My initial concern in writing this article was to draw out some key challenges facing school/college education in the Northeast region in the post-covid period. I began writing with a simplistic notion or one-sided view of challenges faced by school/college students. However, upon further research and interaction with different groups of people, there is more to this subject than what is being said. When you consider the voices of parents, administrators, teachers and students, the challenges facing school/college education during the national catastrophe is complicated.
The challenges are multifaceted. The concerns of education interfaces with the question of the privileged and less privileged, digital accessibility and inaccessibility, location of urban and rural setting, higher and lower education, and so on. It is multi-perspectival. The challenges faced by students are different from teachers and administrators; and it is also different from the parents or guardians of the students.
Its challenges are complex. And hence, its solution is not easily conceivable.
Yet, there is a need to list out these challenges to hear the voices of different groups of people. My goal is to help us begin thinking about the challenges of education and to consider the factors that impact school/college education.
With the announcement of the pandemic, schools and colleges across the country were asked to close. According to UNICEF, the current pandemic has impacted more than 1 billion children across the globe. In India, 250 million children have been affected.
The pandemic has hurt thousands of households. Access to proper schooling and education has always been related to the state of the economy of the family. With the closure of schools/colleges, many children are deprived of that education opportunity; millions of children have also missed the opportunity of receiving a mid-day meal.
While the privileged also suffer, they do not have to worry about acquiring resources of learning, such as mobile phones, internet, personal computer/laptop, or television. But for those who are struggling to provide essentials to the family, it has not been easy. For thousands of children, it means education takes a back seat. The coronavirus has cost thousands of jobs, loss of income, and livelihood. Thousands are being pushed to search for an alternative source of income to provide the needs of the family.
Along with the closures of schools and colleges, there was a shift in approach of learning. In our part of the world, this was no mean task for the students as well as the teachers. Schools and colleges had to adapt to online learning. In addition, many students do not have the means to use digital tools for learning. There are also reports of health issues due to online classes during the pandemic.
Whether it is the students, teachers or administrators, they all had to deal with the problem of internet connectivity. They also had to deal with the financial issue of purchasing several hours of internet. The question of the privileged and marginalized (or less privileged) directly correspond with digital access and inaccessibility. Along with students, many schools and colleges also could not provide proper online facilities. They could not provide the facility of a Learning Management System (e.g., Moodle, Classroom, etc.) which provides an interactive and constructive learning experience. For many learning institutes, it was simply too expensive, unaffordable.
Along with these challenges, many educators also had to adapt or learn the skill of online learning. While some of them have adapted to some form of online learning, it is still seen as a temporary measure to cope with Covid-19 constraints. There are also many of them who are sceptical of the benefits of online. They are unable to perceive online learning as a way forward – as a key means of imparting knowledge. Most educators remain accustomed to conventional modes of learning (i.e., classroom learning experience).
As indicated, these challenges are different for different groups of people. For many parents in the rural context, it is a matter of survival. Their priority is to provide the basic needs (e.g., food). Because of several lockdowns and curfew to curb the spread of coronavirus, many parents have lost their means of earning. Many daily wage earners are unable to provide the basic needs of the family. While trying to provide the essentials for the family, it has been a real struggle to buy phones and internet data for their children. For a certain parent, who wants to remain anonymous, it has been heartbreaking to see the education of their children “put on hold.” Though this challenge is evident both in the rural setting and urban setting, it is more prominent in the rural areas.
Compared to children in the rural settings, students are apparently doing better in the cities. By and large, urban students have access to resources of learning (e.g., internet). Since they have proper internet facilities, they seem to be doing better. Many students can get good grades without compromising the quality of education. This is especially true for a younger group of children. However, Lynette L. Shimrah, a parent of two children in the metropolitan city of Delhi, is concerned about the absence of social and religious formation during the pandemic. Though their children may be doing well in their studies, the lockdown is hampering their “communication skills and creativity.” There appears to be an absence of holistic development in the current education system.
This perception of how children are coping with the pandemic is on point. Several students are struggling with the current approach of online learning. In the words of a higher secondary student in Ukhrul, Thotnganing Suilang, finds online learning very “confusing.” In addition, in rural areas, many of them are struggling with poor internet networks. He further comments that since their movements are constrained, they are unable to get hold of textbooks. While internet facilities are fairly better in the cities, these challenges are shared by students in the urban setting. Asai Hungyo, a master student in the state of Maharashtra, is of the view that attending online classes through mobile phones can be distracting and difficult. As online classes are mandatory, many of them attend the class but with a sense of disinterest and dissatisfaction. Hence, without the prospect of much impact in their lives. She further adds that, “The biggest challenge of online learning is not the question of scoring good marks, but the absence of quality education.”
These struggles are not limited to students alone. Teachers/educators appear to be as helpless as the students. If the students are disinterested or not doing well, it is not because teachers are not doing their part. They are also bound by the lack of digital facilities or resources to make learning more constructive. Organizing an online class in the rural areas comes with a lot of effort on their part. Themreichon Leisan, a lecturer in Ukhrul, is of the view that “Conducting an online class in Ukhrul is not easy as it sounds.” She narrates their struggle in the following manner.
There is internet connectivity problem; all the students does not have the luxury to afford smartphones; students would go around to look for a good speed spot (for example, a student of mine would go to her aunt’s house every day because there is no proper internet speed at her place); in most zoom classes students would often switch off their video as it uses more data and it disrupts the smooth flow of internet; pandemic stress affects almost everyone.
As we can see, the challenge can be overwhelming. Another teacher holds that these challenges that they are facing will be tolerated, if they receive a timely salary. With about 55% teachers facing salary cuts, this concern remains legit.
That said, it has not been easy for many administrators themselves who are also struggling with school/college education. Private schools or their owners are onthe verge of collapse. Like the rest of the sectors, they are asked to adapt with the policies or decisions of the central and state government. Their concern is to provide maximum information to curtail the pandemic and tominimize the impact on children. An administrator informs that “Many schools are in acute financial crunch due to irregular and even non-payment of fees by the students’ parents.” If this concern is not addressed, it is feared that it may result in closure of many private schools/colleges, which would in turn affect many students as well as many teachers. Many students will be left with long term closure of learning hubs and many teachers who are jobless.
What Next (?)
There are no straightforward answers to the challenges facing schools/colleges in the post-covid period. The reality of the economy and lack of digital facilities suggest that there are no immediate solutions either. But there is a need to be aware of these challenges faced by not just one group of people, but by different parties.
Individually, we need to own our responsibility as a learner, parent, educator, or policy maker. As a student, it may mean being committed to learning; as a parent, channelling your energy to the education of children; as an educator, it may mean upscaling our digital skills; and as a policy maker, it may mean considering the concerns of all voices.
However, in terms of long-term goals, each of us ought to be responsible for the education of children, i.e., taking the education of children seriously. And in terms of short-term goals, it is our responsibility to get our children to the classroom. We neither have the means nor the resources to go full time online learning. At this point, to get our children to the classroom requires achieving herd immunity of our society. This can be done only through vaccination. One of the biggest hurdles that the policy makers are facing is the lack of awareness in our community. Education remains a key factor to bring about transformation of any society.
Dr Taimaya Ragui is currently an academic research coordinator of The Shepherd’s Academyof Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life. His specialization is in the area of interfacing theological interpretation of Scripture and contextual theology. The writer has been engaged in online learning for the past five years.