Covid-19 offers opportunity to re-imagine learning in India

 As the Covid-19 pandemic swept through the world, Karnataka closed schools in March 2020. This was followed by a complete lockdown across India, aimed at “flattening the curve” and giving our systems, including healthcare and education, an opportunity to get better prepared for a post-Covid world.

In addition to the deadly virus, the Chinese also exported a saying: With every crisis comes an opportunity. Thanks to the pandemic, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hit the reset button and re-examine the purpose of life and education. The “new world” requires new learning! We need to change not just why, but also what, when, where and how we educate our children. 

 The primary reason for sending a child to school in India thus far has largely been focused on teaching prior-known information for a year-end exam, getting admission into a good college, followed by a secure job for life. As we are learning, at great cost to humanity, the challenges of the 21st century cannot be overcome by answering pre-set questions found in a textbook! We need to change our paradigm of success from learning for a test, to enabling every human being to be the best that they can be, and contributing to making the world a better place. 

 The key to this is life skills such as learning to learn, being resilient, collaborative, compassionate, adaptable, innovative and entrepreneurial, and this has to be modelled by our educators, law and policymakers. We have to start with defining our vision for education, our goals for each child and revamping our education system to enable it. We need a more theme-based, interdisciplinary approach to learning, as opposed to teaching independent subjects in silos. Learning should be available to everyone, anywhere, anytime, for life and just in time.

This can be enabled, as Nandan Nilikani said, “By reimagining every school as a resilient system and creating a scalable and resilient infrastructure.” We need to also empower students, facilitated by their teachers, to be more self directed in their learning journey.

The good news is we all realise this implicitly or explicitly. The stated goal of all stakeholders is to safeguard every child’s #RightToLearn, health and safety, and there is much dialogue on how to achieve this, particularly given the tremendous gap in India. As the Karnataka government’s Primary and Secondary Education Minister Suresh Kumar said: “We need to understand the divide between India and Bharat, rural and urban areas, and haves and have-nots while taking policy decisions.” The minister said this to back his decision on a complete ban on online education from KG to grade 5 until the state government, aided by an (yet to be formed) expert committee, comes up with recommendations on what to do!

This, while many central board and international schools, which recognised that we will not be able to get back to our physical campuses any time soon, have been providing online classes for the last three months. The immediate question that haunts us is, how do we tell a child who with less than 24 hours notice had to stop coming to her physical campus in March, that it’s not safe for them to go to school even online and from the comfort of their homes!

What did China, the country we are reportedly in contention with for superpower status, do? Can we learn from their experience? As coronavirus swept through China in January, the Chinese government took quick decisive steps to close brickand-mortar schools and work with seven Ed Tech leaders to create/enhance existing e-learning platforms — Empower Learning and Educloud. These organisations provide digital K12 curricula, lesson plans for teachers to follow and digital lessons from master teachers whose classes have been recorded over the last few years. Private schools (35% of total schools) were also given the freedom to teach their students online, with one exception — KG. The local governments therefore offered a range of subsidies to KG schools to support them financially. 

  As a member of two global School associations (Round Square and Global Connections) no country in the world, to my knowledge, has banned online learning. They have instead facilitated it.

  Contrast this response with what we are experiencing in the home of India’s Silicon Valley — utter confusion! We are confronted with contradictory media reports on a daily basis — ban on live face to face interactive classes, followed by a ban on all forms of online learning including video recordings! This went from being prohibited for KG, to KG to grade 4, then KG to grade 5, KG to grade 7… and even a news alert for a oneyear holiday for all school children!

The key problems the government claims to solve by the ban includes — the digital divide, cost and (in)convenience for parents and screen time for children. All very well meaning and understandable, but 2-3 months too late, given the new academic year has already started.

To ban or not to ban… should that be the question? I doubt that as a country with the world’s largest population of school-going children in the 21st century, we should be debating this. The government/ expert committee should not ban online learning for any length of time but work in collaboration with schools with experience in catering to different socioeconomic segments to develop guidelines and share best practices and learning resources. Tech companies in India’s Silicon Valley can help build and provide scalable tech solutions. Virtual schools could also sync timings with working parents to ensure their work is not disrupted.

The writer is Founding Managing Trustee, Inventure Academy.

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