Insights from Rural and Small town Uttarakhand
With nations across the world rushing to curb the spread of the Covid-19 virus, it is estimated that over 1 billion learners have been impacted due to country-wide closures of schools and universities.
Institutions world over have had to adapt to remote learning measures, reliant on online means to a large extent. Online learning has been recognized as having a number of advantages — a variety of available tools, increased student autonomy over their learning, as well as the ability to access content from home. These advantages however, are met by numerous challenges, including increased distractions faced by learners at home, absence of immediate feedback, impacts on physical and mental well being, and lack of infrastructure.
While rural India has seen a large upsurge in its number of users of the internet and services such as Whatsapp over recent years, factors such as lack of electricity to charge devices, poor network quality and affordability of internet data packs hinder the usage of online resources, calling for innovative and contextually appropriate solutions for delivering remote learning.
The Himalayas, being over 70% rural and having high levels of poverty, are no exception to these challenges. At the same time, online learning, if done right, could create opportunities for students residing in remote mountainous areas to access quality education from their hometowns and villages, instead of being compelled to migrate for education. Through telephonic interviews conducted during the nation-wide lockdown, we sought to gain further insight into the challenges and opportunities for delivering online learning to youth in Uttarakhand’s mountain districts.
Re-adapting learning for the Uttarakhand Himalayas
A qualitative study on youth aspirations, and months of planning and iterating had culminated in the design of ‘Margshala’, our youth aspirations and agency pilot program, which was set to be kicked off in Uttarakhand’s remote region of Pithoragarh towards the end of March 2020.
Much like the situation that practitioners across the world have found themselves in, the current crisis has pushed us at IABT to innovate and explore remote learning opportunities. The current barriers to mobility have led us to redesign what was initially a residential program, deeply rooted in experiential learning pedagogies, as a remote learning model combining online learning with phone-based mentorship.
To better understand the challenges and opportunities for online learning in the region and inform the design of our program, IABT conducted interviews with youth and educators from Uttarakhand. A total of 21 participants, including 17 youth between the ages of 18–25 years, and 4 educators from across the state were interviewed over the telephone.
A quick snapshot about the youth sample is presented below:
10 women and 7 men between the ages of 18–25 years from across 7 mountainous districts in Uttarakhand were interviewed. The majority of the youth belonged to rural areas (57.1%). 14 of the 17 youth are currently enrolled in education, including B.A., B.Sc degrees and ITI (Industrial Training Institutes) programs.
The educators interviewed are engaged in schools (primary and secondary) and coaching centers in Almora, Pithoragarh and Nainital districts. 3 work as teachers, and 1 is the Principal at a school in Pithoragarh. While only two of the four interviewed educators work with youth, the interviews provided valuable insight into the pedagogical and implementation challenges of delivering digital learning in the region.
Changes in learning
Learning has continued in some form during the lockdown for college-going youth, who had returned to their homes in towns and villages across the state. Whatsapp was seen to be used across the board — sometimes solely as a coordination tool to supplement online classes, but most of the time as the primary medium for teaching. Over Whatsapp, students receive learning materials in the form of PDFs/JPGs of notes, assignments and links to videos, either pre-existing videos on youtube or new videos recorded by the teacher. A few students reported that video calls through apps such as Zoom had been tried but soon abandoned because of reasons like poor student attendance, network issues faced by both students and teachers, and in one case, security concerns raised by students around the use of Zoom.
The platforms/media employed by teachers are not uniform across departments, and some students reported only receiving content for some of their subjects.
The influence of the lockdown on the medium of learning varied according to whether youth were enrolled in distance or contact programs. Youth who were already enrolled in distance learning programs did not see any significant changes in the medium of their learning. A student in his final year of BSc too reported that the lockdown had no impact on his classes since he was only required to work on and submit assignments during this stage of his program.
Youth who had been keen on enrolling in vocational programs such as sewing or computer classes however have had to put their learning on hold until centers re-open.
