Rethinking The Purpose Of Edtech During Covid-19: A Discussion With Rohit Dhankar

Leader Talk

June, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic runs its course and the nation is in lockdown, we have realised that schools play, to an extent, the role of an equaliser. Between offering mid-day meals, social networking and providing space for learning, schools help address some of the inequities that students face at home. And now that everyone is at home the pandemic is amplifying educational inequality, putting low-income students at a significant disadvantage than their affluent peers.

For educators and civil societies working for government schools, the pandemichas become a challenge, one for which no preconfigured way can guide appropriate action. As the ecosystem scrambles to offer solutions in a bid to teach low-income students online, TechConnect converses with Rohit Dhankar to explore a few critical questions around education and technology in the context of the COVID-19 crisis.

Dhankar was a member of the team which drafted the National Curriculum Framework in 2005 under NCERT. He was also a part of the collaborative group of institutions that developed the M.A. Elementary Education programme of TISS. He currently teaches philosophy of education at Azim Premji University.

TechConnect:Millions of low-income students in India, mostly who attend government schools, are reeling with the COVID 19 Pandemic that has deprived them of equal educational opportunities at home. What do you think the responses to this challenge should be?

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only threatened livelihoods but also increased the inequality that prevails in the country. The country, I doubt, is equipped to do justice to low-income students. We should remember that we will find it difficult to bring the same quality of education to low-income schools as the schools meant for privileged sections of the society are currently receiving.

We do not have the required pedagogy for online teaching at home, nor do the students in Government Schools own the required devices and technical knowledge. Having said that it is imperative to keep adopting different ways to teach, it is encouraging to see some schools and teachers using WhatsApp and Zoom for synchronous and asynchronous teaching.If we do not seize this opportunity of developing systemic infrastructure for online teaching and pedagogies, we will fail to deliver appropriate responses to our students from low-income communities at the national level.

TechConnect: In the current scenario many parents are unemployed and family income is hugely affected. In this situation, food and other necessities are the priorities? What does education mean to these parents now?
We should realise that every parent, irrespective of being poor or rich, is deeply concerned about education of their child and I feel immensely sad if we say otherwise. For every parent, education is always a top priority. We have parents who are ready to shell their hard-earned money for their children’s education. Education has always been given precedence. So, I reckon that this pandemic has not changed anything as far as education is concerned for the parents. Perhaps the onus is on the government to tweak the system based on changing dynamics.

One key area where the government can work is on Right to Education especially on the enforcement and implementation of the Act ensuring that the private schools adhere to the guidelines of RTE. For the parents, the government has to push for an educational stimulus package similar to the economic stimulus that the government has announced.

TechConnect : What do you think will be the ‘new normal’ for government schools?
This pandemic has taken everyone by surprise and the continuity of teaching and learning has been challenged. Suddenly online learning which was considered as the privilege of the ‘haves’ has now become the new necessity. The concept of
home-schooling has once again become the talking point. Perhaps physical schools would be a thing of the past and the new school will be to embrace the idea of virtual schools. Furthermore, this unprecedented time is a great opportunity to once again revive the idea of home-schooling. The government can leverage this opportunity to streamline how a better home-school can be created. There is always a huge scope in the way children and teachers engage in the teaching and learning process. This is where the government schools can capitalise in using Information and Communication technology (ICT). This is also a prospect to root out the rote learning education system in the country, which makes students mug up things instead of genuinely learning. If intelligent people innovate relevant pedagogy and content to be delivered through online schooling, then we will witness the inculcation of real education.

TechConnect : What would be the role of Technology in government schools?
Technology is the harbinger of new age schooling and has a crucial role to play in government schools. Schools must ensure that they have the required technological infrastructures and students have the appropriate devices with them. In other words, the success of online learning rides on technology and for that to run well there is a requirement for a very well-functioning infrastructure and good support structure. For example, I had a live-Facebook session with 350 people participating, but the session failed even before it started due to a bad internet connection in our area.

I believe technology can play an important role in explaining concepts to students with audio-visual content. However, I have seen several recent initiatives where the textbook chapters are simply read out and converted into an electronic medium, completely devoid of what technology potentially can do.

TechConnect : Many NGOs are working towards different technology solutions to education. What should be the immediate response of EdTech Not-for-Profits working in the teacher development domain?
Teachers have a severe problem with the conceptual understanding of topics. I have watched hundreds of videos of teachers teaching in the class. I have noticed that they have wrong conceptual knowledge, even the definitions that they explain and the language that they use for explaining is faulty. Earlier it was not known, even the teachers were not aware since they deliver their lessons in a closed classroom where supervision and observation are almost absent. Now with online teaching I can record my own live sessions and then I can watch my own recordings for self-reflection and self-evaluation.

However, we should not pass the buck on teachers alone. Our education system has not supported them enough; therefore, they have a limited understanding of pedagogy and its association with curriculum. One key area where Not-for-Profits can vastly leverage its value is Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). Teacher development and capacity building is another area where Not-for-Profits have a significant role to play. I believe this will give a fillip in terms of enhancement of conceptual understanding as well as pedagogic practices.

Not-for-Profits could also work on technologies that strengthen quality relationships between educators and learners. Technology can make teaching effective; it is however, currently incompetent to provide the same kind of compassionate education to students that they get in face-face interaction where a human relationship is built between the teacher and the students which supports the students emotionally and psychologically. I would like to share my experience with one such child who said to me: “I do not get motivated to learn as I feel invisible to the teacher during my Zoom classes.” Additionally, some students do not find their teachers very engaging in person and so they do have the preconceived notion that they would be the same during online classes. The Not-for-Profits could work on a technological solution that transcends its limitations and replicates face-to-face teaching, along with all its advantages.

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TechConnect is supported by EdIndia Foundation. It is an independent Newsletter initiative highlighting “at scale” work of edu-tech innovators and inspiring efforts of teachers and practitioners, working at government and affordable schools as well as policymakers of India.

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