State must provide learning to students without exposing them to risk of infection
Chief Minister Pramod Sawant has caused bemusement among teachers, students and parents by announcing that online classes, which have already been started for school students from the primary to higher secondary levels, were not compulsory! Till yesterday they were told no other way of teaching is possible but online! If online classes were to be not compulsory, why were they started at all? After all the training of teachers and the hassles parents went through in getting the internet and mobile phones or laptops for their children, they are being told “All you did was not necessary”! The Chief Minister’s reversal clearly shows that the state government had given approval to the proposal of online teaching without studying the issues of infrastructure and personal equipment of students in-depth.
The state government appeared to have pressed for e-teaching, because they were worried the students, especially those at the SSC and HSSC level, would suffer if the syllabus was not completed in time. However, they knew the students and teachers would be constrained by lack of or slow internet connectivity to facilitate online learning. Yet, the government went ahead with e-teaching. Was it an adventure to show to the world that Goan teachers and schoolchildren were tech savvy and capable of e-teaching and e-learning, respectively? The government has blamed poor internet and mobile connectivity upon inadequate infrastructure. While people blame the government for inadequate infrastructure, the government blames the people for it. The Chief Minister has blamed Goans for opposing the erection of mobile towers across the state, saying that has obstructed broadening of internet connectivity. Now, it is well known that Goans have opposed mobile towers on the ground that they were health risks. The government did not do much to convince the people with evidence about the safety of mobile towers to earn their approval. Had the government done that, there would have been no reason for the Chief Minister to lament. However, what about the government promise of providing broadband to every Goan home by laying cables? Are the people responsible for that too?
Though education department officials talked of creating hotspots for e-learning, that seems like talking in thin air. Internet or mobile connectivity is available only to the 30 percent student households in rural Goa and the 60 percent student households in urban Goa, according to official figures. This means 70 percent of the students in rural areas, most of whom are from poorer sections of society, and 40 percent of the students in urban areas would not be able to download teaching content and hence lag behind in learning. The students with access to the internet, smartphone, laptop and computer would hold an edge over those who are not privileged enough to get online content for learning. The government should ensure that there was no discrimination in the learning process as it would create a divide in the Goan society.
Educationists have serious reservations about e-learning. They say even if parents buy smartphones, laptops and computers and get internet connectivity, will the young children be able to handle the gadgets and grasp the content through the e-learning mode? The government appears to be confused on how to complete the syllabus for every class for the academic year. To promote online education, first the government came out with the fantastic idea of creating hotspots, saying it would help students download the content in villages and urban areas where internet connectivity was poor. However, creating hotspots was going to put the students at risk of catching the coronavirus as they will have to gather at the hotspot for downloading the content. People expect the Chief Minister, who also holds the education portfolio, to find a way which does not deprive students of learning and which also does not expose them to risks. As Goan students are used to learning in classes and from books, the government should provide them with books so that they can read and try to grasp the content until the schools reopen. The Chief Minister has to engage experts from education, technology and other fields to strike a balance between completing the syllabus for the academic year and making sure students stay home and safe.