Meghalaya ready for a learning revolution in COVID era?

Meghalaya ready for a learning revolution in COVID era?
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By Rachel S. Lyngdoh

FEATURE | JULY 3, 2020:

'COVID-19'- A term we were not familiar with, one that did not mean much to us but has managed to become an impertinent guest in our schedule of things – an undesirable entity that has forced us to live indoors in fear. COVID-19 has truly changed our way of life, our habits down to the nitty-gritty, disrupting everything dear to a meticulous social being, including the time one wakes up and the time one gets to bed.

Social distancing, constant temperature checks, wearing a face mask and the relentless usage of hand sanitizers have become the new norm.

On the 11th of March, 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that COVID-19 was a pandemic and subsequently issued a red alert. By then, COVID-19 had found its way into every other nook and corner possible, sparing none. Growing at a fast-paced progression, the highly superfluous virus finally achieved due acknowledgement and was deemed a pandemic.

However, this recognition came in very late – the global health crisis had by then impacted every given aspect of our lives. It shattered the economic, political and social well-being of almost every other country.

Dealing with a global catastrophe

In the wake of such a challenging global catastrophe we, as science would term – creatures of evolution had to learn how to deal and adapt with this new hurdle. Our governments quickly put forward schemes that dictated a complete 'Lockdown' on all activities, henceforth pushing our economic, social and political conditions into a deadlock – perhaps even worse, a regressive state. However, on the bright side of the prevailing situation, the 'lockdown' came as a much-needed break.

How things transpired over these past few months will surely be jotted down in bold red on history books. In many ways, it turned to a very brief but not a fun marathon between countries.

It is a scramble to discover the best vaccine; countries across the world have kept their R&D departments on high alert. The only worrying factor being that the shortest time ever taken for the formulation of a vaccine was that for 'Ebola' – and it took around five years to be tested and approved.

Many aspects can be analysed with regards to COVID-19 and we are all aware of how it has personally impacted us.

Education in Meghalaya: Of students' plight and Online learning

On 16th March 2020, the Government of Meghalaya announced that all educational institutions were to be closed as a precautionary measure to contain the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus.

Days later, on 24th March 2020, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown, which left the students in frenzy. While many celebrated the additional break, students who had their on-going exams were left in a state of terror.

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Students narrate their ordeal: Coping with changes

The same has been resonated by Bakordor Sunn of St. Anthony's College. "As a student in my final semester the on-going pandemic has affected the plans I had made for my near future about my education and things for me have come to a standstill," he says.

It has now been four months since all educational institutions closed. Classrooms, playgrounds, assembly halls, canteens, all lay quiet.

It goes without saying that although educational institutions remain physically closed our minds needn't be. Rightfully so, a new model of teaching has been adopted and inculcated into our society. There was a fear that these prolonged gaps could be harmful for the academic year and would, in turn, result in failure of completion of the syllabus for a lot of students, especially for those who pursue to settle their board exams. This mode of teaching is not necessarily new, it just happens to be one where you are learning from a screen and not a board. So platforms such as Zoom, Skype, Google Classroom have been extensively used to conduct such 'online classes'.

Classes are currently been carried out via Google classroom and WhatsApp group chats but online classes as a whole pose a set of challenges. One such drawback is that this mode of teaching is not effective or satisfactory. Most teachers are unable to teach to their full potential as they do not have the training to operate these online classes. It is also not the teacher's fault but the reality of the situation, Bakordor further added.

Online classes have existed much before we formally called them the socially conventional 'Online classes' and these were through the medium of YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. The only difference is that these new formal classes held by our Educational Institutions require the taking of attendance, submitting assignments, tests and of course plenty of deadlines. Sonia Hajong carries a similar idea of how online teaching method is not that novel and talks of how she spends hours on Youtube watching videos on difficult topics.

Many students have signed up for online classes in their respective institutions. This in turn has put pressure on institutions to adopt a systemic mode through which study material can be sent to their students – apart from using platforms such as WhatsApp or e-mails. Our small state was thrown into an unexplored territory of e-learning that has to cater to lakhs of students, many coming from households that are not digitally equipped.

We cannot begin to understand the mental state that students are in. We only assume that they may enjoy the fact that they need not attend classes physically; however, many students have spoken up on how they prefer the traditional mode of teaching.

Hadassa Mawkhroh of Synod College Shillong explains the fear that grips her as no online classes are being taken however also looks at a grim reality if classes were being taken up. While she believes that online classes are necessary to keep students active she understands that there would be a lack of attention alongside shaky network connection would put immense stress for any student not being able to attend the classes.

Was Meghalaya prepared for this sudden transition?

There is an issue of connectivity in the hill station. Given our State's terrain, internet connection, let alone acquiring a full network bar is a distant dream. The arrival of the monsoon also disturbs the network connectivity and many a time leaves users with empty network bars. The other reason for poor connectivity is also the fact that telecom companies are unable to set up towers as residents are concerned with the harmful radiation emitted from these towers. The same suit follows for those living in the interiors.

This uncharted territory has also put a lot of pressure on teachers – the uncertainty that the future holds in regards to the educational sector has left them dumbfounded. It can be positively presumed that 'e-learning' is the key to the future; however it has to be said that no one wanted the same to be handed over in the manner it dawned upon us. Ensuring the intellectual growth in students is just as important as any other measure taken to tackle such a deplorable pandemic. State governments must adhere to a synchronized 'e-learning' system; at least schools under the jurisdiction of bigger syllabus systems (ICSE, CBSE, ISC etc) must ensure the same. A lack of uniformity in the way the academic session progresses this year will, later on, prove to be a huge blunder.

Teachers, no doubt are trying their very best and being as supportive as they can. Some go to the extent of checking up on their students' well-being. "Our department teachers took it upon themselves to complete their syllabus. They sent us topic videos so that it would be easier for us to learn and these videos have helped students who do not have a very good internet connection. Our college has also given us life skill assignments so that they get an idea of our current mental state and help us with our grievances. There are days when our HOD schedules a Google meet simply to ask us how we are coping up and addresses issues that we may be facing." shares Sonia Hajong, a student of St. Edmund's College Shillong.

"Teachers send explanations especially on tougher subjects like Mathematics and Science. While clearing our doubts online has become a task we are very grateful that our teachers are being patient with us," says Afroza T. Ahsan who is currently doing her 10 standard in Pine Mount School Shillong.

The bitter truth: Response is negligible, says Education Minister

Reacting to a question on how the education sector was responding to this new method of teaching, Meghalaya Education Minister, Lahkmen Rymbui said, "The response is negligible. There are many difficulties and constraints; as a result not many students have been able to sit for online classes. These types of classes are more urban-centric and the education sector has taken a big hit from COVID-19."

"Online teaching only supplements classroom teaching and is not a substitute for it. We are all aware of the digital divide that exists. From this, we have learnt that education is not pandemic-proof and should be worked upon being so. If the state were to adopt an online mode of education soon it is pertinent that teachers be trained and equipped on how to disseminate this information. As we talk about online education it does not only require a gadget and working network, an internet pack is equally important and this adds up to expenses. So, several things have to be taken into consideration before looking into this as a way forward." he added.

Now the predominant question that lingers in the minds of both parents and students is whether or not e-learning will rise to become a viable and sustainable solution.

The views reflected in this piece are that of the author and need not necessarily be that of TNT-The Northeast Today

The writer of this article can be reached at rachellyngdoh@yahoo.co.in

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