While teachers and students in urban areas have resorted to distance learning, children in rural areas have missed out on education as they don’t have the luxury of attending online classes
Do you miss going to school?
Why do you like your school?
I like it at school as we get to study there.
What do you do at home these days?
I play with my friends.
Do your parents have a smartphone?
Do you know about online classes?
This is how the telephonic conversation with Himani Yadav, who studies in class 4 in a primary school in Atariya village in Rajnandgaon district of Chhattisgarh, went.
For over two months, schools in India are shut because of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. While teachers and students in urban areas have resorted to ‘distance learning’ with virtual classrooms, there are many children living in the rural pockets of the country who have missed out on education as they don’t have the luxury of attending online classes or learning through their smartphones.
Like Himani Yadav, there are many children who want to go to school and study, but they are clueless as to when would their schools reopen. Most of the children and teachers we spoke to haven’t even heard about the online classes.
“We live in a village. We don’t know about these online classes; no one has informed us,” said Arjun Shahi, who lives in the Barka Gaon village in Marwan block in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar. Arjun’s son studies in class 5 in a primary school.
“It is not possible to make Zoom calls to children in rural and tribal areas. Teachers, as well as the children, are used to the chalk and board method. It does not make sense to send them notes or videos through WhatsApp or voice recordings,” said Amar Kumar Singh, 26, founder Revolutionary Youth Club. For the last one year, the club – comprising 20 volunteers – is looking after the cleanliness and educational needs of tribals in Ramgarh district of Jharkhand. At present, the team is helping the district administration to formulate a strategy to impart education to children living in rural areas during the lockdown. “We don’t know when would these schools open, and even if they do, would parents allow these children to go back to schools?” asked Amar.
As per the report tabled by the Ministry of Human Resource Development in the Lok Sabha in February, the reasons for children dropping out of school include poverty or economic reasons, poor health, a child too young to be attending school and a child needed for help in domestic work.
Talking about the impact of the lockdown on rural children, Nagakarthik MP, the founder of the SauraMandala Foundation, a non-profit that aspires to work with communities that are extremely remote, vulnerable and disconnected, said: “The impact will be seen in children in poor and low-resource settings in rural areas. Some major issues that we will have to deal with are going to be a drop in the learning levels, students dropping out of school and parents pulling their children out of schools due to economic stress. The impact is going to be long-term because we will come to know about the exact scenario a couple of months down the line.”
As per the Annual Status of Education Report, 2018, no more than 2.8 per cent of children are out of school in India, the first time the figure has fallen below 3 per cent, bringing the total school enrolment to a record 97.2 per cent. However, as per the same report, such improvements mask latent issues in the country’s rural school network, where numeracy and literacy standards remain sub-par, and in many instances, lower than standards recorded 10 years ago in 2008.
Recently, the Uttar Pradesh government advised teachers to send educational content through WhatsApp groups and All India Radio (AIR) and community radios, especially in areas where TV coverage is limited. It may have been a good idea on paper, but no one bothered to think about practical problems like internet connectivity, the number of active internet users, and data packs available to the guardians and students in the rural pockets.
“Most of these schemes are on paper; hardly anything happens on the ground,” said Dileep Tripathi, the gram pradhan of Hasuri Ausanpur village in Siddharthnagar district in Uttar Pradesh. He added: “There is hardly anyone in our village who has radio at home. I don’t think even 10% would be aware of these radio lectures,” he added.
Talking about the effectiveness and implementation of these schemes, Nagarkartik said: “It’s absolutely necessary to use more universal forms of communication like radio amid situations like the present one, but there is also a question of how effective these will be.”
He added: “For a poor child living in a small house a lot of factors like access to phones, space to study, learning resources are a challenge. It is going to be necessary to look at the problem in a way that you try and address the child with the least resources so the ones with resources can only get better access to learning.”
With an estimated population of 918 million as per the 2011 census, there are only 186 million Internet users in rural India. As per the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) report, 70% of the rural population does not access the internet actively.
There is a wide gap in internet usage in urban and rural India. While internet penetration in urban India is about 64.85 per cent, it’s just 20.26 per cent in rural areas.
