Alternatives to online teaching in times of COVID-19

Dr Augustine Kshetrimayum
The current pandemic has forced schools and universities all over the world to switch to remote teaching. While online platforms such as Zoom and Skype have emerged as the main alternatives to classroom teaching, it is of no practical use to the majority of the population living in poverty in rural areas in a country like India. These online alternatives require fast internet connections, laptops or a good smart phone. These are expensive requirements in a country where one still struggles to have an uninterrupted power supply, specially in the far flung remote areas. Online teaching has therefore, only widened the existing gap between the different socio-economic classes of the population. It has reinforced the opinion that education is a luxury for the rich. While this is as disturbing as it is, the long term emotional and psychological consequences of such bias against the poor and rural students can even be more traumatizing. This calls for an urgent rethinking of alternatives to online teaching: a solution that caters uniformly to every student in the country.
One solution comes to mind when we think about the times before the internet and the smart phones: the Television and the radio! This idea is anything but novel as they have long been used for educational purposes all around the world. It also makes a lot of sense, the radio is one of the most common household items in rural India and it could run for days with commonly available lithium batteries. It has been shown in several research studies that radio helps the economically weaker students. In fact, the radio have long been used in India for educational purposes in the form of science and agricultural programs, quiz shows, etc. On a more formal level, the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) has 40 FM radio station for this purpose. Now, the situation is slightly different and we need to find a practical way to incorporate school curriculum in radio programs and all of this has to be done, keeping in mind, the strict lockdown measures. The key to achieving this lies in the creativity and enthusiasm of local teachers and collaboration with local radio stations. I propose a possible outline which I think could be helpful in practically implementing such a plan.
* Resource requirements: In this teaching mode, the students or the listeners need only a radio. The teacher on the other hand would need a basic smart phone with some medium paced internet connection.
* Organizing the lectures: Some subjects (such as literature, humanities) could be easier for remote radio teaching than subjects like maths or physics that may require more visual inputs and diagrams. The program can start with these subjects. If students can make progress on these subjects during the lockdown, then they can devote more of their time in the remaining subjects once the normal classes resume. However, I believe that radio teaching of all subjects could be successful by properly exploiting the ingenuity and creativity of the teachers.
* Giving the lectures: The teacher can make an audio recording of their lectures in their smart phone. Ideally, the students (listeners) are expected to have their books with them but the teacher should try to give the lecture in such a way one doesn’t require frequent referencing to the textbook. The audio recording can last for 30-45 mins.
* Transferring the lectures: The audio recording can then be transferred via WhatsApp or messenger to a staff in the local radio station. This should not require too much data.
* Broadcasting the lectures: The 45 minute lecture can then be directly broadcasted by giving prior information about the time and date of the lectures.
The above mode actually requires less resources and efforts than the actual class room teaching or the online teaching. We only need one teacher for a particular subject for a given class for the entire state. And the arrangements do not require physical movement of the teachers or the students and therefore is practical in the midst of strong lockdowns.
Of course, there are still lots of organizational issues that needs to be sorted out but I leave this to the local teachers and radio stations. Creativity and sensitivity towards the economically weaker student is the key to achieving maximum success. The focus has to be on the listener and understanding their lack of resources. The language constraint of the local students should also be kept in mind. In the long run, this is not meant to substitute the classroom teaching as it may not yield the same result. However, considering such unprecedented situations, it is definitely worth exploring such options that are not biased against poor students.