Lessons via loudspeaker: the students studying across India’s digital divide

Nov 11, 2020 by

How do you learn from home without a laptop? Teachers are getting creative, but the pandemic remains a vast challenge

Children attend a class at an outdoor learning centre, Andhra Pradesh, India.
Outdoor learning centres have sprung up as Covid has shut schools across Andhra Pradesh, India. Photograph: Swati Sanyal Tarafdar
Swati Sanyal Tarafdar in Vijayawada

Vemula Deena lives in one of the tin huts strung along a narrow lane in the heart of Vijayawada, the business capital of Andhra Pradesh, in the south-east of India. Her parents are construction labourers. Vemula is 13 and wants to be a politician, enamoured of the spotless white kurta-pyjamas they wear and their public speaking.

But her school has closed its doors in the face of the Covid pandemic and gone online, effectively shutting her out. Vemula continues to practise her oration as she does her household chores.

Aviti Keerthana, 9Aviti Keerthana, 9, has been trying to keep up with lessons via television. Photograph: Swati Sanyal Tarafdar

On the fringes of Vijayawada, closer to the vast expanse where the city’s rubbish is dumped, nine-year-old Aviti Keerthana’s parents work as waste pickers. Aviti dreams of becoming a doctor. The area where she lives has no electricity, and the family has one mobile phone. When her school moved online this year, she too was left out until Jones Manikonda, 47, a local philanthropist, stepped in to help.

A survey in July by Save the Children reported that children in 62% of Indian households have discontinued their education amid coronavirus. India has around 320 million children in 1.5 million schools, and 70% are government-run. Few have access to online classes.

Schools have been able to teach using WhatsApp groups or video conferencing, but there is a wide digital divide. A 2017–18 survey found that 23.8% of Indian households had access to the internet, and 12.5% of students had access to smartphones. Only 8% of households with children have a computer plus internet connection. Online education is niche in India.

“It’s been painful and astonishing at the same time to come to terms with the reality that despite living in the centre of a well-developed, wealthy city, there could be people who spend days without a phone or internet, or even something as basic as electricity and drinking water, things that most of us had taken for granted,” says Manikonda.

Manikonda installed a television in Aviti’s neighbourhood so children could watch teachers deliver lessons over government-run channels. But most areas she visited had no electricity. “Putting up television sets was not the option in these. We had to do something else. That’s when we came up with the idea of temporary learning camps,” she says.

Using open-air classrooms, plastic sheets for a floor, whiteboards and pens, and volunteers who hopped from one centre to another across the city, children were able to get back to studying. The learning centres are growing, supported by donors from far and near. There are already 15 across the city with more than 750 students enrolled. “Now their mothers are willing to learn English to be able to sign their names,” Manikonda says.

Source: Lessons via loudspeaker: the students studying across India’s digital divide | Global development | The Guardian

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