To be or not to be: the context changed but the binary remained!


Bhubaneswar: Health, education and livelihoods are the most significant buzzwords in development parlance. A nation’s growth and progress rest on these three pillars. With the COVID-19 crisis taking the entire human civilization into hostage, the Governments worldwide have been, for past three/four months, resorting to desperate measures to come on the top of the situation. While public health has been of paramount importance and many unprecedented measures have been adopted to address livelihood issues, education has unfortunately been pegged with its own share of uncertainty.

In India the easiest and most palpable measure was to shut down the schools, colleges and universities till further notice. As a result, amidst a dynamic and ever-evolving situation, millions of students have been rendered clueless as to what is up in store for them. In most of the elementary and secondary schools the annual examinations for the 2019-20 academic session were completed by mid-March and the children were promoted to the next appropriate classes. However, the major board examinations for class 10th and 12thwere still ongoing by the time the country went into a lockdown and its subsequent extensions have only made the matters worse. In the meanwhile,many economic activities have resumed in a staggered manner to pump life to livelihood issues.But, the formal education system, which is a significant determinant of the country’s development, is still on life support system. The Institutes of higher learning are perhaps the biggest sufferers.  Most of the students embark upon their career/life defining undergraduate academic programmes primarily on the basis of their performances in the class 12th examination and the entrance examinations for which 12th results are essential criteria.One can empathise the magnitude of the crisis, as there is a double edged sword hanging over 280 million+ young learners of the country. Let’s take a quick stab at how certain things have unfolded in past few months and their possible repercussions on students’ careers in coming days.

The boon and bane of technology:The COVID-19 pandemic indiscriminately shattered every existing academic routine and pedagogy. During initial days of the lockdown period, it was widely accepted that the time should not be ‘wasted’ and students be meaningfully engaged through e-learning. Hence, online classes appeared to be a panacea of sort. Soon we realised that online teaching could cater to only a tiny segment of population given its dependency on IT infrastructure, internet penetration and connectivity, availability and access to required bandwidth, possession or affordability of a computer or smartphone, so on and so forth. On the face of it, the inclusiveness of e-learningis a misnomer. Overheard couple of parents arguing that these days most (with smart phone penetration in India at 32% as per PWC’s estimates) parents own smartphones that can be leveraged, maybe conveniently ignoring the fact that we are talking about a country that has- as per World Bank estimates- around 20% of its population still below the poverty line and around 52%(as per McKinsey ‘s new empowerment line) struggleto meet the minimum requirement of consumption of eight basic services- food, health care, education, sanitation, water, housing, fuel, and social security.Let’s please leave internet based learning to remain as supplementary to classroom transactions, at least for the time being.

We cannot afford student’s suicide during this unprecedented public health-crisis.The heart wrenching suicide note- ‘I’m going’, after missing online classes, by the Kerala girl some days ago, has shaken the entire country forcing us to rethink and reassess the inclusiveness of teaching-learning methodologies. There could be many such innocent kids who may have been pushed to depression imagining the loss of time and study, and possible relative deprivation. The tender minds that are not designed to handle such distress, must have been disturbed beyond words. Though we have been hearing ‘things’ about mental health, there are no ready-made measures available unlike those adopted for taking care of physical health and livelihood issues. If we ask our deeper layers of consciousness, we do not see any plausible remedy to address mental health and worse, for the school going children.

Undergraduate (UG) and Post Graduate (PG) programmes: Most of the colleges and universities were not left with any option but to cancel the classes scheduled post mid-March and shut themselves down. The University Grants Commission (UGC), on a later date, came up with a set of suggestive guidelines to complete the academic requirements and the ongoing academic session/semester, with special considerations for the students that were to graduate this year. There were confusions galore. However, many institutions and universities tried whatever they could in this challenging time and within several constraints to evaluate, grade and announce the results of the graduating batch as they would have to apply for higher studies only on the basis of their final results. Research based academic programmes such as PhD programmes have also been hit very badly. As the doctoral students were asked to leave their research abruptly and head home, most of them would have, by now, lost about a semester worth important work. Spare a thought for those working in laboratory based experimental sciences and/or empirical evidence based research works. Now that inter-state travels have been allowed, such students can be allowed to re-enter their campuses and start resuming their research, of course with strict adherence to the existing health advisories issued by the Governments from time to time. However, the loss of time and momentum isirreparable.

