Are our primary schools equipped to handle online classes? Not quite

As many as 16 crore Indians are estimated to be children under the age of 10. But while there is a clamour to give them smartphones, not even half the primary schools are equipped for online classes

Are our primary schools equipped to handle online classes? Not quite

Papri Sri Raman

The Great Digital Divide is a problem. But it is not the only one that children and their mothers, even middle-class mothers, are facing.

“He is not Japanese,” mutters the frustrated mother, stuffing paper birds into a basket and stashing away colourful sheets strewn all over the floor. True. He is not. He is Indian, a 7-year-old, Class 3 student.

So, what’s wrong with Origami? It’s a beautiful craft.

“Nothing wrong,” the mother responds, adding, “but he has been doing this from kindergarten. And they don’t even tell him it is a craft from Japan, where Japan is and why the Japanese believe the paper crane is a symbol of peace and perseverance and ever-lasting memory. Thirty hours or more of Origami classes every year. Don’t you think it’s a shame that kids doing Origami for three years don’t know about Hiroshima?” I had no answer. “In upper primary, why don’t they start teaching him some simple Ikebana rules?” the mother fumes.

Primary schools in India do not spend much time thinking, the emphasis is on doing. Motor coordination and several other fancy words are sold at parent-teacher meetings. However, it is the teacher’s productivity that is being measured (how many Origami items can she make), not the student’s learning, even more so since India went online in April 2020. By April 2021, both schools and students were zoomed out. The youngsters are bored stiff of online classes and the schools have run out of ideas.

Online and distant teaching began on a large scale across the world around 2012, mostly with middle and high school students. India is at least eight years behind in online pedagogy. “We can’t simply transfer what was done in the classroom to the online setting,” says professor Benjamin Heddy of the University of Oklahoma’s department of educational psychology. “We need to do things in a different way,” he adds.

In India, there is no recognition that primary schools need to “do things differently”. Children of Class 1 and 2 are experts at making paper planes and boats. It is a common finding that after a few months of Zoom classes, they switch off the video and start chatting with friends on the chat boxes.

Yes, a six-year-old knows everything the mother knows with the machine. Computer, phone, ipad. And, instead of class they would rather play Pick Me Up or Temple Run or Among Us or Free Fire or Call of Duty and a dozen other games they know how to download.

It is a lot worse for underprivileged kids. Let us consider a case study from Delhi, which has one of the most globally acclaimed state school system. Among those enrolled in government schools are children of Delhi’s three million casual workers, often single mothers with three-four children, surviving as domestic helps or construction workers, living in Seemapuri or Harkesh Nagar, many without Aadhaar cards or cards with addresses in native Badaun or Kanauj.

It is after years of struggle with the system, local address, father’s name, bank account, that such workers manage to get Aadhaar numbers for the children and admit them to state-run schools. The mothers (yes, it is usually the mothers) are mostly not literate. The smartphone is a gift as the children now need it. As the mother does not even know how to store numbers, she needs help with every school message that comes on the phone.

Are our primary schools equipped to handle online classes? Not quite

She engages a ‘tuition’ for her kids. Someone who reads the messages and gets the children to do the homework…or do it for them. No Origami for these kids, even with old newspapers. The story is not very different across India for its 80 million underprivileged children.

“In India, primary education is not equitable. Neither content, nor connectivity is of the same quality across the nation, and not globally up to date… it’s neither here, nor there,” says Anita, a mother of two and a teacher. And since 2020 April, this amorphous in-school teaching is being just conveniently transported online.

“There is absolutely no innovation,” says Amruta, another mother who has moved her 4 and 8-year-old sons out of the school system in Kerala and enrolled them to the open school, home learning format. “If it’s just transfer of curriculum and the mother has to constantly teach and help the child, why a school?” She has a point.

“The burden of education is today, primarily, on the mother and it is hell for the working mother,” she adds. It is the mother’s computer and connectivity and prime work time that primary school children use for two to three hours of class every day, often six days a week.

So, does one give a 7-year-old a laptop and a smartphone of his own?

The American Psychological Association’s guidelines emphasise that a child must first be taught the use of technology. In India, however, schools assume a 5-year-old knows the technology and computer is not a subject for primary school, though it is used to the hilt for even UKG (especially in the NCR).

In primary school, the child is taught language for one hour (English or mother tongue) and one hour of maths or EVS (which includes making a bird feed, a box cat, origami, singing, painting). Only the maths classes are good, mothers say, because this is still tables and traditional counting.

“Music does not comprise just Surya namaskaram or Saare Jahaan Se Accha….All music gurus tell you, a child can be started on laya, tala, drums, flute, keyboard etc by the age of six. But not even the basic sa re ga maa is taught to the kids,” Amruta adds.

“During the school holidays, I made my son attend a Patachitra class, Kalarippayattu class and Kathputli class, where he was shown how to make a doll’s dress that involves cutting cloth and stitching a dress. Stitching is a skill everyone should have. I learnt to stitch in school. Why don’t they have these classes any more?” asks Anjali, another mother.

The mother has to get the curd first, then hang it all night, then have four kinds of fruits ready on the dining table by 8 o’ clock in the morning for a school EVS lesson, teaching my son how to make a delicious hung curd breakfast!” exclaims Akshara.

“You will see how EVS is a hotchpotch activity class. If you do an actual survey, you will find, in middle-class households, 70 percent of mothers are doing the children’s work. What is the learning here?” she wants to know.

“I have to provide worksheet printouts. I have to scan and upload on the classroom folder every Sulekh page or worksheet. And then there is holiday homework, two summers, one winter now… I have to scan all those and upload. Now the child takes the phone and scans these and other things too! If I give him the laptop, he is creating his own Gmail account.”

“But for the underprivileged children linked to online classes, they are simply not doing anything. No monitoring is happening across the country,” she adds.

The Indian school system is not even acknowledging that it is underprepared, say educated mothers. Their concern is supported by professor Beth Doll of the University of Nebraska. “We have to be careful and acknowledge just how big a change this (the pandemic and stay home) has been for kids and families,” she says.

One of the world’s oldest online and distance schooling programme in the UK offers English, maths, science and activity for lower primary. This can easily be English, mother tongue or local language, maths, science and activity for India.

For upper primary in the UK, it is English, French, maths, science, activities (quizzes, puzzles, also how to make lemonade etc). Physical activity is a separate class. Then there is history, geography, computers, art and music. Should India too return to the basics, science, geography etc? And some computers?

The Hindi teacher is asking the child to make a Hindi quiz,” says Abhinaya.

“So, did she do it?” I ask the mother.

“No. I can’t help her here,” she pauses and continues, “I told the teacher, I can make a Tamil quiz. But I don’t know how to create a Hindi quiz, why don’t you teach her?”

American scholars of language studies like Noam Chomsky tell us, a seven-year-old has the brain capacity to learn seven languages. We have ample examples of multilingual six-years-old in India. So why don’t our schools start audio lessons in at least two-three Indian neighbourhood languages as part of primary curriculum, this mother asks.

Malavika Kapur from the National Institute of Advanced Studies (IISC) is the author of Beware of the Digital Demon, a book alerting parents to the dangers of too much of digital access for the child. She believes, “Talk, read (or tell stories) and play with them” is a proven adage.

“If you must go online for primary school, why not invent a new world… teach the kitchen mechanics of kneading dough, why one must not add salt to water when boiling, why is the tip of the flame hottest?

“Why not go visit Yakutsk with Google map tracking, show them the Mesopotamian hieroglyphs, the Indus script, the Inca knots. Why is story-telling about the world not a part of primary education in a country of oral traditions?” mothers ask.

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