Let us understand the situation in practical terms. Due to the COVID crisis, students are unable to come to schools. How long this will continue is uncertain. So, that gives us two options: discontinue delivering education, or leverage the available technology.
Discontinuing education is a choice left to the parents and the student, and also the government. Opinions around discontinuing education for a year are contrasting. So, I will not take sides, and leave it to the parents and the students to make that decision. The outcome of doing that may be that they still get to move to the next higher grade anyway, if the government decides so.
When technology is available to meaningfully engage students online and provide continuity to their learning remotely, why not use it? We have seen a lot of things going digital and online. Even the children watch cartoons or movies online and on smartphones or large television screens. Is that not screen time? So it’s essentially a question of an educated and well-informed choice one has to make. Maybe we can cut down on the screen time for games and entertainment and provide space and time for children to learn online at home. Is it possible to achieve this balance? I think so. Educated parents, who are willing to accept the reality, and may even have access to counseling, and can make their decisions one way or the other. The domestic and familial situations are varied, and the circumstances arising out of this will determine the disposition of the parents and the children about remote learning: how much, how long, etc.
It is about leveraging the education technology, improvising on it, and being creative in how it is used. Most schools are delivering education online. Some of them just do lectures online, and some of them at the top end of the spectrum do it more innovatively like providing toolkits for teachers and also for students, specific to their requirements. The toolkits consist of curated digital interactive content, access to online learning, printed books, and workbooks for self-learning, and are accompanied by materials that they can use in conducting learning activities: a blended, remote learning model.
The key actors in this situation are:
- COVID itself, and the uncertainties surrounding it: mostly not in our control except taking all precautions as advised by professionals;
- Students and parents: no party should force any decision on them, but let them make an informed decision, and a balanced decision. During such challenging times, it is impossible to understand the situation of each family, and hence we cannot be making decisions on their behalf. We can only provide advocacy, and counseling, and help them arrive at a decision. We have to accept that there is anxiety among the students and parents not only about embracing digital and online learning, but also about layoffs, pay cuts etc.
- School management and leadership: some of them would feel morally obliged and socially responsible to provide education continuity and strive to do their best, given that there are resources and a deep understanding of the technology and pedagogy of online learning. Society expects schools to behave responsibly and demonstrate their commitment to education during these tough times. School leadership stands out doing such unexpected crisis times. In normal times, exceptional leadership does not stand out. This is the time to stick their necks out and demonstrate their commitment to education.
However, Let us be empathetic to schools that may not have the resources to do it. As long as the school systems are run in a transparent manner, their inabilities or lack of resources will be obvious to the community and society as being real and true. In such cases, the students and parents will seek out to subscribe to private online education providers.
Though undesirable, in some cases the outcomes have been teacher layoffs, pay cuts, postponement of salaries, etc. The teaching community will see it as unfair and cruel. Yes, because school teachers, barring some exceptions, are not highly paid, and the sudden stoppage of incomes gravely endanger their livelihoods. Truly, for the schools that operate ethically and righteously, the ability to pay salaries depends on their income through the fees. If a school does not receive fees, it is because the parents decide not to pay fees by either taking shelter under the government policies, or because they are genuinely impacted in their earnings due to layoffs, pay cuts, etc. Even the affluent among them may refrain from paying fees until and unless it becomes inevitable. That is not fair either. Is that not being socially irresponsible?
Private unaided schools are seen as money making machines, unfortunately. The truth is that some are, and many are not. There are schools that are transparent, and have a firm belief in systems and values. You cannot arrive at opinions or create a negative perception of all private education providers. They are an integral part of the education fabric. Can we imagine the education terrain bereft of private unaided schools?
It is time to set the right expectations, ‘cut the clutter’, and make informed decisions. This is for all the key stakeholders involved in providing education: students & parents, school leaderships, educators & teachers, the policymakers, and the government.
It is all joined at the hip. It is time that we think and act collectively for the good of the nation, as education is amongst the most fundamental and high priority sectors. It is time to plan and execute to meet the education needs, possibly for an extended period of the COVID crisis.
And who knows! Even after the inevitable return to normal or the new normal, there may be another crisis around the corner. However unlikely it may be, here is an opportunity to think it through and be fully prepared in the face of any such eventualities in the future.
Let us all act responsibly and be fair to every stakeholder involved in delivering education. It is time for teamwork!