Admissions to UG and PG programmes: As we hear, around 9 lakhs and 16 lakhs students have applied this year to take the entrance tests for various Engineering and Medical colleges across the country respectively. Additionally, there would also be several lakh others who must have applied for other entrance test based admissions to various UG/PG programmes and competitive examinations. Though most of these examinations are computer based tests, it is quite a daunting task to manage those examinations at hundreds of test centres across the country, with so many restrictions on movements and conduct in place.  Managing the logistics for such a huge number of applicantswould also be a huge challenge. As we discussed earlier these are the career, and hence, life defining moments. I just hope these tests are conducted on their rescheduled dates, with inconveniences to all the stakeholders kept at minimum and deserving candidates be admitted to their chosen programmes despite uncertainties over the resumption of next academic session.

Government has its task cut out in such a situation. Shutting down the schools and colleges was the foremost step which it took without even shedding an eyelid. However, there is still no definite exit plan in place as to how and when to re-open. Children cannot be exposed to slightest of vulnerability and health hazards when supposedly adult and matured people are struggling to keep the virus spread under check. The disruption of delivery of education has sent the policy makers to the drawing board for chalking out ways to ensure inclusive solutions. It is unreal to imagine a one-size-fits-all prescription in a country that is as vast and as diverse as India. What we can hope for is a resilient educational system that needs to be built with a multi-pronged strategy. Technology is definitely an enabler. But, measures to develop an integrated learning system allowing both the teachers and students multiple options need considerable amount of time and efforts, whereas the current crisis calls for an immediate solution that is both inclusive and implementable.

Parental anxiety: Being parents ourselves, we must have felt excited during the early days of lockdown to spend more (and quality) time with our children. A handful few that are privileged would also have enthusiastically offeredlaptops and/or smartphones to their kids to get hooked to the online classes. While on the other hand, most of the Government schools were totally shutdown without having any e-learning solution whatsoever and parents from the low-income groups were completely clueless. However, the euphoria over online teaching is a thing of past now. It’s time to get little extra serious and engage the children with certain mundane yet non-trivial non-academic activities at the household level. Let’s not forget that we are a country known for imposing parental choices on the children. That said let’s, for the sake of good heavens, please keep our own failures and/or ambitions out of the equation.Allow the children have an extended, a little more extended vacation.

The ones aspiring to give wings to their imagination:Though the number of students that go for higher education or further research to universities abroad is small in comparison to others, yet their plans and roadmaps have been irrevocablyhit. With all the international boundaries and air space shut indefinitely for civil aviation, one does not know when things will come back to normalcy. Many bright students who would have otherwise got into preparatory mode for their graduate school admissions and VISA arrangements, are now in a shell of uncertainty which must be killing their hopes and confidence from within. If the situation persists, this could be disastrous in the long run.

Said all these, one still does not know what are the best ways to address the issues. Mystery still shrouds over all that have been planned or talked about in preceding days and weeks. Students have signed petitions and launched campaigns against forcing them to take online classes, appear for online examinations, etc. The entire academic community has firmly stood by them all through. And, whatever little has come out of the policy makers, does not appear to be standing as a road block to the future of the students. However, the uncertainty still prevails and looms large. There is no MNREGA here, for millions of affected students, to offer even a capsule-scale relief. My two cents would rest on no resumption of classroom transaction and no online teaching whatsoever until at least September 2020, of course taking into cognizance the current scenario, albeit still dynamic and evolving.


About the Author

Dr. Pranay Kumar Swain is the Chairperson, School of HSS, National Institute of Science Education and Research, Bhubaneswar​. Contacts +91 674 2494010 (O), Handheld- +91 993 700 9939/943 986 1939


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Pragativadi and does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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