‘Virtual’ on paper

The outbreak of COVID-19 has upended lives across the world and governments as well as the populace across the globe, have had been struggling to cope with the unprecedented pandemic.

One area of concern is education, specifically the question ensuring the normal flow of learning, with the face-to-face interaction either limited or completely curtailed.

Several alternatives have had been tested and offered, and the rush for education online or virtual learning, understandably, has been one of the key strategies adopted across the world. Nagaland is no exception.  

However, the paradigm shift to hitherto inexperience environment is not without challenges; bringing up new complexities and driving home the point that the road to the virtual highway is laden with numerous barriers.

The barriers are both technical as well as human.

Sample some recent news reports. The Morung Express in June reported that an “unusual sight” on a Sunday at a village council hall in Chisholimi village. “Huddled on the balcony of the one-storey building, high school students were seen appearing their online evaluation tests on June 7. They could have appeared the exams from home, yet had a valid reason for gathering at the council hall - internet signal,” it said, adding that amid online learning push due to COVID 19, accessibility remains a big challenge.

Last week, this newspaper reported from Kiphire that educational institutions in the “district have not been able to comply” the Nagaland Directorate of School Education's direction to conduct online classes due to of poor internet connectivity. The virtual initiative may be suitable for students in cities but in a district like Kiphire, this would remain only on paper, the report concluded.

Likewise, The Print reported from Tsuruhu village in Zunheboto that at least 39 students have been taking their online exams inside a dense forest for the past two weeks.

With no network, students have to trek 3 km to take online exams, it added.

The news website, citing government’s 2018 data, reported that internet connectivity has only reached about 35 per cent of the population in the eight Northeastern states, and around 8,600 villages still don’t have access to the internet.

In Mokokchung, a student organisation recently shut down the shutters of two telecom service providers due to poor connectivity.

Last month, a user took to microblogging site Twitter to share several “first-hand experiences of e-learning during COVID-19.” The anecdotes were purportedly shared by teachers during a webinar on online education conducted by the state’s school education department. Most were non-technical barriers.

 “Some students they came online… turn off the camera and leave the class”; “Once I was asking them questions, one suddenly paused himself as if it was network issue”; or a “Student deleted my online test question paper on Whatsapp before opening and didn’t appear the test… Parents called and asked me why I have not given the questions paper.”

Virtual classes, though well-intentioned and possibly the best mechanism to ensure interrupted learning during the ongoing pandemic, are dependent on many factors, both human as well as technical. 

Chief, among those, are the issue of accessibility, technical infrastructure, security as well as ample guidance and monitoring.

A UNICEF policy paper on “COVID-19: Education preparedness and response,” among others, also highlighted similar concerns including limited knowledge and capacity of teachers to use online platforms, lack of tools to monitor and evaluate the progress of learning outcomes.  

The anecdotal evidence and the news reports clearly highlighted some pertinent issues related to online learning. The concerned authorities, as well as other stakeholders, must take these concerns seriously and work out strategies to clear the barriers blocking the virtual highway and ensure inclusive as well as uninterrupted learning. 

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