Great digital divide: Here's how online education poses massive challenges in rural Odisha

Online education has played out on a different terrain altogether in tribal districts of Odisha. Poor tele-density and internet infrastructure are major challenges but there is more.
For representational purposes (Tapas Ranjan, Express Illustrations)
For representational purposes (Tapas Ranjan, Express Illustrations)

Rain or sunshine doesn’t make any difference to Jugal Kishor Patra of the ST & SC Development, Minorities and Backward Classes Welfare department-managed Government High School at Satiguda these days. Every day at scheduled time, he climbs to the roof and stands at a vantage point, where his phone detects the network, to conduct online classes as well as his office work.

The school’s teachers are also seen scrambling to get atop the roof or boundary walls nearby to get hold of that elusive mobile connectivity. The students too do the same in search of network. Satiguda, interestingly, is just five kms away from Malkangiri district headquarters town and the school has over 500 students from Class VI to Class X.

The 44-year-old headmaster says, “There is no other option. We get connectivity at a particular point on the roof and I make sure to stand there to complete the online works like students’ form fill-ups, data entry, performance managing system and bills.” With much difficulty, the school teachers conduct online classes after finding an accessible spot in the school periphery, Patra said adding, it has become a routine affair for him and teachers to search the accessible spots every day.

District welfare officer (DWO) Pradeep Kumar Panda admits the acute problems faced by the teachers and students in conducting online classes. “Only 10 per cent (pc) of the students in the district can successfully access the online classes held under the e-Suvidya Mission due to lack of mobile network and more, importantly, smartphones. Children belonging to the poor tribal families are the worst victims as they cannot afford costly handsets with WhatsApp and video-calling facilities”, he says.
The situation in Swabhiman Anchal is dismal with as many as 4,000 students in the Naxal affected region not having access to education since the last four months. There are 76 BSNL towers including 28 set up under LWE scheme, 110 Jio towers and 76 Airtel towers across the district, but network is erratic and impacts online education.

In neighbouring Koraput, only 27 pc of the students are estimated to be accessing online classes. There are 242 high schools with about 29,000 students in the district. But mobile network and lack of capable phones have struck a guillotine on the continuing education. Every day teachers hold online classes for two hours but according to the district officials’ own admission, it is not making any substantial impact as majority of students are left out.

The different phases of lockdown and shutdown, which began on March 22, led to complete disruption of education for tribal children residing in the remotest pockets of Odisha. Many haven’t even seen the printed word in the last four months. When the Government decided to shift the education to virtual platforms, these children found themselves at a disadvantage. Most neither have access to smart phones, any other electronic devices nor internet connectivity.

Alternative to Classroom Learning

In April, the School and Mass Education department launched online classes for Class X students through Diksha application in April and provided learning materials as well as worksheets to primary, upper primary students and elementary level students through WhatsApp.

A month later, the ST & SC Development, Minorities and Backward Classes Welfare department came up with Alternative Learning and Mentorship Programme (ALMP) to maintain continuity of education in schools run by it through mobile apps, WhatsApp groups and mentor teachers.

Odisha, apparently, is the first State to create a separate online education mode for tribal children under which study materials, lectures and video lessons developed by teachers are being sent through WhatsApp groups and uploaded on the department’s Youtube channel e-Suvidya. At places where students do not have smartphones or internet access, mentor teachers were engaged to provide academic clarity to students and impart life skills training at their doorsteps.

With an honorarium of `200 per day, they have to visit at least five villages in their respective areas every week and teach students in small groups at open spaces with proper social distancing. However, according to reports, the online component of ALMP is accessed by barely about 51,000 tribal students having smartphones and internet connection. Similarly, the SME department acknowledges that online education reaches 22 lakh out of the total 60 lakh students under it including those from tribal districts.

The Digital Difference

There is a great divide between what the departments claim and the online education at the grassroots, says eminent educationist and researcher in ‘multilingual education for indigenous minorities’ Prof Ajit Mohanty. His claim is well founded.

The existing mobile and internet infrastructure in Odisha betrays students’ access to e-classes through education apps and study materials via WhatsApp.

According to information furnished before the Lok Sabha in February, under the BharatNet Project, optical fibre cable was laid in 4,395 out of a total of 6,798 gram panchayats (GP)of the State. In 3,892 GPs, the internet connectivity is ready.

Last year in July, replying to a question from Odisha MP Pinaki Mishra, the Union Electronics and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prashad had informed the Lower House of the Parliament that out of 47,677 inhabited villages, at least 37,737 were connected with mobile services while the rest 9,940 are uncovered. Most of the uncovered areas come in tribal districts most of which are also LWE-impacted.

Tele-density in rural Odisha is 42.7 pc whereas in urban areas it was 171 pc. According to the Indian Telecom Services Performance Indicators reports by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, Odisha’s rural wireless tele-density stood at 59.5 pc against 145.3 pc in urban areas as on September 30, 2019.

