of discipline," says Aditi Parekh, an educationist from Coimbatore. “In a classroom, you can’t easily cause a ruckus or get up and leave. Online lacks that discipline, norms and control. I am still to hear of people who enjoy 60- to 90-minute lectures. There are so many memes on WhatsApp of students dozing off in lectures. Yet some schools are doing it 7-8 hours."

After the lockdown was imposed, Parekh, who completed a master’s from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, collaborated with Prof. Todd Jick from the Columbia Business School to design “Zoom Instruct", free online tutorials for teachers on ways to make classes interesting and interactive.

This includes ways to start a class (consider playing a song), stimulate discussions (use the “breakout room" feature in Zoom to divide students into smaller groups), work through silences (encourage sharing, don’t confront) and design lectures (work with 15-minute slots, interspersed with multimedia elements).

Parekh launched Zoom Instruct, available free on a website of the same name, on 16 August. About 250 have signed up for the tutorials so far. Much of what Parekh suggests can easily be incorporated in offline lectures too. “A lot of good teaching is good teaching, online or offline." Online education, she adds, offers an opportunity to go beyond whiteboards and textbooks and promote interactivity.

“We say the Indian education system doesn’t foster curiosity but using tools and resources available on the internet can. You have an internet connection, you have access to knowledge."

Parekh, then, sees the pandemic as an opportunity for teachers to break the mould and turn into efficient facilitators rather than sole providers of knowledge—to encourage questions, take feedback and promote a more active form of learning. “The onus," she says, “is then on you as a teacher: Does your student want to show up or not?"

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