Central Square Foundation
Central Square Foundation

Education department has converted crisis into a learning: Uttar Pradesh’s Basic Education Minister

The EDge Editorial Team May 2020

The EDge editorial team spoke to Dr Satish Chandra Dwivedi, Minister of State (Independent Charge), Basic Education, Uttar Pradesh, to understand how the state government is responding to the learning crisis caused by COVID-19. In this detailed interview, the minister speaks about the state's education department’s experiment with large-scale use of educational technology (EdTech) for online learning; efforts to bridge the digital divide in education; engagement strategies for teachers and parents; and learnings for the department.

CSF: Education is one of the worst-affected areas by COVID-19 crisis. How is the government in Uttar Pradesh reaching out to children and ensuring that they continue to learn while being at home?

Dr Dwiwedi: Education was one of the first few areas to get adversely affected by COVID-19. Well before the lockdown i.e. March 13th, a high level committee of the Uttar Pradesh government discussed the issues related to health and education. In this meeting itself, we decided to shut-down the state's schools, colleges and universities keeping in mind the health and safety of children and their families.

However, we had two primary concerns - 1) students could lose their academic rhythm due to uncertainty over when or how long schools reopen; and 2) students at home may be under stress because of the ongoing crisis. We wanted to help them on both the fronts.

We already had online portals like DIKSHA, NISHTHA, and Manav Sampada to name a few for teachers. We were using them for data collection and leave management of teachers among other things. The department came up with a plan to request teachers who are well versed with these portals to start taking classes online.

90 per cent of government schools in Uttar Pradesh are in rural areas. Children in these schools come from humble backgrounds — their parents are either farmers or labourers. The challenge for us then was the penetration of smartphones and internet connectivity in transitioning to online education. However, we figured a way around it. There are 50-100 teachers in every block of Uttar Pradesh who are imparting online education. These teachers approached parents and collected their mobile numbers to create WhatsApp groups. They used platforms like DIKSHA, Google Bolo, Chimple, Maths Masti, Top Parent, and Tic-Tac-Learn for online teaching-learning. It is a huge feat and beyond imagination that online education has reached rural hinterlands of Uttar Pradesh due to the efforts of our teachers and education department.

CSF: In a state like Uttar Pradesh where the digital divide is so high, which is the most effective medium for children?

Dr Dwiwedi: When we started our efforts using WhatsApp, we were concerned about the internet connectivity and access to smartphones. So, we immediately started the use of Doordarshan and Akashvani (state’s public service broadcaster), which were already running educational programs, and this ensured that we were able to reach people.

Our department accepted this crisis as a challenge and converted this into an opportunity. This experience has given us several learnings. For example, the benefit of online platforms like WhatsApp and portals is that these platforms facilitate a two-way communication where parents and teachers communicate on a regular basis.

CSF: This was a big shift for the state, how did it happen? Did the state undertake training of teachers or engage with parents for transitioning to use technology?

Dr Dwiwedi: We had teachers who were already creating content for online platforms as a voluntary effort but nothing of the level and extent required to meet this situation. Familiarity of these teachers with existing online platforms and arrangements like smart classes in many schools helped other teachers as well to start the use of education technology.

We were also conducting NISHTHA training — the world's largest training programme for teachers before the pandemic hit us. This too was a helpful collective experience for us all to navigate the crisis using EdTech. That said, I give full credit to our teachers who made efforts at their own level without any formal training and exchanged ideas with each other to make it a success. The ongoing interaction of teachers with the work and tools of organizations like Central Square Foundation, Pratham, and ASER also helped us.

CSF: So, how is the state government planning to sustain this impressive change and take it forward?

Dr Dwiwedi: We believe that the crisis has resulted in an exemplary initiative by our teachers. Teachers have been introduced to online classes and those who were not able to use it, are now keen to learn and use it. We are determined to continue this without breaking the chain of learning.

Having said that, there is no substitute for a teacher nor any technology can replace a teacher, therefore, we are continuously recruiting teachers. Recently, the board has given clearance for recruitment of 69,000 teachers and we will continue to fill vacant teacher positions as we go along. The Basic Education Department is committed to provide quality education, therefore, it is imperative for every school to have teachers as per the benchmarks set under Right to Education Act.

Now, we want our teachers to go beyond blackboard teaching, so we are equipping them to run and manage smart classes through the ‘Kayakalp’ project of the state government. So far, 3.5 million students out of the state's 18 million students have used different online platforms. We are also issuing advisory to our teachers to continue some of these best practices beyond the COVID-19 situation so that the digital divide that exists today is bridged in the near future. Perhaps we could consider replacing school diaries with an online platform for teachers to share progress of the children. The interaction between students, teachers and parents through online platforms should continue beyond this impervious to any such future disruptions.

CSF: Do you think that there is a need to change or review policies related to use of EdTech in Uttar Pradesh?

Dr Dwiwedi: Once the situation is back to normal, we will review and understand the experiences of teachers, parents and our officials. Depending on the feedback, we would make necessary changes and decisions on what other services are to be provided with respect to promote effective use of EdTech in the state.

CSF: Are there any standards or guidelines for identification and procurement of EdTech products in the state? Do you also receive any support from the central government on this?

Dr Dwiwedi: We haven’t reached that kind of scale yet. Schools have a composite grant which they use for procuring necessary materials of their use. There was a perception that schools are in villages and there were apprehensions about the utility of such products, but the crisis has challenged this outlook. Now, the department will plan for these things on a big scale. We will try to make every school technically efficient; we are already working towards it but we will expedite this. We want all our 159,000 schools to be connected on a single network so that we can connect with them all through a single click. If we had this set-up during this crisis, we could have released the content centrally to all schools.

We would make serious efforts to make every school, teacher and parent in the state techno-savvy. Our parents would have never imagined that their children would receive and complete the homework on WhatsApp. They are quite excited about it, and I am hopeful that we would get their support in future as well.

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