It was noted that the youth we spoke with were already connected with online platforms, for communication, entertainment and learning purposes. All reported using Whatsapp. In particular, a number of youth preparing for entrance exams were already engaging with online self-learning tools even prior to the lockdown.
Perceptions about online learning
A recent survey conducted by the Integrated Mountain Initiative (IMI) across the Indian Himalayan region indicates challenges in the efficacy of the pivot to online learning in Uttarakhand.
According to this survey, 34 of 44 youth (77.3%) enrolled in higher education in Uttarakhand reported having digital classes from their institutions. However, only 15 (34.1%) reported being ready for the exams based on the digital resources, followed by another 15 who were unsure, and 14 (31.8%) who said they were not ready.
Our interviews aided us in gaining some further insight into the perceived challenges on online learning in Uttarakhand:
- Barriers to inclusion
Problems of access and inadequate infrastructure were widely reported as challenges during this time, notably so for youth and teachers residing in rural and remote regions of the state. Poor network has been the predominant constraint, frequently preventing teachers from being able to send learning resources, as well as students from accessing them.
Students and teachers in remote areas are compelled to walk long distances across the hilly terrain in order to reach locations with better cell phone service. A 22 year old student from rural Dehradun recounted his experiences walking close to 2 kilometres to be able to attend his online class. The environment isn’t ideal for learning. “Sometimes, it rains, sometimes it is too hot there, once there was a snake,” he commented.
“There is not enough internet to download. If a video is sent on YouTube, it needs a better internet connection. This is the condition even living in proper. What is the condition in the villages?” — An 18 year old college student living in Champawat
Particularly for youth living with financial instability, unaffordability of a well functioning smartphone and internet data packs have been impediments in accessing the learning resources sent to them by their institute. Factors such as insufficient storage capacity of their device and functioning issues along with poor network connectivity result in their devices freezing frequently and preventing them from downloading any applications their peers may be using.
Data packs are perceived as being costly, especially given the data requirements for engaging with video content. For families without sufficient balance in the necessary bank account, recharging mobile data was even more challenging due to the inaccessibility of banks and mobile recharge stores during the lockdown.
“The curriculum is good, but the mountains have a huge network issue. “It is like having a good car but no petrol. How will it run?” [About delivering online content in the mountains]
2. Challenges while learning
For youth who were able to access the content, the most commonly felt tradeoff with regards to quality of learning was the absence of immediate feedback. In one student’s case, the settings of his class WhatsApp group prevented students from being able to post messages on it. While he recognized that this averted the possibility of unrelated conversation or unwanted messages, it left him and his classmates without any avenue to address their doubts.
While most other students were in a position to ask questions and clarify their doubts on WhatsApp, feelings of hesitancy about asking their questions, and needing to wait until the teacher was able to respond removed the possibility of the immediate feedback they were used to receiving in the classroom. Teachers too reported this as a large impediment to quality learning, leaving them unsure of how much their students have truly understood.
A humanities student studying in Almora expressed frustration at not being able to have the active discussion he believes essential to his field of study. While his teachers are sending him notes and YouTube links over whatsapp, he feels they are not comfortable enough with technology to explore more innovative and engaging ways of teaching.
“There might be a generational gap. Teachers don’t know how to really use WhatsApp, and are not thinking about what else they can do.” — An 18 year old studying in Almora
In addition to this, youth mentioned various technical difficulties in their learning. These are listed below:
- Videos, especially those that feature handwritten notes, require better quality internet to watch.
- Assignments are submitted as PDFs, but lots of students did not know how to save files in this format.
- Due to a lack of network connectivity and facilities to automatically save progress, students have reported issues such as completing assignments that then ‘disappear’.
- Zoom sessions time out at the 40 minute limit, after which it can be difficult to rejoin due to the network.
- Over Zoom sessions, a few students do not keep themselves on mute, and create a disruptive experience for anyone interested in studying.
- If the teacher sends notes as a series of photos over Whatsapp, students do not know what order to look at them in.
Both youth and educators reported that the autonomy provided by online learning can be challenging, as a number of students require the structure of a classroom.
