When Bengaluru schools started online classes in June, many opposed it citing the lack of laptop access for large sections of students, health concerns etc. Soon after, the state government banned online classes for primary school children altogether.
Shukla Bose, Founder and CEO of the non-profit Parikrma Humanity Foundation, however opposed the government ban on classes, even though her own students come from deprived backgrounds. Parikrma Foundation’s schools cater to over 1800 students from slums across Bengaluru, with the aim of providing quality education and helping the children break out of poverty.
At the time the government banned online classes, Parikrma schools were already holding these classes. Shukla even made a strong case for digital classes to the government-appointed expert committee on online education.
Why did she lobby for online education even as most of her own students and teachers would find the medium unfamiliar and inaccessible? Because “learning cannot stop”, says Shukla. “As COVID-19 will remain for some time, will we allow learning to get paralysed? Is learning only for affluent classes who can afford online classes in private schools?”
Parikrma had adopted the ‘blended learning’ approach, a combination of online and physical classes. The government-appointed committee too has recommended this approach in its report. The state government is yet to respond to the report, though it recently lifted the ban on online classes following a High Court order.
In this interview, Shukla discusses why online education is critical now, how Parikrma is trying to bridge the digital divide, and what their learnings and challenges have been.
How do you view the debate on digital learning?
When Karnataka government imposed a blanket ban on online education, there was a hue and cry from private schools, largely because their revenue model suffered. We supported the legal stance of private schools who decided to file a petition in court against the government order. For them it was the question of survival, but for us it was a question of policy.
Our children come from a very different social background. We don’t want them to lose touch with the lessons, we don’t want them to go back to work and stop coming to school. We don’t want them to get into gangs. We want to keep them engaged.
We feel that the government, being a policymaker, should act as a facilitator rather than adopt a policing role. The government should bring all stakeholders on a single platform and engage in a consultative and collaborative approach.
I strongly support the new form of blended learning. I have been telling my teachers and community – every year, let’s have a few days in our academic calendar where we will not have physical classes. At least, the carbon footprint will go down during those days. School buses won’t ply and teachers will teach from their homes.
How did you manage availability of devices, internet services and other resources for your students?
We are working in 87 slums of Bengaluru. Most parents here are daily wage labourers. We were surprised to see the number of parents having smart phones. The penetration of mobile technology has grown manifold. But there were also many families who didn’t have smartphones. We ran a campaign on social media asking people to donate their old or spare devices. The campaign is still on and we have collected 300 phones so far. Some people also sent us money to buy new phones.
Apart from teachers and academic resource persons, we have a team of social workers who are the link between the school and students’ homes. They know the communities, families and streets really well. With their help, we identified houses that could be converted into mini schools. Houses with less noise, less cooking, less number of family members were selected. We named them Parikrma Reach V Schools (V stands for Virtual). The idea was to get 2-3 kids together and share one device between them.
For younger students, we created audio messages, and for older ones, we set up Google Classroom. We also introduced peer learning which worked very well. Students came to these mini schools with their masks on, properly dressed, carrying their own water bottles.
We created around 180 such mini schools. But with infection spreading in communities, we are now avoiding this. We don’t want our students to move out of their homes. So we are trying to provide each kid with a smartphone. We are also doing a drive to crowdsource power banks for our kids, since power supply is a big issue in slums.
How are parents reacting to online classes for their kids?
Initially they were a bit unsure, but now they are happy. Communication is very important. We made these parents realise that their kids are no less than the ones going to fancy private schools.
What challenges do students face in adapting to digital learning?
I think they are doing brilliantly. We are registering 90% attendance in all our classes. We made one striking observation too – students who were low in self-confidence or were hesitant, are blooming now. They are asking more questions and paying more attention.
In physical school, bolder students with strong personalities used to dominate the class. Also, teachers usually gravitate towards them. But in digital learning, all that the students have to do is unmute themselves and ask. There is no peer pressure, they are not in a threatening environment. Digital learning has created a more inclusive learning space.
Today, students have complete freedom to walk out of the class, but they are not doing so. They are finding the lessons interesting and are making an independent choice, which is exactly the point. Physical schools also need to have this culture where students can freely make their choices.
But, the main challenge is the lack of physical proximity, the element of ‘touch’ we had in physical school. Remember that students in our school come from a very different background. Some may have witnessed a drunken brawl the previous night, some may have been abused, they see their mothers getting beaten up. They suffer a great amount of trauma. To escape from that, they come to school. Our students need physical warmth. That is difficult with digital learning.
But we are exploring options. We have a helpline known as COVID-19 Listening Post. Students can dial in and talk to a psychologist. Their parents can also utilise this service. By doing this, we are identifying lots of pre-suicidal and pre-depression cases, and trying to address them.
What are the major learnings in terms of curriculum development, teaching methodology, etc.?
Children respond far better if lessons are short. So if we have a 10-minute lesson, then a video, a brief deliberation, and then a break, they respond really well.
We also understood the need to make the lessons engaging. Why is a kid so interested in playing PUBG on a mobile phone? It’s because the game is engaging. But the catch with digital learning is we need to make lessons engaging, not entertaining. Today, almost all digital initiatives are forced to become entertaining. This is diminishing the seriousness of learning. Students no more find joy in learning.
For our junior and middle classes we begin at 8.30 am and end around 12.30 pm. We do yoga, we listen to music together, we do classes, then we take a break, and we join back again. We are breaking these four hours into small sessions filled with lots of videos, activities and play, which make the sessions engaging for our kids.
We had key learnings on teaching methodology also. Class management is crucial to hold the attention of a class. It differs from teacher to teacher, probably due to a number of reasons like persona, voice modulation, body language, etc. In our three-week training programme for teachers, we focused on various aspects of class management and teaching. We had a theatre personality train teachers on how to stand, how to throw their voice, and so on.
In physical school, we don’t pay attention to these things. That’s the learning I think my teachers will take back to physical school.
How do the teachers respond to digital learning?
In the beginning, I was very worried as the teachers come from a very modest background. They didn’t learn computers or have fancy phones or laptops at home. I thought they would be scared of the technology, and initially they were.
But, our programme helped them cope with their fear of technology. I asked them to forget about everything and focus on just one objective: these classes are there so that children have something to connect to, we are doing these classes so that not even a single student should slip out of the system.
In conclusion, Shukla says that schools need to get creative and innovative. “Digital learning is here to stay. We will have to adopt it and make the most of it. Large companies are now deciding that they don’t need large offices to operate. Similarly, we don’t require big schools and fancy buildings to continue learning.”