Bypassing The Digital Divide

Bypassing The Digital Divide

Mithilesh Kumar Tripathi had two things weighing on his mind — one was the pandemic and the other was school education. As an active member of the School Management Committee of the primary school in Ekauna in Uttar Pradesh’s Raebareli district he was concerned when the schools were shut down and online education became the buzz word.

Consider this — only 15% children in rural India have access to internet. For a state like Uttar Pradesh that has a huge shortage of teachers and does not have the requisite facilities for running computers or the internet-based classes, e-learning was going to be a problem; a nightmare even. In UP, merely 51% schools have electricity and just about 3% schools in the state have a functional computer. So it was a valid concern for Mithilesh considering the children in his village would be among the nearly 34.70 million children missing their classes due to lack of internet facilities. And a majority of these would be children from marginalised communities.

Lokmitra, Oxfam India’s Raebareli-based education partner, decided to try some innovative models to ensure classes were not disrupted. The first step was to engage parents and the SMC members through a tele conference. The SMC forums of Raebareli and Banda organised a tele-con with the parents in April. The parents, like Mithilesh, were worried about the virus on the one hand and disrupted classes on the other.

It was decided that volunteers would be identified in different villages who would engage with the children through recreational activities, while maintaining all physical distancing norms. Mithilesh along with the head teacher Ajay Pratap Singh, identified volunteers from school and the village. At some places the gram pradhan was roped in to identify volunteers. In fact two gram panchayats of Ekauna and Chandaulipur decided to provide remuneration to the volunteers. These volunteers are young adults in the villages.

In the two districts, with the efforts of Oxfam India and Lokmitra, at present there are 80 volunteers out of which 27 are female volunteers. Once identified the volunteers are trained by SMC members and teachers, over the phone, to take classes offline while following safety measure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 33 teachers are training volunteers on offline classes.

The volunteers follow a set routine — they start teaching at a set time everyday in their villages keeping in mind physical distancing norms. In these tough times, they have innovated and are using songs, games, recreational activities (like toy making using local material and using these toys for storytelling sessions) to keep the students engaged.

“This is interesting and very useful otherwise we would have fallen behind on our studies. Plus this also helps us to meet with our classmates,” says Shivani Patel of class 7. This has helped engage 500 children during the lockdown who otherwise would have lost these months to lockdown.

In some villages, teachers provided books from their school library to SMC members who took the responsibility of passing it on to children on a rotation basis, so that no child was left behind. In the two districts, there are about 21 such school libraries with 130 story books; some books were received from the government and some from Oxfam India.

All SMC forum members were also encouraged to hold tele-con meetings with parents in their villages and chart a course of action that would be most feasible for them. Around 19 schools have been very regular with the SMC tele-cons engaging with parents, teachers, local authorities, and volunteers. SMC members have been very hands-on in counselling parents as well.

This Oxfam India-Lokmitra initiative has found a way to go round this digital divide. On the one hand are children in elite private schools who are continuing their online studies without a glitch and on the other are those enrolled in under-funded government schools who are unable to avail online learning and neither do they have books or reading material.

Oxfam India wrote to the Empowered Group (strategic issues related to lockdown), in May,  that a few pages of printed reading material be delivered daily to students along with their mid day meal distribution; this will ensure that 85% children with no access to internet continue to have access to education.

This COVID-19 lockdown has widened the gap between the haves and have-nots on various fronts — health, education, employment — but this piece of news at least ushers in some hope that all is not lost.

 

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