How India responded: distance learning in the time of COVID-19

As schools began to close earlier in the year, at the EdTech Hub we started to look at how governments pivoted to distance learning, with a number of country case studies exploring this shift. While the full case studies will be released soon, this blog gives an overview of the first of these into India’s response.

The onset of COVID-19 dealt a huge blow to the Indian education system —  one of the largest in the world. In this blog we ask: How has the system responded? What technologies have been put in place to support distance learning?

Over the last months, the Hub has been collaborating with the Central Square Foundation (CSF) to document the Indian governments’ education response to COVID-19, particularly the use of technology to support distance learning at the primary and lower secondary level.  

I reached out to Gouri Gupta and Harish Doraiswamy, Directors for EdTech, at the CSF to talk about some of the preliminary findings from the research.

Arnaldo Pellini: Tell me about CSF, when it was established and the focus of your work?

Gouri Gupta: CSF was founded in 2012 as a nonprofit organization. Our vision is quality education for all children in India. We want to contribute to transforming the education system; improving the learning outcomes of children, especially those from low-income communities. The focus areas of our work are: 

  • Foundational Learning
  • Technology in Education 
  • Low-fee Private Schools

AP –  Harish Doraiswamy, how did school closures unfold in India? How many students were affected? Were there plans already in place for a shift to distance learning to respond to a national crisis such as COVID-19?

Harish Doraiswamy –  As a result of the lockdown, almost 250 million school students are now staying at home. One of the first decisions after the school closures was to cancel all school exams and promote the children to the next grade. The exception was for the students in Grade 10 and Grade 12 whose final board examinations are in varying degrees of completion across the states. It is fair to say that the Central and State Governments were put in a tight corner and forced to respond to an unprecedented and evolving situation with limited data, inadequate digital infrastructure and without digitally savvy teachers. However, some of the digital architecture that had already been developed by the central government and leveraged by some states came in handy during the response as did the resourcefulness and resolve of many of the government officials and teachers.

AP – What technologies have been put in place by the government authorities to support distance learning?

GG – Beyond national education policy and curriculum, the state governments are responsible for all other aspects of school education. Our study focused on six states ( National Capital Territory of Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Meghalaya, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh) that represent different levels of broadband connectivity and educational performance. What we have found so far is that private schools seem to have embraced live online classes using platforms like Google Classroom, Zoom etc. However, the state schools use a mix of digital platforms and low-tech television, radio, SMSs, and Interactive Voice Recording System (IVRS) in an attempt to provide access to teaching to all.

The response during this crisis has been helped by the fact that the central government has worked for some years on several initiatives to strengthen the use of tech for teaching and learning. For instance, e-Pathshala for ebooks content, the DIKSHA platform for digital teaching and learning content for teachers and students, Swayam Prabha television channels. In May 2020, the Central Government announced the Pradhan Mantri e-Vidya Initiative for Digital Education which unifies all its efforts related to digital/online/on-air education and will enable multi-mode access to education. Some state governments have tested the production and curation of teaching material in local languages which have also been uploaded on DIKSHA platform. Some states have also been very proactive in creating WhatsApp groups linking education department officials with tens of thousands of teachers and millions of parents. This channel turned out to be one of the key tools in responding to the crisis.

AP – In most countries, education agencies are experimenting in real-time with distance learning and technologies. Is it fair to say that the same applied to India?

HDThe education authorities in India, like in many other countries,  had to transition swiftly to digital learning, without any guidelines in place,  while trying to maximise access across students. The priority during the response is to reach  as many students as possible, through different technologies and media, over the quality of content or learning outcomes. Distance learning for the K-12 sector at this scale has never been tested before in India. 

AP – Have education authorities been able to deploy appropriate technologies to reach marginalized learners in rural areas or learners with disabilities? Can you give some examples?

HD – States authorities have been very focused on maximizing reach. In addition to reaching those who have access to the internet; the television, radio, IVRS and SMS have all been deployed to connect with students, especially in rural areas. We have anecdotal evidence that teachers in rural areas are reaching out to learners over the phone. States are also testing ways to reach learners with disabilities by collaborating with NGOs on the design of content for hearing and visually impaired learners given the scale of the response. However, the issue of reaching learners with disabilities was not one that was actively considered in formulating the initial response.

AP – What systems and mechanisms have the education authorities put in place to learn what works in terms of technology in distance learning and whether students are actually learning?

GG – State education authorities are collecting feedback from parents and students as the situation continues to evolve. Teachers are calling students regularly to counsel them through the process. Some states use data analytics tools to track reach, views and engagement on online channels. We know of a state that has also started doing some simple foundational learning formative assessments using WhatsApp. In one of the states, there is a weekly live broadcast on YouTube where state authorities discuss different educational initiatives with students, teachers, and parents. There is a lot of experimentation in the ways data are collected and evaluated which I believe will continue after the crisis is over. 

AP – What has surprised you from the findings that are emerging from the case study?

GG – The ability of our enormous education system, often believed to have low accountability, to rally the available resources and act with speed and decisiveness. It has also been great to see states reach out and show a willingness to bring together different players in the EdTech ecosystem to tailor effective responses to mitigate the loss of learning due to school closures. 

HD – There has been a feeling that teachers at government schools are indifferent to the issues faced by their learners. It has been amazing to learn through this research about tens of thousands of teachers showing empathy, resilience and the ability to make use of new technologies and continue their dialogues with students at a critical time. It has also been gratifying to see many private players, both for-profit and not-for-profit ones, offer their content and services for free during this period. On the flip side, the pandemic has exposed a deep digital divide which even the best efforts have not yet been able to address.

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