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Online learning is ineffective for all children: Azim Premji Foundation’s Anurag Behar

Anurag Behar, the CEO of Azim Premji Foundation, spoke to Moneycontrol on the learning loss during the pandemic.

September 02, 2021 / 11:59 AM IST
Roughly 80 percent of kids lost foundational abilities in Mathematics.

Roughly 80 percent of kids lost foundational abilities in Mathematics.

Even as there are concerns of a possible third wave of COVID-19 in India, schools in many states and Union Territories have started reopening on September 1.

Schools in India, which have over 260 million students have been shut since March 2020 after the outbreak of the pandemic. A study by Azim Premji Foundation released earlier in 2021, based on an assessment of a sample of 16,607 children showed that a majority of children have forgotten foundational abilities in mathematics and over 92 percent have forgotten foundational abilities in language, which they knew in March 2020.

Anurag Behar, the CEO of Azim Premji Foundation,  spoke to Moneycontrol on the learning loss in the last year, why online learning is fundamentally ineffective and a calibrated strategy to open up all schools.


In a column that you wrote for us a few months ago, you spoke about a significant loss of foundational abilities and learning due to schools being shut. This was in February 2021. Have you had a chance to see what the impact is now? And what should the approach be?


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Yes, indeed, we conducted a study in January, the results were out in February. And the results were not surprising at all. Because if you look at February, or January, at that point in time, schools have been shut for eight, nine months. Schools have been shut now for 16-17 months.

There have been good-intentioned efforts with online learning. Online Learning is ineffective because of two reasons. One, most children don't have access to online learning. And second, the inherent nature of learning of children is such that online learning doesn't work, it's ineffective.

The second kind of good-intentioned effort has been what is called mohalla classes, which is teachers going into neighborhoods, into villages and conducting classes, right, again, good-intentioned efforts. But, Mohalla classes, which you can conduct a couple of hours a day, cannot substitute for eight hours of school six days a week. So all these efforts have led to basically little or no education for the vast majority of our 240 million children since March 2020. So this is one kind of lost learning, the learning that should have happened from March 2020 to now.

The second one and any one of us can relate to this. If you have not done something for 17 months. Kids who have not come to school for 17 months have forgotten much of what they knew in March 2020. So that's the second kind of learning loss.

Kids have lost foundational abilities. For example, if you show a child a picture, can she narrate the picture in her own words? Or if you talk of arithmetic, can a child recognise two numbers, or can she add three numbers? Those are called foundational abilities. The study suggested that 90 percent of kids had lost foundational abilities in the language.

Roughly 80 percent of kids lost foundational abilities in Mathematics. Good intentioned efforts have happened to engage them in education, but they're not effective. So children have lost learning for 17 months, and then forgotten much of what they knew. That's the emergency we face.

There are estimates that out of 240 million children who go to school in India, 210 children haven't had a chance to learn anything at all. But even now, there are concerns about new variants, and how even vaccinated adults can get infected. And there is no vaccine yet that is being administered for children. So in such a scenario, how can we really get children back to school? Do we need a more calibrated approach? Does it need to be locality by locality?

Let's separate two distinct things. One is what we do till we open schools and then how we open schools.

Till we open schools, let's be clear online education is not effective. If there is anything which is effective, it's mohalla classes. So to the extent that we are not opening schools, we should try and conduct as many mohalla classes as possible.

Can we open up schools, because there is no other solution to this lost education? You cannot use online education, you can't use TV, you can't use radio, you can't use any of this stuff is ineffective. We don't need to reinvent this.

For the children of the world, the pandemic has been a giant educational experiment, we switched billions of children overnight to this other kind of learning. And then you realise it doesn't happen. So opening schools as immediately as possible is really the only solution.

It's quite possible to open schools safely if certain kinds of protocols and methods are followed. Get all teachers and all other staff that work at schools are vaccinated. And that's not hard to do. We have, let's say, roughly 9 million teachers across the country, so we can get all of them vaccinated.

Let's not wait for children to get vaccinated. We will open schools even when children are not vaccinated. And we must have a rigorous plan for vaccination of children when the vaccines for children are approved.

Point three is the one where perhaps it needs a little bit of conceptual attention. Most of our schools, the schools that serve those 210 million children that you talked about right? Most of those serve very local communities. So you have a school where all children who come to that school are mostly coming from that village, or from that small Mohalla in that small town right. If you take the school where children are coming from the same neighborhood from the same village, that children are anyway intermingling outside in the village.

So by opening a school, which serves a localised community, like a village or a mohalla, you're not increasing the risk of the spread of the infection, even a bit. So just remember where I started, so long as you have teachers and staff vaccinated, and you have a plan for student vaccination. And when you open schools, which are serving localised communities, you're actually not increasing the spread of the infection, even if it's a variant.

And I don't want to even emphasise the fact that children are less susceptible to the infection. And even if they catch the infection, it's a very rare occurrence that they get any kind of serious disease. So let's leave that aside for now.

Now there are a lot of schools that serve larger communities. For example, you have a school in Koramangala, Bengaluru. It's not a small community. So what you would do is, you'd be more cautious. And you should open a school in Koramangala. assuming it's serving, let's say 20 different neighborhoods. You will open the school if there is a very high vaccination rate in those communities, right?

The fourth matter of this protocol, after you open schools, you must follow Covid appropriate behavior, which is masking and physical distance, have classes in the open as much as possible.

The fifth point is to be able to do what I am saying, you have to have a very localised approach. It is the panchayat or the wards that should take decisions about opening up schools, not even blocks or even districts.

