Many parents, especially those having kids of the school going age were in a dilemma when the Government encouraged schools in the state to organise online classes. The arrangement was required to compensate for the students’ loss due to lockdown because of the corona virus pandemic. For that matter even the teachers were initially in a predicament because of the schools’ own rules. My wife, a school teacher, rightly observed that for so long the school authorities had prohibited students from bringing smart phones or even mobile phones to schools, but now it has become an important tool.

Change does happen; it has to happen and like they say extraordinary circumstances also require that we think hard for solutions. But the most important question is how far these classes are effective? Have these spontaneous reactions really achieved the goal of imparting education to the students in times like this? The following are real stories about online education collected from different parts of Jaiñtia hills district which would help give us some idea of the impact of online classes on the learners and their parents.

When asked about their kids or how they are doing during the lockdown, some parents with a tinge of pride in them proudly shared stories of their children’s online education. The standard answer to how the kids are doing these days is, “they are busy with their online classes.” And of course many parents do not have the faintest idea what exactly is happening in the online classes except for the fact that children need their parents’ smart phones to access the classes.

An interesting online class story I heard was from a Principal of a reputed higher secondary school, in Jowai. The headmaster told me that the mother of a student of the school who hails from a far-flung area came to him a few weeks ago and said to him that she is perplexed and does not know what is happening with her son. She said that of late strange thing were happening to her son. She is unable to understand why her son has to climb on the tree top every day. She said that every time he climbed the tree, he has with him a mobile phone and a note book on his hand and he has to stay in the precarious position for hours together. Naturally the mother is very worried about his safety too. She further told the headmaster, that when she asked her son what he is doing on the treetop every day, he told her that he is studying.

The online class is not to teach the kids to climb a tree (of course teaching a kid to climb a tree is not a bad idea especially if one lives in a village) but the truth is the area where the family lives is in the India-Bangladesh border where even getting a phone signal to talk to the other parts of the country is still a problem. If fact, some years ago the people in the area had to rely on Bangladesh mobile phone providers or use that country’s SIM card to even call the office of the Deputy Commissioner. Therefore students have to go the extra-mile to access their online classes including climbing to the top of a tree for better connectivity.

In Khonglah village a mother told me that the smart phone that she has is shared by her two daughters for their online classes. One can very well imagine the struggle the students have to face to share the same gadget to access their classes. The story of the son who is a high school student is much more interesting. He had the desire to learn swimming for many years but because he studies in Shillong, he did not have the opportunity to do so while his contemporaries in the village swam like fishes. Lucky for him the Lockdown has finally granted him the opportunity and he too can swim now. The young man is also more interested in farming, so instead of attending to the online classes, he prefers to follow his maternal uncle and help him in the plantation.

A family friend from Puriang village, when asked how the family is keeping during the pandemic, had standard answer – that her children are busy with the online classes that their schools and colleges are providing. The problem with this family is that they have five school and college going kids and the problem is they can only afford one smart phone for all of five. She said that the children have to share amongst themselves the same smart phone that she had. The families in the stories are at least not doing badly if we compare them with others in the community. Think of the poor parents who can barely provide two meals a day for the family. How can they afford the extra expenditure when they also have to pay the school fees of their children?

What is even more surprising is that even a 7 year old boy who studies in class I had to attend online class. What kind of online class are the schools provide to 5 to 10 year old kids? The question is also how the schools organise the so called online class? One would think that a normal online class would comprise of visual and audio format of the syllabus prescribed by the Meghalaya Board of School Education. If that is the case then the other pertinent question is how can schools create the video content of the entire MBOSE syllabus in a matter of a few weeks only? And if the schools were really able to come up with video content of the entire school syllabus in a matter of weeks and make them interactive, then such schools have indeed achieved a great feat. The cherry on the top is that the respective schools have been able to do that without the support of the government.

The pertinent question is whether online classes can be effective without creating or converting the entire syllabus into an audio or visual format? Even online courses offered by Ivy League institutions that are available free on the internet as open courseware are a combination of video and document format. It has taken the different institutes months if not years to create these contents before they were provided online free for everybody to access. The online classes are perhaps being taught through WhatsApp platform only. The common method used by different schools and teachers to share worksheets and lessons with their students is by using the group WhatsApp. The classes are in fact WhatsApp classes and not much teaching is happening. Of course there are tech-savvy teachers who use conference calls or even online meeting platforms like zoom, skype and other apps to reach out to the students but the other question is also how many students attend the classes.

The other pertinent question is why online classes have to be syllabus-centred? Why can’t teachers think out of the box and instead guide students to learn from what is happening around them? Learning about COVID-19 and its impact on their lives or how their respective communities responded to the pandemic would be an interesting case study wouldn’t it? The objective of the online classes is to get the students engaged in learning. And learning does not have to be from the textbook only.

The lesson to learn from the pandemic is that the future of education is both classroom learning and online classes. The Education department will have to create video content of the syllabus and put it online for students to access from anywhere. Or perhaps multi-talented teachers can create these contents and share them online for students to learn at leisure. In this entire process the internet is becoming a great leveller.