“We need to involve the local community in education”

P Anima in conversation with Dr. Wilima Wadhwa, Director, ASER Centre

Original article appeared in BL Link on May 28, 2020: 


Thinking afresh: Schools in rural India are struggling to curate a viable response to the virus-infected reality – BISWARANJAN ROUT

Urban schools have taken recourse to online classes in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. Educationist Wilima Wadhwa explains why it isn’t yet a viable option in rural India.

* Online education, at the very least, requires a smartphone

* Older boys might be pulled out of school to join the labour force

* We have to come up with strategies that work, and they cannot be one-sided

It’s that time of the year when — under normal circumstances — schools in many parts of the country get ready to reopen after the summer break. Elsewhere, schools are about to close for the summer. In a year when “normalcy” has been elusive, proposals to reopen schools are bound to invite scrutiny. So, in these trying times, lessons are being taught online. While urban schools have turned to digital classes, schools in rural India are struggling to curate a viable response to the virus-infected reality.

Wilima Wadhwa, director of the New Delhi-based ASER Centre, an independent unit of non-governmental organisation Pratham, sheds light on the unique challenges faced by rural schools. Wadhwa is the architect of the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), a rural survey conducted across the country to assess children’s education status and learning levels. Covid-19 and the ensuing restrictions, she says, call for innovative approaches in rural education. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, she tells BLink. The answer may lie in local, community-based initiatives that address the educational challenges at the village level. Edited excerpts from an interview.

How will Covid-19 and the lockdown impact schooling and education in rural India?

Schools across the country were pretty much shut in March; in most cases the closure coincided with the end of the academic year. Some learning loss is observed when children join a new grade after the summer vacation. This year, kids in rural schools did not get the short window — classes in April — they usually get to settle into a new grade. So we are likely to see a certain learning loss.

The fear, however, is what will happen when schools reopen. At the moment we don’t know when that is going to happen. The virus is not going to go away until a vaccine is found. What will happen if one child in a school is infected? Will the school close again? As of now, there is no protocol in place. Social distancing is a necessity in the time of a pandemic. But the ground reality in government and low-cost private schools in rural India is different. Space is a constraint and social distancing difficult to execute. A lot of thought needs to go into these matters. Maybe we should have a different curriculum this year to bring children up to speed. We might have to encourage children to attend school, but how do we do that without assuring parents about the measures in place to keep children safe?

In the interim, urban schools have moved to online classes. What are the practical problems in replicating the model in villages?

Online education, at the very least, requires a smartphone. While the penetration of mobile phones is high in rural areas, most are not smartphones and connectivity levels vary vastly across states. There are practical hurdles as well. The smartphone usually belongs to the head of the family. As lockdowns are widely relaxed and the economy opens again, the adult owner of the smartphone is likely to head out to work, taking the phone with him. Even now 50 per cent of rural children have mothers who have never been to school. Twenty per cent children have first-generation learners in both their parents. So how can they help children with the learning material sent online? We have to come up with strategies that work, and they cannot be one-sided. For instance, what works in Tamil Nadu may not work in Uttar Pradesh. One needs to be flexible and learn to involve the local community in education.

Do you think a model that works well at the local, village level and involves the community in education could take shape?

I think that is the only way. In fact, Pratham runs a digital learning programme called Hybrid Learning, which is run completely in and by the community. We are present in about 1,000 villages and the programme targets students from Std V to VIII. Children are split into groups of five and two groups are given a tablet to share. The device is kept at a child’s home, so the parents take care of keeping it charged. Learning material sent on the tablet is refreshed by volunteers.

We have to take the community and parents along and find ways of supporting them with materials and other help that they need to help children through this academic year.

Is the ASER Centre conducting a survey on online classes?

We are doing a pilot survey involving over 4,500 households across the country, collecting basic information about the access to online school material in rural households. If the pilot is successful, we will conduct a larger representative survey.

What kind of effect will the loss of jobs in cities and the reverse migration we are currently witnessing have on rural education?

The education of girls will be a cause of worry. Girls are affected more in the event of a crisis. When it comes to access to technology in a household with many school-going children, one is likely to see the girl child being sidelined. Technology often raises the question of access and also of who has the right to access it.

In rural India, 18-20 per cent children receive private tuition. With budgets squeezed and jobs lost, parents may not have money to spare for the private tutor. The role of the community gains significance under these circumstances. There may not be anybody at home to help a young child with study material, but a girl in the village who has completed high school can help. She can hold a class for small children. Choices will be made when a household faces financial constraints: Older boys might be pulled out of school to join the labour force, older girls might be forced to stay at home to look after younger siblings.

So it remains to be seen how the rural education system responds to this reality…

As of now, everything is up in the air. We don’t know when schools in the villages are going to open. It is going to be a step-by-step process. We have to innovate and tailor solutions to our ground reality.