The spread of Covid-19 has completely changed the way the world functions. From daily routines to long term plans, everything now depends on the mercy of “when all this ends”.
But while the lockdown has been tough on everyone, children have suffered a heavy casualty. The announcement of the nationwide lockdown in India resulted in schools closing which effectively disrupted learning for thousands of children.
But there is hope. Had a pandemic like this emerged ten years back, millions of students would have lost crucial time in their learning process; but not so in 2020.
Owing to easy access to technology and the internet, many private schools were able to quickly launch online learning programs for their students. Zoom classes have now become the norm. However, the transition to remote teaching and learning wasn’t as easy for government schools. Yet, some states took the lead in this regard and prioritized the education of government school students during the lockdown.
Himachal Pradesh is one such state.
Himachal not only became one of the first states in India to launch a formal online education program for all grades in government schools, but it also beat many private schools. Within a week of the lockdown being announced, the Government of Himachal Pradesh started planning for online learning assuming long-term closure of schools. Within a week, the state launched a program called “Har Ghar Pathshala”, with a vision to convert every home into a school. For the first time in the country, a state government leveraged online channels to educate students at such a scale.
The program was designed to be simple and accessible to all. The technology used had to be easy to comprehend for all stakeholders involved in the program, from the Department of Education, teachers, students to parents. To this end, the state decided to leverage a form of technology that is ubiquitous: WhatsApp. To ensure all students are connected to their teachers, a drive was launched to collect phone numbers of students in order to create school-level WhatsApp groups and connect as many schools and students as possible through WhatsApp. At the end of one week, 95% of nearly 15,000 schools were connected with the Department of Education and close to 70% of 8 lakh students were connected with their teachers.
Next, the Department had to decide the academic content for the program. In the absence of any readymade digital content, it was an onerous task to create appropriate academic content for 12 classes across subjects. While the state leveraged some freely available online resources from academic partners (like Pratham, TicTac Learn and Sampark Foundation), more than 100 teachers were tasked to create content, lesson plans, and practice worksheets specifically for the program.
To ensure students could access content easily, the state government created a simple website overnight to host all learning material and act as a one-stop repository. The content for each day was uploaded a day before, circulated to all officials every day at 8.30 am, and through the chain of WhatsApp groups, reaches students between 9.30 and 10 am. Classes would begin right after. During the day, teachers remained in constant touch with their students, resolved their queries, and even called them to provide more clarity on the more complex topics. A monitoring unit was formed in the state to track how the programme was being implemented. Multiple review meetings were held to decide on daily course corrections. To reach every student in the state, even those who were facing trouble accessing the learning material, the government planned for broadcasting the same content through television and radio.
By the third week of the launch, more than 60% of all students studying in government schools in the state had visited the website at least once. Daily average users ranged between 2-4 lakh and the website received over 3.3 crore page views. Close to 42,000 teachers submitted daily reports about their day’s activities where they indicated to have answered more than 7.5 lakh queries by students every day. The state also conducted online training for teachers every week to strengthen their teaching skills and improve the quality of their interactions with students. Close to 53,000 teachers started participating in these training sessions and more than 28,000 courses have been completed till date. For the first time in India, a state government used an AI-based bot to proctor practice tests of all students in grades 1-8. More than 80,000 students attempted the exam with 74% of all questions answered correctly.
To be sure, the program did face several challenges such as internet connectivity, access to smartphones for all students, insufficient internet data packs, etc. However, initiatives like these show the potential for embedding alternative modes of teaching for future generations and making the education system more resilient. Covid-19 has definitely made the adoption of technology by the government faster, and the system more responsive to the needs of beneficiaries. Could the use of technology in education become the new normal?
Ankur Bansal is Co-Founder and Mohit Bahri is Senior Manager at Samagra.