From thinking digital to being digital: Are we prepared?

there are still thousands of families in Manipur who could not afford even a Smartphone. Now, the pandemic has magnified inequalities like never before.

Education 3.0 is an umbrella term used by educational theorists to describe a variety of ways to integrate technology into learning. According to Jeff Borden, Education 3.0 entails a confluence of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and education technology, using web-based digital and mobile technology, including apps, hardware and software, and "anything else with an e in front of it." The shift to digital learning was not so popular amongst students and parents particularly those in rural and backward states like Manipur because it wasn’t planned until the COVID-19 took hold. Lockdowns to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic have posed many challenges for school education globally, and Manipur is no exception. Digital transformation in the education has picked a new momentum. As lockdowns have left millions of students stranded, a growing percentage of academic institutions are fostering a culture of digital learning. Online classes have become the most viable solution to ensure an uninterrupted flow of education. In Manipur a number of institutions have augmented the use of real-time messaging and social media channels such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and YouTube but a few institutions through own developed Mobile Apps. In the wake of COVID-19 and the subsequent closures, teachers ended up facing the immediate need of conducting online classes for the homebound students. However, a key issue at hand was their digital skills shortage that could potentially hold back the promise of digital learning. Actually there are still many teachers particularly those who are advanced in ages are neither handy to operate digital tools nor ready to acquire required skills. Moreover, there are still thousands of families in Manipur who could not afford even a Smartphone. The children of group are legally entitled to education under the Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009. Now, the pandemic has magnified inequalities like never before. Outcomes will surely be a rise in the number of school drop-out children in Manipur. India’s multilayered society has always needed a strong public education system incorporating a holistic vision to achieve universalisation of education while also establishing a discrimination-free education system. However, this didn’t receive adequate attention from policy-makers. Previous health emergencies also demonstrate that the impact on education is likely to be most devastating in countries where there are already low learning outcomes and high drop-out rates. Thus the COVID-19 pandemic as had a critical impact on children’s education, particularly of those from marginalised sections. Besides the disruption in the school year, there is a risk that prolonged out-of-school learning may lead to alienation of children of these sections  from school systems and exacerbation of existing inequalities.

While lamentable, the disruption to education systems worldwide offers valuable lessons and provides a unique opportunity to re-examine education, the curriculum, and pedagogy part generally in India and specially in Manipur.

1. Address the digital divide. Technology has the potential to achieve universal quality education and improve learning outcomes. But in order to unleash its potential, the digital divide (and its embedded gender divide) must be addressed. Digital capabilities, the required infrastructure, and connectivity must reach the remotest and poorest communities. Access to technology and the internet is an urgent requirement in the information age. It should no longer be a luxury.

2. Reorient the curriculum. While teachers are struggling to learn digital ways of communicating with their students, it is clear that we need to pay close attention to what we teach. This crisis is teaching us that curricula must be grounded in students’ realities, cultivating critical, creative, and flexible thinking, resilience, and empathy in students. Developing a symbiotic relationship with our environment has taken on a new urgency, and teachers must help students think about their relationship with the universe and everyone and everything in it.

3. Empower a wider cadre of teachers. This crisis is forcing teachers to reinvent their roles from that of transferring information to enabling learning. The shift to distance learning has afforded many opportunities to teach differently, encouraging self-learning, providing opportunities to learn from diverse resources, and allowing customized learning for diverse needs through high-tech and low-tech sources.

4. Community participation in teaching-learning process: But continuing education amid school closures has also taught us an important lesson about the role of the community in teaching our children. If it takes a village to raise a child, we must empower the village to teach the child. Improving the education system requires a decentralized, democratic community-based approach, where community ownership of education is cultivated. Important for this is the hiring of local teachers, which increases teachers’ accountability to children’s families and their ability to empathize with students’ lives.

5. Lack of infrastructure in schools is another major challenge in these COVID times, which will impact continuing school education. The RTE Act brought a normative framework to ensure quality and equity in elementary education. Lack of safe drinking water, toilets, hand-washing facility, electricity and cramped classrooms means schools don’t have the prerequisites to reopen.

Although the school year is ending in Manipur, we should begin to question what will happen in August or September, the months in which Government plans to reopen schools. Faced with the possibility of a return to face-to-face classes, educational leaders should ask many questions before opening their campuses. On the other hand, the pandemic has unleashed a crisis of anxiety, fear, and feelings of isolation in the students, so educators and academic staff are needed to collaborate in building a sense of community through remote learning. In a world where knowledge is a mouse-click away, the role of the educator must change too.

First Published: July 18, 2020, 8:11 a.m.