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Review: Multiple studies make important recommendations to bridge the learning gap caused due to school lockdowns

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Parliamentary standing committee on education recently released a report that made important recommendations to bridge the learning gap caused due to school lockdowns. A few other organizations like the UNICEF also made recommendations in this regard. Here is a review.

The COVID-19 pandemic affected educational systems worldwide leading to the closure of schools, colleges, and Universities. The Indian education system also saw the largest disruption in history affecting nearly 32 crore students’ population enrolled in various schools/colleges and Universities. The sudden closure left very little time for the system to prepare a strategy and transition to distance/digital learning. In several ways, the crisis exacerbated pre-existing education disparities for many of the most vulnerable children, youth, and adults.

In this article, we review the Parliamentary Standing Committee’s Report on the subject “Plans for Bridging the Learning Gap caused due to School Lockdown as well as a Review of online and offline Instructions and Examinations and Plans for re-opening of Schools “. The Committee reviewed the impact of the pandemic on the education system including preparedness and initiatives taken to ensure continued education in all fields. 

Committee notes under-utilization of funds, emphasises on the ongoing and future importance of digital education

The Committee noted the under-utilization of the allotted funds by some States. The report emphasises that since the digital/online mode of education is going to be the new normal even after the pandemic subsides, efforts to technologically empower every school and student across the country should be aggressively pursued and additional funds allocated for the purpose, as per requirement.

The Committee recommended that the Department of School Education & Literacy should urge the States/UTs to fully utilize the budget grants made to them during the financial year 2021-22 to augment digital/online education and create necessary infrastructural and technological facilities required for continued learning. 

Strong emphasis on comprehensive data collection/documentation of learning loss, availability, and usage of digital devices, etc.

The Committee recommends that a comprehensive assessment to collect data of the post-COVID situation leading to the learning loss due to school lockdown may be undertaken by the Department of School Education & Literacy to cover the following areas of concern: 

  • Learning loss assessment across the country covering each and every student. The findings/results of the survey should be compared with the figures for the pre-COVID period and the groups of students and areas/subjects which require immediate remedial action should be identified.
  • Intensive bridge courses and accelerated learning programmes should be developed in consultation with experts in the field.
  • Extra classes, curtailment of vacations, assigning expert teachers for personalized coaching, parental engagement, peer- group and collaborative learning may be explored to help students, who are lagging and provide them personalized and dedicated attention.
  • Specific instructional materials and worksheets, workbooks may be created to address the specific learning requirements of students.
  • Mandatory Helpline Centres for every subject to clear the doubts of the students should be made operational. Phone-in programmes may also be aired through TV and on community radio with subject experts to elaborate on topics and explain difficult concepts to students. WhatsApp Groups comprising teachers/subject experts may be created for each class in schools to aid students in their learning, clarification of doubts/concepts, etc.
  • Weekly assessment of digital learning outcomes to regularly assess the learning progress of students to enable them to course correct in case requisite targets are not achieved.
  • Take concerted action to bring out-of-school children, particularly girls, during the pandemic back to school and mainstream education by giving them incentives in the form of study material, digital devices, wholesome nutritional food, etc. 

In this context, UNICEF India’s Rapid Assessment of Learning during School Closures report recommends States to conduct virtual (call/ SMS based) and in-person meetings with parents, and students to ensure re-enrolment in case students have dropped out of school/not re-enrolled. 

  • Assessing the impact of online/digital/distant education during the pandemic to create data sets based on demography, socio-economic status, student’s learning habits, including hours of online study, students’ perception of their self-learning, etc. for a comparative study and for augmenting policy makers’ awareness.
  • Study on the availability of digital devices and their usage, with special emphasis on rural, tribal, and backward areas and the economically weaker and marginalized sections.
  • Performance assessment of teachers, especially in coordination with States and UTs, to ascertain their potential in handling audio-visual tools and imparting digital education.
  • Assessment of the minimum requirements of technological infrastructure for improving digital education in schools across the country, particularly in rural, tribal, hilly, and backward areas as well as in Aspirational Districts, and chalk out a roadmap for the development of such facilities.

