Strengthening Academic Education Through Sustainable Virtual Learning

A sustainable virtual learning module with better accessibility is the way forward to strengthen academic education, ensure comprehensive development of students

More than 1.5 million schools across India have remained closed since the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, impacting 247 million children, in addition to the 6 million that are already out of school. An entire school year (2020-2021) has already been lost with an additional 24 million children expected to not return to school. One year on, India is battling a devastating second wave of the virus while bracing for a third, which is expected to make landfall later this year.  Also, while children remained largely unaffected during the first wave, data suggests that during the second wave children have been impacted more given certain variants of the virus are highly contagious. Experts have pointed out that children may now be at a higher risk in the third wave. Given this bleak scenario, it is unlikely that schools will re-open in this academic year (2021-2022) as well. 

Millions of children reverse migrated with their labourer/daily wage earner parents to smaller towns and villages during the first 2020 lockdown, forcing India to witness the largest mass migration in history since partition in 1947. With migrant parents losing jobs and with no or reduced income, the education of these children has taken a backseat. Even if parents returned to the cities as the unlocking began, many children continued to stay in their hometowns and villages, which could have resulted in further dropout. 

For students who managed to remain connected, the quality of education remains a huge concern.  Pre-pandemic itself, ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) reports consistently cited ‘worryingly low’ learning outcomes. These could have worsened in 2020-2021. While children were given a default pass to the next grade for the last academic year, their ability to cope with the syllabus for a higher grade remains extremely doubtful. With dwindling levels of learning outcomes, will this generation of adolescents be able to find a place in an already shrinking employment market? Or worse, drop out from education entirely as they seek work to support crippling financial conditions at home?

In the last year, as Government and educational institutions adopted online learning, there was a push back, particularly for socioeconomically disadvantaged students given their lack of access to technology and devices. According to a survey conducted in April 2020 among school children across 23 Indian states, 43.9 per cent had access to smartphones, a further 43.9 per cent to basic phones and a sizeable 12 per cent could not access either. Additionally, the concern over the preparedness of teachers (from Corporation & Government schools in the urban & rural areas) and low levels of digital literacy among parents to handle this ‘new normal’ was palpable. One must therefore accept the current reality and start developing solutions to effectively engage students through virtual mediums. 

We need to seek out the means now, to attempt to bridge this learning gap.  

For organisations like Salaam Bombay Foundation (SBF), which work with underprivileged adolescents and implements interventions in municipal and government-aided schools or community spaces, the big challenge has been to ensure uninterrupted learning. Without appropriate interventions, these adolescents are at risk of losing interest in academics and dropping out of school, besides channelising their energies into such activities that could hamper their access to an economically fruitful future. 

We needed to respond and act fast in the face of the pandemic and extended lockdowns! Recognising that access to technology will always be an inhibitor amongst this demography, the immediate need was to pilot test the possibility of implementing a virtual model for the delivery of education and skill development programmes. This initial evaluation took into perspective the students’ access to smartphones. Would availability make the student attend virtual sessions? The test results pointed to the possibility that an effective online module could indeed be implemented: 

  • The field team’s capacity building (digital skills) and perseverance plays a key role in motivating and making students comfortable to download digital platforms like Mobile Apps (for online learning) and eventually navigate independently for continuity of learning.  
  • Data support is imperative for seamless connectivity during online sessions. Recharging parents’ mobile phones further incentivise participation. Across programmes, we have been able to recharge data packs for 1515 students, resulting in average attendance of more than 75 per cent. 
  • Practice kits delivered to students’ homes complement the learning process and makes it experiential. SBF has provided such kits for our vocational courses (Mobile Repair) and sports programmes (Yoga Mats, Skipping ropes). Such low-cost DIY kits can also be assembled for various domains of learning. 
  • Engaging students through developing innovative workshops (Photography Masterclasses) projects or products (Monthly school newsletter, Mobile Projector), making videos and sharing online (Cake making, Self-choreographed Dance) or live streaming (Theatre performances). Today’s youth loves this kind of gamification! 
  • Digital platforms like Zoom have become synonymous with virtual learning. However, this synchronous aspect (presence of trainer and learner at the same time) debars many from joining real-time sessions, since access is limited by the availability of a device or Internet. This coupled with an asynchronous engagement can provide a holistic learning approach. An online session on ‘nutrition and immunity boosting’ provides students with information on planting microgreens (synchronous). Access to video recording of the session uploaded on Flipgrid (video discussion facilitating platform) enables learning for those who did not have access during the live session (asynchronous). Students can also upload videos of their experiment on Flipgrid when connectivity permits, enabling the trainer to review and provide feedback asynchronously. 

The model retains the potential of making virtual learning more viable and sustainable. Along with extra-curricular and after school programs, it can also be put in use for imparting academic education to children, thus strengthening the approach of their holistic development.     

Once a virtual model is in place with demonstrated results, many donors are interested in funding the access part of it. Few of our prominent donors made an in-kind donation of more than 650 (4G internet) enabled tablets (used on a rotational basis to maximise the benefit). In this way, we have successfully engaged over 25,000 resource-challenged students digitally. The tablets could be pre-loaded with valuable educational curriculums (free educational apps like DIKHSA by the Government of India) fulfilling academic outcomes. Software like Seqrite can help in ensuring safety through management of device, identity and access, content and mobile application. This ensures the device is not misused. 

Online models of learning are definitely scalable and cost-effective providing a few more advantages over the physical model: 

  • Geographical boundaries are transcended with students from across locations logging into sessions at the same time; an experienced trainer in one location can now conduct a session for students across locations. While developing the online curriculum we found that many subject matter experts were now homebound and available to conduct virtual workshops which was not possible in the physical model. 
  • Parents are now more aware of the programmes and hence more involved
  • Better integration of resource-challenged students in the digital world - making them future-ready
  • Availability of more time-slots during the day for conducting sessions 
  • Can solve the larger crisis of ‘out-of-school’ days spent by lakhs of students annually due to the monsoon season, natural disasters and cultural impediments (especially faced by girls).

Some unresolved challenges continue to persist through - difficulty in delivering sessions that may require heavy-duty materials for practical and experiential learning, couriering practice kits to students living in remote villages, poor connectivity resulting in students not being able to view the session properly or dropping out of the session midway or gender bias where some parents or school authorities are apprehensive about allowing girl students to use mobile phones. To address some of these challenges, recent initiatives by the Government of India have helped in bridging the gaps of digital inclusion across the country. We also continue to engage with relevant stakeholders with the hope of finding innovative solutions to each of these issues. 

In the current Covid reality, we must open ourselves up to envisioning a ‘new normal’ where the delivery of education is not restricted by any physical classroom boundaries or digital divide. A hybrid sustainable model, which combines the good practices of virtual learning and a physical classroom, is expected to be adopted once the Covid situation is better and government protocol allows the re-opening of schools.  Thus, highlighting that virtual learning is here to stay as an integral part of educational learning and skill training delivery, and is the way forward for the foreseeable future. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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