“With online study, students have an attitude of “we will watch it later”, or they will lie down and watch the videos and end up falling asleep. This is not an impactful way of teaching,” an educator running an IAS coaching center in Haldwani, Nainital.
Additionally, with online learning, youth felt there is room for getting distracted by other content on their phone. “Online learning is fine for people who really want to study, but not so much for me”, said one student.
The difficulty concentrating on online content was further exacerbated by distractions from being at home during the lockdown. Youth, particularly girls, spoke about having to help out with a number of household chores during the day now that they were back home.
A student mentioned that teachers were unable to trust them to actually do their homework on their own, because of which assignments had to be handwritten to decrease any chance of plagiarism. Students were expected to photograph these assignments and send the images to their teachers instead of utilising digital means such as Word documents.
3. Feelings of anticipation
The ambiguity surrounding their exam dates was also viewed as a challenge by youth waiting to graduate, who felt they would just like to take the exam so that they can rid themselves of the anticipation.
The top advantages of online learning mentioned were that it can be done from home, and that it allows students to save on time required for travelling to and from their institute.
- Specifically related to the advantages of this format on the learning of the individual were: Reduced travel time means that youth can spend more time on their studies
- Students can eat and sit comfortably at home, allowing them to focus better
- The content is more engaging.
- A youth also pointed out that while there are students who do not come to class all year, now they at least have some engagement with the learning material since it is coming straight to their WhatsApp.
Solutions and Design Recommendations:
Solutions for the above mentioned challenges were sought from youth and educators. These are summarized below:
Key stakeholder recommendations from youth and educators
What can the Government do?
- Improve digital infrastructure, more cellphone towers
- Developing a low cost application which can serve as a learning hub — to host classes, interact with students and address questions
- Capacity building of educators to prepare engaging and quality online learning material
What can schools and educators do?:
- Due to the difficulties joining online classes, students recommended pre-recorded videos, notes, ebooks and mock tests as good alternatives or complements to online classes.
- In case WhatsApp group settings prevent students from posting on the group, teachers can lift this restriction at a predetermined time each week so that students can ask their questions
- Support students with navigating the interface, such as how to download apps and join video calls.
- An educator mentioned that schools were not well prepared for such a sudden pivot to online learning. For the future, schools should continue some level of engagement through online learning such as maintaining WhatsApp groups and sending content on them.
What can students do?
- A few students mentioned having created their own WhatsApp group to discuss any doubts they might have, in case the teacher is unavailable or they feel hesitant about asking the teacher.
Youth were asked to think about how they would design a remote learning program for Uttarakhand’s young people. Social media sites were recommended as ideal platforms for this by the youth. Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram and Youtube were commonly mentioned. Engaging with youth through pre-recorded videos and live sessions were most frequently mentioned. Other formats mentioned included blogs, phone calls, text messages and audio.
Youth spoke about the importance of making content available in multiple formats, so as to cater to the varied learning styles of students as well as reinforce learning.
“Different formats are required for different people. Some people prefer reading. Some people will get bored halfway through a video, so it depends on the person.” — A 20 year old woman from Tehri Garhwal’s Devprayag.
Making content available both online and offline so as to impactfully engage with individuals across the state was also felt to be essential.
Way forward: Approach to online learning in a Post-Covid world
Through these survey efforts, students and educators were asked about what learning should look like once schools and colleges reopen.
While some felt that learning should return to what it looked like before the lockdown, there is overall an openness to blended learning models. For most, this meant that while traditional classroom learning would ideally continue as the primary form of learning, online methods could also be used to reinforce learning, share notes, and encourage self study. A few students suggested shifting to a predominantly online form of learning, where students could visit their institute on just a few fixed days to get to know everyone and address their doubts.
Through our pilot program, Margshala, we are seeing first-hand the openness of Indian youth towards learning online. Our pilot is furnishing learnings on a continuous basis, providing insight into the ground realities of providing rural Himalayan youth with quality remote learning. We will be continuing to document these learnings through the course of the program, with a view to optimizing our own design as well as sharing our knowledge with practitioners and policymakers.