And therefore what the school systems need to do, which is at the state level, they need to be able to handle this, if we may call this an asynchronous calendar. Because, you know, you can imagine some schools might open this month, some might open 15-20 days later.

What happens after we reopen schools? You have 20-30 million children, they've at least learned something online. One can argue about the outcomes, whether it's been as effective as physical schooling. But that's not going to be the case for 210 or 200 million children who haven't had that opportunity. So in this way, we deal with children when we deal with classes and learning. What kind of challenge is that going to pose once we reopen schools?

There are states that have started opening primary schools. And that's the right first step. You must start with rural primary schools, rather than higher classes. Primary schools serve local communities, Higher schools serve larger communities. So you have much less risk in primary schools.

What you mentioned is so central to our understanding of education that I wanted to emphasise that 20-30 million who had some semblance of education in the past 17-18 months, they've had that semblance of education, not because they had online learning.

Online learning is ineffective for all children, whether you come from socio-economically privileged backgrounds, or don't. The reason they have had a semblance of learning is what you pointed out, that kind of support they had at home, they have parents who themselves are literate, they are well educated, they have resources, they have books, many could have had personal tutors.

I do not exaggerate a bit when I think when I say that this is by far the greatest emergency that's going to face any education system ever. You are going to have 210 million children returning to schools, who have not had education for 17 months, who have forgotten much of what they knew in March 2020. You, in fact, do not know how many of those kids are going to drop out.

Now, what do you do in this circumstance? The one thing you don't do is you don't behave as though the past 17 months did not happen.

I enter Class 6 in September, and those children have not gone to Class 5 at all. They were in Class 4 when schools shut. I enter class 6 and start the syllabus a Class 6 What will happen? And I fear that we are not giving adequate thought to this matter.

If this were to happen, it's playing with the future of 210 million children of the entire country. So we actually have to recognise the dramatic learning loss our children have had. And then we have to have a rigorous plan to recover that loss of learning over the past 17 months.

I see that some states are giving a thought to it. But to the extent and the states that are not thinking of this, or are not going to do it, even if they think of it. This will be the biggest blunder in the history of Indian education, I would say in decades.

Should schools also think of perhaps rejigging the curriculum, making it a little simpler and easier to access? What are your thoughts there? The government came out with a NEP(new education policy) last year. Is it time to perhaps speed up the implementation? What else can we do to kind of lessen the load on children?

It's an excellent and appropriate and much-needed step two, let's talk about step one. What the teacher should be able to do is to be able to assess where those 25-30 children are, where they are in their learning. One has to be able to assess each child for where she is or where he is. And then one has to teach accordingly.

Now, this is not something new. If you're a teacher, in the normal course of things, you have children at different levels of learning and understanding. Therefore, what you need to do is just implement that same approach.

The one thing that this requires is for the education system to be able to give the teacher time to do this.

The second thing is you have to reconfigure the syllabus for all classes, such that they become content light. So we continue to give the greatest of attention to the fundamental capacities such as critical thinking, conceptual understanding, creative capacities, social capacities, and, and so on.

One of the fundamental principles of the new national curriculum framework is lightening the content. So more time can be given to these fundamental capacities. So from whatever I hear, the Government of India has initiated the process of the development of the national curriculum framework. So it's a wonderful opportunity to be able to dovetail that national curricular framework into this emergency situation and help India deal with it.

How will teachers go about doing this? The student-teacher ratio is among the highest in the world and there is a constant rush to complete portions. But academic loss aside, it's an unusual time for both parents and children- both of them have spent more time in each other's company than before. What kind of impact has this had in terms of the social side for children or do you believe they will bounce back quickly as children tend to be fairly resilient?

Let me get to the first part of your question- what I talked about cannot be done by individual teachers or schools. It has to be a decision and a mandate across the entire education system.

To go back to the second part of your question, right. You see, in a country the size of India with the kind of diversity India has, any comment or any situation is true. There are children, as you mentioned, who have been cooped up in a high-rise apartment for 17 months with very little opportunity to see their friends, very little opportunity to go down and play. And very clearly, that's been an extremely problematic situation for the children and for the parents.

And what are the effects of such a 17 month period? I think we will discover, right, yeah. We are apprehensive, there are some early studies, which suggests that there have been various kinds of socio-economic effects of such a restrictive environment and such a restrictive social stimulus, which children have faced. So that's there. And therefore, when schools do open up, we do need to take special care from a mental health perspective.

But let me take you to the other 200 million children we're talking about. Many of them are very happy. Ever since the pandemic began, I just keep traveling. Fortunately, my job is of that nature. They actually go to the school and play on the school grounds.

But then there's another very large minority who have been forced back into work, right? The economic devastation that their parents have faced, young kids, have been forced into work.

As much as we must prepare for when the schools open, what do we do, we have to try and make every effort possible to bring all kids back to school. Otherwise, decades of hard-won gains of getting kids into schools, and that's to the great credit of our country, that enrollments have risen over the past 15-20 years, decades of these hard-won gains would be lost.

But certainly, a risk of lakhs of children dropping out of school, because of the economic pressures that families are facing.

Fortunately, for many of them, from a perspective of social interaction, these are not deleterious or bad effects, because they've just been happily playing with their friends and their family. But on the other hand, there are very serious effects, perhaps lakhs of kids being forced into work. So, we have to look at the diversity and think of the diversity and approach it in that manner.
Chandra R Srikanth is Editor- Tech, Startups, and New Economy
first published: Sep 2, 2021 10:32 am
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