Use of Satellite TV and need to make educational content lively and engaging

The Committee recommends utilizing Satellite TV as a cost-effective and viable solution for telecasting educational programmes, on the model of Gujarat and Odisha. For wide outreach, educational content should be developed in all other States/UTs in collaboration with Bhaskaracharya Institute for Space Applications and Geoinformatics (BISAG-N). ISRO can be also roped in to provide increased transponder capacity for enhanced content delivery through satellite TV. 

Wide publicity can be given to the educational programmes being aired on Doordarshan/ satellite TV to create awareness amongst the general public. The educational channels can also be clubbed and placed along with entertainment or news channels having high TRPs for enhanced visibility, instead of placing them at the end of the spectrum of available channels as being done at present. Similarly, increased bandwidth can be provided for community radios to air educational content, along with wide publicity given to such programmes. 

In sync with these observations, a research article by Observer Research Foundation emphasises the need to promote learning through low-tech TV/ radio programmes as they are more accessible and feasible than online learning options. Along with developing country-wide e-learning infrastructure and solutions, low-cost distant-learning solutions should also be run simultaneously.

UNICEF India’s Rapid Assessment of Learning during School Closures Report in the context of COVID reverberates that awareness is cited as the primary challenge for students not using remote learning solutions.  Hence, improving awareness of these tools for learning through communication efforts seems to be a low-hanging fruit solution to drive up usage, especially for TV and feature phones where the gap is high between use in general and use for learning. The report also emphasises that special efforts must be made to sensitize parents to the importance of allowing their daughters to access and use phones/internet services. 

The Committee Report also highlighted the need to re-design the presentation of educational programmes to make it more lively and engaging for the students. Theatre/Cine artists, Cartoonists can be roped in for creating interesting and engaging educational content.

The Committee recommended that the Department should take proactive measures along with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the Department of Telecommunication to upgrade and revive tele-education networks in different States under the ‘Edusat’ Programme by upgrading networks, replacing obsolete equipment with the latest gadgets. States should be encouraged to use available time slots on DD regional TV channels to air educational content by utilizing existing resources and satellite capacity optimally. Further, the Committee suggested that all schools, community halls in villages, small towns, etc. should be equipped with Doordarshan Free Dish so that students can watch educational channels and learn therefrom.

Adopt the model of online courses in regional languages

The Committee recommended that recorded online courses/Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) may be developed in all regional languages for each class where students can customize learning speeds and timings.  An Integrated Learning Management System (LMS), a software application for overall administration may be created for the same.

Augmented and Virtual Reality Education solutions may be developed for enabling interactive learning and understanding core concepts. The committee urged the Department to enter into collaboration with the Indian Institutes of Technology and other leading engineering colleges to develop low-cost technologies for the same. 

At the same time, regular feedback/control mechanisms for e-content should be made mandatory as the course designer needs to be aware of the needs of the ‘end users’ i.e., students and teachers and customize content and delivery to suit their requirements. 

The Committee highlighted the need to create special audio/video content and in Indian Sign Language to cater to the curricular learning requirements of physically challenged children/children with special needs. Further, the Committee recommended that that the Department should give wide publicity to the various steps and measures taken by it to impart inclusive and equitable education to all sections of students, including Children with Special Needs (CWSN), Out-of-School Children (OoSC), and children of migrant workers, etc. so that the beneficiaries are aware of the facilities available for them. It also urged the States/UTs for better and stricter implementation of various guidelines issued in this regard, so that the benefits actually percolate to the ground level.

According to the UNICEF India Report, the States can work with District Education Officers (DEOs) to curate a list of languages majorly used across the state by different groups and ensure translated versions of all e-learning material be made available in those languages. 

