On March 24, as she heard the news of the world’s biggest lockdown being announced in India, Shreya Singhal, a primary school teacher in Gorakhpur in the state of Uttar Pradesh was deliberating immediate measures she will need to take to ensure that her students’ education does not suffer.
“It was clear that the classes will have to move online. Smartphones with an internet connection and video conferencing apps will be needed. Motivating introverted students online will be a challenge,” she says, recalling the thoughts running through her head at the time.
“But my training at the DIET had actually prepared me quite well for what is now quickly turning into a norm,” she says.
Shreya received her pre-service teacher training at the District Institute of Education and Training (DIET), the district-level teacher training institutes established across the country by the Government of India. As a young and motivated private school teacher who is well familiar with digital tools, Shreya has ensured that her students continue to learn under her guidance during the lockdown. This, however, is not a norm across the country.
According to the data released recently at the UNESCO Teachers of the World Unite virtual summit, nearly 2.7 million teachers in India who have been impacted by the COVID-19 lockdowns are untrained in remote teaching methods.
Blended Learning Model
Among the school-related factors, teachers play a critical role in building competencies of children and enhancing their learning levels. Hence, as classes increasingly move to the online environment, the urgency to train teachers in the effective use of ICT in teaching is becoming clearly evident.
“It is expected that when the schools reopen, they will have to operate with curtailed strength to ensure that proper physical distancing is maintained. This means education through digital means will have to fill the gaps due to staggered or reduced classroom hours,” says Dr. Rohen Meetei, Associate Professor at Government of Haryana’s Prarambh School for Teacher Education, Jhajjar.
“This blended learning model of education can be seen as the new normal in school education,” he says.
The lockdown experience has already set in motion educational reform frameworks that emphasise such blended learning models more than the hitherto conventional in-school education model. In the area of teacher training, the NISHTHA programme launched by the Department of School Education and Literacy and Ministry of Human Resource Development’s ‘experiential learning’ initiative recently launched on the DIKSHA portal, are welcome moves that aim to improve the quality of school education through integrated teacher training, incorporating abundant resources for conducting remote classes.
These frameworks and platforms, however, while significant policy-level initiatives, need to be complemented with hands-on technical guidance and pedagogical innovations to translate to any meaningful action on the ground.
Experiences from Government teacher training institutes during the lockdown can be a good indicator of what works and what does not in this regard.
The DIET Experience
“Initially, our approach was kept simple to ensure that students and faculty members adapt to the digital environment with relative ease,” says Prasoon Kumar Akela, senior faculty at DIET Noorsarai in Bihar.
To transition from the classroom environment to digital, the starting point was to use the technology and platform everyone is familiar with.
“Two separate study groups were made on WhatsApp for each batch of pre-service student-teachers. Digital study content in the form of scanned copies and videos was shared in these groups along with a list of related questions that the students had to answer,” he says.
“While the process did help students and the faculty orient towards the digital medium, in a few weeks there was a clear need felt for live and synchronous learning both by the faculty and the students. Hence, the classes were shifted to the Google Classroom and Google Meet platforms.”
While the use of ICT has been integral to government teacher training institutes for several years now, it has almost always been rudimentary.
“Previously, the use of ICT in training by the faculty members at the DIET was mainly limited to the use of a computer and a projector to make digital presentations. It was broadly accepted to be a non-critical skill as we could always fall back on the traditional methods of training,” says Prasoon.
“But today, that is just not an option.”
For the tech-friendly students, while the transition has been much smoother, the lockdown has revealed the limitations of their training and they will quickly need to adapt to the changing realities of education transaction. “Practical components of e-pedagogies and remote teaching need to be added to the DIET curriculum in order to make it more relevant to the new requirements,” says Sushmita Patrichi, a second-year student-teacher at DIET Ranchi.
“Disaster Management and internet safety are other elements that teachers will need to be proficient in as classes move the online mode,” she says.
Remote learning requires teachers to possess distinct skill sets that go beyond successfully navigating the digital environment. Use of digital systems to effectively conduct classes that result in enhanced learning levels among the students requires a dextrous mix of subject knowledge, relevant pedagogy, engaging content and digital know-how. Pedagogical innovations reflective of local realities play a pertinent role in this regard.
“Following the pattern of training received at the DIET, I have divided the entire curriculum of the grades I teach into 50:25:25 ratio of Self-study, Courses and Experiences or Activities, respectively,” says Shreya.
“While this teaching methodology is highly effective in encouraging my students to drive their own learning process, it also reduces the amount of digital study material I need to share with them online. This is particularly helpful for students living in areas with low internet connectivity or who lack access to requisite digital hardware,” she says.
Similarly, classroom management skills as part of teacher training need a relook under the new normal of school education. Peer learning is a proven method of effective, accelerated learning among students. A noteworthy experience from some of the DIETs has been that in the institutes where a batch of students has been sub-divided into smaller peer groups, the transition to online training during the lockdown for students has been seamless and more effective.
The path ahead
The core of teacher training in the new blended learning environment needs to transcend enhancement of ICT skills to include efficient use of e-pedagogies in order to engage students and actually help them drive their own learning process effectively.
Fundamental issues of access to digital infrastructure and internet connectivity, particularly in rural India, continue to beset most foreseeable gains from the policy-level changes being introduced by the Government. It is imperative that the digital divide is bridged concurrently – and urgently – with these changes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it amply clear that the future of education lies in technology-driven reforms at all levels. In case of school education, these reforms are centrally pegged to the crucial pivot of the teacher and optimum, and early investments in their training will decide the curve of learning levels among the children in the coming months. A curve we cannot afford to see flattening.