The State has 32.8 million wireless internet subscribers of whom 21 million are in rural areas. As far as internet through wireline is concerned, of the 0.23 million subscribers, only 0.05 million are from rural areas. Rural Odisha’s wireline density is just 0.13 pc.

Similarly, the share of internet subscribers per 100 individuals is just 29.5 pc in rural areas which is substantially below the national average. That’s why the networks are poor and online education is hurt in tribal and remote areas.

Take for example Kalahandi. The district has 19 high schools and 24 Ashram schools under SC and ST department with a student strength of 13,889 for 2020-21. Yet, according to the DWO, only 2,946 students are covered.

Most of the villages under Thuamul Rampur, Lanjigarh blocks and hilly areas under M. Rampur and Bhawanipatna blocks are deprived of mobile network. Even wherever there is a network, many children don’t have handsets.

The story in Mayurbhanj is same. According to DWO Chittaranjan Mohapatra, there are around 95,000 students in 155 SC and ST department run schools along with Adarsha Vidyalayas and general Government schools.

However, due to poor mobile network and internet connectivity along with not having smartphones, more than 30 pc children were deprived. The backward and remote districts are not the only sufferers, the coastal and most developed ones too are in the same seat. In Cuttack, online education is being imparted to students from Class II to Class X in around 2,053 schools across the district.

However, 60 pc students have no smart phones. Similarly, families of 30 pc poor students do not have television sets at their homes depriving them of availing the online education.

In Rourkela, no more than 30 pc of students attend the online classes. President of Odisha Secondary School Teachers’ Association Rashmit Sahani, who also is the headmaster of Shaktinagar Government high school at Rourkela, said of 68 students in Class-IX and X hardly 30 pc have smart phones with their families. In Sambalpur district, the online education system has gone for a toss with around 70 pc of students left out of the loop. There are 55 schools run by the SC and ST development department with around 8,000 students but most of them are unable to attend online classes due to network issues and lack of smartphones.

SME Minister Samir Ranjan Dash expresses helplessness and says the Centre is to be blamed for lack of mobile and internet connectivity in the State.

“Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has written to the Centre several times to facilitate setting up of more towers in Odisha. But there has been no response. How can we bridge the digital divide if there are no mobile towers for better connectivity?” he said.

In Rayagada’s Badmaraibhatta village under Kashipur block, home to Jhodia tribals, there are at least 10 children who study in the local ashram school. Parents of only two children have smartphones here.

These children venture into the forest every morning to get proper signal from the BSNL network so that they can download lessons or submit their assignments online through WhatsApp.

“Before our parents go to the crop lands in the morning, we climb up mango trees on the outskirts of our village with their mobiles to get signal. Not just ours, we download lessons for students of other sections in our village as well,” said Gopal Jhodia, who studies in Class VIII.

Congress MP Saptagiri Ulaka says the access to online education in Koraput and Rayagada districts is only 25 pc and 16 pc respectively. Of 120 GPs in both the districts, 51 panchayats in Koraput and 69 in Rayagada do not have internet access.

“Although WhatsApp groups are flooded with PDFs of chapters and worksheets, students cannot even download a single file for hours since they are dependent on 2G connections”, Ulaka said.

Doordarshan is also broadcasting virtual classes for students of all grades through its regional channel but accessing them is a problem for tribal students because power cuts and low voltage are a constant in their villages/hamlets.

Challenges for Mentor Teachers

Well-intentioned it is but ALMP is replete with constraints and the teachers have their own struggles. Be it infrastructure, availability of resources, topography, weather or even Covid. While mentor teachers are engaging children at blocks and semi-urban areas, they are unable to reach out to those in interior pockets of districts. Around 4,644 mentor teachers under ALMP were tagged to 18,781 tribal villages under the mentorship programme. But they are not equipped with teaching learning materials including blackboards. All they can do is provide handholding to students through worksheets or preloaded course content on their mobile phones.

Pravakar Pradhan, a mentor teacher of Talapada Sevashram in Phiringia block of Kandhamal district, visits 40 children in Darisunga, Ushagadu, Alabiru, Alimunda and Talagrudi villages located within 20 km radius of Talapada Sevashram every week.

However, when it rains, he fails to reach Alimunda which is cut off from Talapada due to a swollen nullah.

Besides, not all villages have the space to bring children together while maintaining a physical distancing. “Children are interested to learn but how can we replicate classroom learning without blackboards or books? A teacher of a particular grade who is adept in one or two subjects cannot address all their queries within one or two hours,” he said.

Balaram Panda of Rudangia Ashram school of Tikabali block of the district said villagers are averse to the idea of allowing their children to study in the open due to the coronavirus fear. Any outsider to the villages is unwelcome in wake of the Covid-19 situation, he explains. Then there are Maoist-affected areas where teachers fear to travel. In blocks like Thuamul Rampur under Kalahandi, villages are located in forested areas and do not have roads which is why, teachers are unwilling to come.

