Beating Bharat's Edtech Blues
Forbes India|April 23, 2021
On the other side of the billion-dollar edtech boom are children who have been unable to access the most basic forms of online education, and people who have been trying to bridge the digital divide
DIVYA J SHEKHAR

Renuka is silent for a long time before cautiously saying that she wants to study to become a doctor. Standing outside her classroom at the Kannada-medium Ramagondanahalli (RG Halli) government school in Bengaluru, the 12-year-old is confident that no dream is big enough for her. Her sixth grader friends Rehana, Lasya and Anitha also have similar high aspirations.

Aspirations, which belie the difficult realities of their lives, and those of most of their peers at the school, where 70 percent students belong to migrant families. Their parents are daily-wage earners, construction workers, ragpickers or domestic helpers with an average monthly income of less than ₹15,000. Almost 60 percent of Renuka’s friends have either never been to school before, or had been out of school before rejoining.

When the pandemic hit a year ago in March, Rehana’s father, a construction worker, lost his livelihood and decided to migrate to his hometown in Gulbarga temporarily before returning to Bengaluru. By May, the school procured smartphones through a community donation drive. Teachers started sharing lessons through WhatsApp, conducting reading sessions and one-on-one training over phone calls. Parents were required to come in at least once a week to school to collect worksheets and library books.

But there were other challenges. Renuka, for instance, is the eldest of three siblings. Her mother, a domestic help, and her father, a helper to a truck driver, were at home through most of last year. This meant that when Renuka sat down to study, having five people in the same small room made it impossible for her to concentrate.

Their teacher Parvati, who has been with the RG Halli government school since 1995, tells Forbes India that she struggled to get students to study online. “I sent lessons over on WhatsApp, but so many parents did not even download the files,” she says, adding that some parents took their children out of school to make them work in menial jobs, and a few others continued only for the sake of mid-day meals. School for classes 6 and above restarted in January. “I am happy to come back to school because I just could not study at home, and could not meet my friends either,” says Renuka.

Such challenges exist even in a school like RG Halli where the government receives a good share of community support. The school was adopted by citizen’s volunteer group Whitefield Ready in 2008. In 2019, English-medium classrooms were launched—through a public-private partnership model involving the Karnataka government, non-profit Teach for India and Inventure Academy—for children of migrant workers from Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal who could not understand Kannada, says Sumedha Rao, a lead volunteer with Whitefield Ready.

When the lockdowns were announced, with support from the Rotary Bangalore IT Corridor and the local community, volunteers organised rations, medical support and even house rents to prevent parents from migrating away and pulling their kids out of the RG Halli school. They also reached out to startups and corporates to collect refurbished digital devices and internet support for children to continue studying with the least amount of disruptions.

Many other government or low-income private schools had to work with far fewer resources and support systems. GH Renukaraj, who teaches classes 8 to 10 in the Arsikere government school in the Pavagada taluk of Karnataka, tells Forbes India that over 90 percent of the 117 students in his school are children of landless farmers. Only half those kids have access to digital devices. “When school resumed, the learning gap was so huge that 80 percent of students had forgotten basic math like multiplication and division, science concepts and writing skills,” he says. “We had to teach them all that again, plus cover the entire year’s syllabus in a matter of five months. Teachers worked additional hours to ensure children do not miss out.”

In the Urmal village in Jharkhand, only 10 percent of the 250-odd children in the local school had access to smartphones for study materials sent over via WhatsApp. So teachers printed worksheets for all students and went door to door to deliver them. They would then collect them back and make assessments within a week. To ensure students didn’t drop out and more enrolled despite the pandemic, teachers went to each individual home to speak with parents.

“Most people in this village are illiterate farmers or landless labourers who are not very involved with their kids’ education. We have to incentivise them through mid-day meals, clean uniforms and free books to ensure they keep their children enrolled in school,” science teacher Subhash Chandra tells Forbes India. He adds that during the lockdown, the government had telecast classes and lessons on Doordarshan for students who did not have access to smartphones. “But sometimes there was no electricity supply, so how will they watch lessons on TV?”

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