Post Mortem

Is technology-powered virtual learning premature in the State?

By Nagaland Post | Publish Date: 7/9/2020 1:03:05 PM IST

 The current pandemic propels educational establishments to orient a sudden shift to online education regime. Under this regime, various schools exploit means and offers solutions for continuous learning to students as the schools are gripped with forced lockdown. It has emerged not only as an alternative to the traditional learning system, but also as the most futuristic competitor in imparting sustained education.

The management and the teachers who preferred to selflessly deliver this fundamental service in the interest of our children in this challenging scenario need society’s acknowledgement. Dawn of digital classroom in part of the state within a short period of time has been facilitated by their dedication. Efforts should be mustered towards improvising this embryonic project since the current social setting may not get reversed anytime soon.

Notwithstanding the opportunities to be exerted through technology-based virtual learning environment, online learning is still a considered predicament in a society marked by income inequality, compromised and low internet penetration, unequal opportunities in accessing public resources and an unstable familial foundation.

 The first obstacle towards realisation of virtual learning regime could be the hitherto neglected reality of unequal income opportunities. Social classification stemming from economic status may have been the most reluctant adventure of this writer especially in a social setting wherein clustered societies of the past derived its sense of pride in erstwhile classlessness.  However, the truth is families with weak income avenue have been empirically observed to be wrestling with hardships. From purchasing smartphones to establishing secure connection for receiving provided materials, audio-visual teaching formats and establishing voice calls with the teacher concerned for extended guide have all been a silent stress for parents and pupils alike. The less fortunate families are, in certain circumstances, made to undergo the ordeal of having to testify their economic plights for no fault of theirs. In such scenarios, fates of few families hang on two fundamentals – food and education – either of which the parents could not afford to give a skip.

The second in line is low internet penetration in the state. Overall country’s internet penetration rate in 2019 was pegged at 36% only. Fluid network coverage in remote regions of the state is imaginable with Kohima and Dimapur having registered frequent network fluctuation and uneven data speed. What has further compounded this unconvincing network expanse is the regular load-shedding and prolonged power-cut induced by natural agents. This could have far reaching consequences so long as the success of online teaching is concerned. Teaching-aided gadgets thus reduce its applicability in the absence of robust infrastructure to power the recently introduced virtual learning.

Data plan has much improved comparing with past few years. But it never was sufficient for a society like ours on ground that families thrive to spend on salt and sugar, as opposed to bread and butter. Additional expenditure on data plan is probably outside the capability of many families. Besides, digital illiteracy among parents is one major bottleneck in continuous flow of virtual learning in the state. 

The third apprehension in sustained shift to virtual learning platform is the increase cases of domestic child abuse. Agencies have reported rise in cases of domestic child abuse during the lockdown period. Such reports are gruesome as we further dive into the question of whether our own home environment could guarantee a safe learning space, if not the best. Online teaching requires a child’s absolute attention for a regulated timeframe. Any disruption caused by slow internet connection or due to given home environment including alcoholism, poor housing condition, lack of proper space to study and noises will bear negative impacts on child’s learning ability. This bring us to the assumption that even if fluid internet coverage along with basic gadgets are made available, home or home schooling may not be a good environment for virtual education.

Education appears to be the privilege of the affluent. This is partially true in the context of the current mode of service delivered online/digitally by the private schools and availed by the well-to-do families, but has not covered the Government-run schools and the economically weaker sections.

Education is as fundamental as our right to food. Hence, it would be injustice on the part of the welfare state to let the education benefit the privileged class only at the cost of alienating the underprivileged to the periphery. With many incapacities acknowledged in alleviating poverty and follow-up anti-poverty measures being taken, inability or lack of access to basic internet connection has to be identified and classified as one indicator of a person/family living below the poverty line.  Steps must be taken in consultation with the internet service providers to ration free internet data plan on monthly basis (on the pattern of the food rationing to BPL families) to those families identified to have no access to internet connection. Since positive flow of information has a role in poverty mitigation, free data rationing to BPL families will bear constructive collateral results towards liberating our people from perpetual ignorance in this information age.

Further, government is duty-bound to cater to the needs of its people by extending assistance – cash or material – to empower people’s purchasing power in acquiring teaching-aided gadgets. Imparting basic digital skills to the digitally illiterate parents must precede any overture should the government agree to binary fusion of traditional classroom-based teaching and virtual learning environment in the post-pandemic Nagaland.

Risk of service monopoly endures as long term reliance on solutions provided by edtech companies  persist with standardization of online classes. Parents of many children may not afford such classes. What was previously a free service in the realm of teaching and learning could become a paid service, thereby negating the importance of primary education. Commissioning a regulatory oversight is prerequisite. Such regulatory body, when constituted, may be tasked to oversee the contents and solutions given by edtech companies on online classes and ensure that the cardinal element of imparting free primary education is upheld.

A father of two once lamented that his youngest ward was regularly reduced to tears when he himself and the child failed to accomplish assignments within the given time as forwarded to him through WhatsApp by teachers. There could be more such unreported cases where a child’s emotion and psychology is put at stake in the name of continuous service delivery. In our state, excessive dependence on technology at the school level would not only make school education exclusive but would aggravate existing problems in accessing primary education faced by the low-income families.

Education is much more than syllabi designed to complete through time-determined controlled education system. Children must be encouraged to learn things and examine their immediate encounter on their own without being skewed by external colours. Atleast for a while, leave the children in peace and leave them with a fair amount of autonomy.

Nukhosa Chüzho, Kohima

Launched on December 3,1990. Nagaland Post is the first and highest circulated newspaper of Nagaland state. Nagaland Post is also the first newspaper in Nagaland to be published in multi-colour.

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