In the Ganjam, worst hit by Covid-19, the problem is of different kind, though the common issues of poor network and lack of access to smartphones remain.

Here, teachers, who have been given charge of managing the temporary medical centres (TMCs) and engaged in other Covid mitigation activities are finding it difficult to give time to online education. Bimal Padhy, a teacher in Khalikote, said, most of the teachers are engaged in Covid management in the hotspot Ganjam.

“We are unable to concentrate on online teaching due to our preoccupation with Covid management responsibilities, which is 24x7 job. Further, we have so many authorities ordering us and assigning duties to us. Even the representative of sarpanch  engages us in work at his will and pleasure. All these have hampered the online education,” he said.

Getting Children Back to Schools

Every morning, 12-year-old Sombari Kirsani sets out with her parents to Dangar (Bonda hill) on the outskirts of Bondapada village under Mudulipada panchayat, carrying a head load of fertilisers and some agricultural tools.

Till noon, she will help them in tending ragi and Pigeon pea crops that the family has raised on slopes of the Bonda hill in Malkangiri district.

Across 32 villages in both Mudulipada and Andhrahal panchayats under Khairput block of Malkangiri, there are 846 children from the Bonda community, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG).

With schools closed since March, these children are yet to realise how education has changed outside their world due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Odisha Government’s ambitious digital learning programme has not reached this remote land where literacy rate is only 14 pc. “These Bonda children cannot avail online learning but the State Government has not even thought about providing them remedial coaching to bridge the learning gap brought in by this pandemic”, said former MLA Dambaru Sisa, who belongs to the Bonda tribe.

Under the current scenario, educationists feel the long lockdown break from education will affect the learning and competence of children when they go back to school. Many of these children are first-generation learners who lack resources to learn at home. Neither are their parents educated nor is there any peer pressure to study.

It’s a damage that cannot be reversed, says Prof Mohanty. “Mainstreaming tribal children in a formal system of education is not an easy task. With closure of schools, the routine of classroom teaching, curriculum learning has been broken. This will have a long term impact on students and the dropout rate may rise”, he said.

Member secretary of Sikshasandhan Anil Pradhan, who works for educating tribal children in Mayurbhanj and Rayagada districts, said a long break from education will increase the risk of disremembering exponentially in tribal students. He suggested that schools should be opened in a staggered manner.

“Government should think of gradually opening schools in tribal-dominated areas where Covid cases are nil or low. Because, education is as important as economy. Online education cannot match classroom teaching, particularly in case of tribal students”, Prof Mohanty points out.

Government’s Plan of Action

Secretary of ST & SC Development, Minorities and Backward Classes Welfare department Ranjana Chopra admits there are constraints but says the department is working towards making the programme robust in the coming months if schools do not reopen in wake of the pandemic.

The alternative learning method including sending study materials through WhatsApp and mentor teacher outreach has reached 3.5 lakh of the total 6 lakh tribal students in the State, she informed. “Mentor teachers are making sure that students stay connected to their syllabus.

"We have also tied up with UNFPA and UNICEF to train teachers in imparting life skills education to these students. Besides, online worksheets and learning materials prepared by Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Research and Training Institute (SCSTRI) are being provided to Class XII students” she added.

Stating that the lockdown will not really affect education of tribal children, Chopra said engagement of children through alternative learning is also to make sure that they do not lose focus from books. From Monday, the department will introduce ‘Phone-a-Student’ component under which matron of an ashram school hostel will call up at least 10-20 inmates of the hostel who have returned to their villages, to inquire about their health and education.

“We have set up a questionnaire which the matron will ask the students every day, counsel them and ask them to return to school once it opens”, Chopra informed.

No Mother Tongue Learning

The pandemic has also meant a complete disruption of mother tongue based learning for the tribal children. Education norms mandate that tribal children be educated in their mother tongue till Class V and during these five academic years, Odia and English would be subsequently added as second subjects. Odisha Government had introduced multilingual education (MLE) in 19 tribal languages for school students.

However, the Government did not think of MLE classes for primary students while framing modules for online learning. As a result, no tribal student of primary grades is currently receiving learning materials in their mother tongue. Founder of Humara Bachpan Trust, Dharitri Patnaik says MLE is the most crucial requirement for educating tribal children many of whom are first-time learners and unaware of any language other than their mother tongue. The high dropout rate among tribal children is also because of lack of MLE apart from poor socio-economic conditions. 

“Imagine a primary school student from Dongria community handed over a book or is spoken to in Odia language, what will she/he understand? For them it is a dual dilemma as they are put into an alien system of learning like virtual classes or mentor teachers, something that they have never experienced before. This is not going to help them”, she said.

(With inputs from Deba Prasad Dash, Akshaya Mishra, Uma Shankar Kar, Sisir Panigrahy, Arabinda Panda, Prasanjit Sarkar, Mayank Bhusan Pani and Sukanta Sahu)

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