“We are sending recorded audio lectures to the children but not many have smartphones and hence access to this content,” said Himanshu Verma, a primary school teacher from Lakauda village in Suratganj block of Uttar Pradesh’s Barabanki district.
There exist many loopholes when it comes to educating children living in rural areas virtually, however, the bitter truth also is that parents in rural areas are unaware and generally disinterested.
Arjun from Barka Gaon village in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, said: “I have a smartphone, but we don’t know how to teach children through this.” Dileep, the Hasuri Ausanpur village gram pradhan, said: “Most of the families don’t have an android phone, but those who have they use it for making TikTok videos or busy themselves watching movies.”
As per the IAMAI report, only 7% of those living in rural India use the Internet for educational purposes. (See graph).
As per the Gaon Connection survey conducted in 2019, of the 18,267 people who were interviewed, 80% used internet through various means. Of the 15,549 people who use the internet, 6,883 people said that they use it to access social media sites like Facebook, WhatsApp; 5,440 people said they use the internet for both social media and also to keep themselves updated; 2,403 people said that they use the internet to watch videos.
When the lockdown was announced, many teachers in Uttar Pradesh had created WhatsApp groups and added parents who had access to the internet. “You would find it hard to believe, but no one replied to those messages,” said Dileep.
Many teachers keep motivating parents for using the internet for educational purposes, but there is a lack of awareness. “Only those children whose parents are educated are managing to study during this lockdown. It does not matter if they have smartphones or not, these children are going to learn only when their parents are aware. For this, we have to work at the community level,” said Amar.
Not many families in rural areas have smartphones. Those who do, they don’t necessarily have the internet packs. “Of the 209 children who are enrolled with us, only 30-40 are connected with us through WhatsApp. All the kids are not getting the benefit of this initiative,” said Neelam, 39, a primary school teacher, Khairabad village in Uttar Pradesh’s Sitapur district.
Similarly, Himanshu, the primary school teacher, informed us that there are around 100 children enrolled in the Lakauda primary school, but only 50% of them have smartphones, and the rest face data pack problems.
“We are not in touch with all of them. Of the 223 students, only 20-25 are in touch with us through WhatsApp. Only those studying in Class 4 and 5 manage to contact us,” said Ram Kripal, a primary school teacher from Hasuri Ausanpur village, Siddhrathnagar district, Uttar Pradesh.
Many students have missed out on education and talking about a possible solution, Nagakartik, said: “This needs to be more holistic. The government needs to understand the needs in low-resource settings and invest in better approaches.”
Usually, in March, most of the farmers are occupied harvesting crops and sowing for the next season. This affects the education of children as well. “Parents take their children to farms telling them that since they don’t have to go to schools, they must help them in harvesting crops. This helps them get an extra harvest for the day,” said Dileep.
“We try to make both the parents and the children aware that harvesting crops will not bring them a bright future, education would. But this year, because of the lockdown, we fear that the parents would have taken their children along with them,” said Ram.
Teachers say that another reason why they are not able to keep in touch with their students is because their parents carry with them the only mobile that they have. “Usually, when we try to contact children, parents answer the calls and tell us that they are in the fields and we should call them later,” said Himanshu.
Although children were promoted to the next class and the session would only start in July, teachers had no other choice but to revise chapters that were already taught in the classroom. WhatsApp groups were created to bridge the education gap.
“As something is better than nothing, we are making notes from the old chapters so that there is no gap in studies of the children,” said Neelam. However, NagaKartik believes that if the same books and lessons are being used in an audio format it’ll have little impact.
“We send images and graphics to children in these groups. We prepare questions for subjects like Maths, English and Hindi. We also ask them to draw, paint and exercise regularly. Those children who are added are very attentive, some of them even call us to clear doubts,” said Ram.
“For those who don’t have android phones, we find an hour or so to contact these children through the voice call,” said Neelam Kumari. Neelam informed us that around 90% of the families in her village would be having a phone, that may not be an android one, but would have calling facilities.
Suggesting the various approach for imparting an easy way education, Neelam said: “For children who don’t have access to android phones, homework through text messages could be sent to them daily. We stopped using inbox after we got used to using WhatsApp. Besides, the government could provide free data packs to children as their families can’t afford expensive data packs regularly. This would help us contacting as many children through WhatsApp.”