Against this backdrop, a Report by Centre of Catalysing Change titled “Bridging the Digital Divide for Girls” notes the example of Andhra Pradesh. The State government has partnered with Reliance Foundation and Microsoft to create digital content in local language (Telugu) and English and to use machine learning (ML) to model and predict which students are at the risk of dropping out of school. The Report also takes the example of Kerala’s virtual school education program. Samagra Shikhsha Kerala conducted a survey to calculate the number of government/aided school students who did not have access to an internet connection or a TV and conducted rigorous training of teachers.

Pre-loaded tablets, Digital Library, concessional internet packs, etc. recommended addressing digital divide

The Committee recommends the Department to make concerted efforts in coordination with concerned Ministries/Departments and make available high-speed internet connectivity and at least one TV Set, one Desktop Computer, large screens with projectors, etc. available in all schools across the country to bridge the digital divide. 

For instance, the Committee suggests that the steps taken by UT of Ladakh to distribute pre-loaded Tablets may be replicated in other parts of the country. Educational content customized for secondary and senior secondary classes and re-furbished laptops with pre-loaded content/programmes may be used for this purpose. Additionally, a Digital Library with tablets, laptops, educational videos, and other digital devices may be set up in each school, wherefrom students may borrow such devices for their educational needs for a specified time period. 

The report emphasises leveraging private sector expertise and resources through effective collaboration in providing digital devices to students belonging to economically weaker and marginalized sections of society. The Department is recommended to make concerted efforts to utilize CSR funds for this purpose. 

Further, the Department is suggested to moot a proposal with MEITY and Ministry of Communications for provision of internet packs at concessional rates to students particularly from economically backward and marginalized sections of society as well as high-speed internet connectivity to all schools. 

The best practices adopted by teachers/schools in various States/UTs to ensure continued education during the pandemic, bridge the digital divide and minimize learning loss may be collated and issued by the Department in the form of guidelines/practices to be adopted by other States/UTs to suit their specific requirements. 

Training of teachers is essential to engage students digitally

The Committee highlights the need to train teachers in a strategic manner and enable them to create captivating content for digital education and engage students in online mode through active interaction and creation of a school-like ambiance. Teachers, particularly in rural, tribal, and backward areas should be given intensive training in the use of digital devices and Information Technology in collaboration with IITs, NITs, the private sector, etc.

Provision of incentives in the form of digital devices, internet connectivity, data packs, etc. at home to teachers, particularly those in rural, remote, or backward areas, would encourage them to shift to digital education and explore new strategies/innovations therein. Further, specialized training programmes may also be developed for teaching children with special needs, physically challenged children and children with learning disabilities, particularly for imparting online/distance education.

The UNICEF India report also underlines the importance to consider subsidizing device and data costs for students and teachers. Device and data affordability along with network connectivity are the largest challenges to continued learning during this time according to parents, and some of the top areas they are seeking support.

The Report suggests that the State governments can continue to connect remote areas to the digital ecosystem by setting up hotspot facilities in areas with poor connectivity. States can also explore partnerships with mobile network operators to provide free data for educational purposes to low-income and marginalized families (especially, those with girl children).

Blended/hybrid model of education for future

According to the Committee, the Department should ensure that the investment made by the Centre and States for developing digital/online education during the pandemic period are systematically integrated into the education system so that the gains achieved are not lost once normal functioning of schools recommences. 

A credible, fair, and transparent system of continuous assessment should be developed and put in place even when normal functioning of schools re-commences, to meet any future emergent scenarios. This system should be over and above the final board examinations and would aid in helping students and teachers get a correct perspective of their learning curve and course-correct wherever required. 

Conscious efforts should be made by the Department to remodel curricular learning at all levels to incorporate both conventional pedagogy and digital/online education in equal measure so that blended learning becomes a norm rather than a concept in the near future.

To achieve this, a study of the methods adopted by other countries in the field of blended education should be conducted and best practices can be adapted to suit the educational requirements of our country. The Department should set up at least one school on the complete hybrid model of teaching in every district and tehsil of the country. According to the Committee, these schools should become operational by October 2021, with all the necessary infrastructure. These schools can become a case study for setting up more such schools in the future and will help inspire other schools. 

Featured Image: Learning gap caused due to school lockdowns

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