The transition from teacher-class based teaching to digital education has not been smooth in Kashmir, nor is it helping students to learn, reports Khalid Bashir Gura
A class 11 student at a government school, Sahil Sofi, has Bluetooth earphones always plugged in his ears, a routine he has been following since last year when the Covid19 outbreak closed down schools and paralyzed life. He does not know what his new school’s uniform looks like. He also misses his frantic morning searches for school socks or misplaced tie or unpolished shoes.
Like him, many others also miss rushing and waiting for the school bus, meeting friends or greeting a teacher in person as educational institutions continue to remain closed.
“Even though enrolled at SP Higher Secondary School, I have not yet been to school physically,” Umar Abdullah Zargar, an Old City resident, also a class eleventh commerce student said. “I have not met my new school friends yet.”
With the second wave of Coronavirus retreating, the government has lifted lockdown across Jammu and Kashmir, and all the business activities have resumed except the educational institutions.
In 2020, when the pandemic gripped Kashmir, education had to be imparted online. But Sofi, like most of the students in Kashmir, faced many hurdles especially after the reading down of Article 370.
“Online is just a formality. We have hundreds of students in class and there are just a few who turn up,” Sofi said, adding that, rest like him skip classes.
Even though his exams are going on, he barely feels stressed as he has to write answers without invigilators. “Everything is possible at home and with Google,” he said.
However, considering this, the schools have started sending links that disallow the use of any other App or website while writing exams but students have managed to find solutions to bypass it as they have a second mobile phone at their disposal to access Google.
After the reading down of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, schools opened after six months on February 24, 2020, but only for two weeks. Again, schools had to be shut a week before the first coronavirus positive case emerged in Kashmir. The successive lockdowns especially the Covid19 outbreak resulted in a shift from traditional classrooms to digital platforms. However, Kashmir initially, faced hurdles as the high-speed internet continued to be banned and was restored only after 550 days.
Sobia Tariq, 17, a class 12 student studying science in one of the private schools, dreams to become a doctor. She has constant headaches due to online classes and is worried about her impending exams. She is unable to understand and focus on physics and chemistry and is worried if this will impact her performance in competitive exams like NEET. Her constant Google searches are: ‘how to concentrate and de-stress oneself’.
Distressed, she dropped out of her tuition this year and focused on her school online lectures. But even there she was disillusioned as teachers rarely could explain concepts clearly or answered questions online or through the phone.
“Last year I paid a hefty amount to a private tuition centre in Srinagar but they shifted online like many others and I could not understand some of my basic concepts because of the excruciatingly low-speed internet and lack of guidance and attention from teachers,” she said.
This year, however, she shifted to another tuition centre in Lal Chowk but they demanded fees in a single instalment. Apprehensive about another lockdown, she did not pay.
“I did not want to waste money on online classes like the previous year as my father is out of business. So I chose to drop out of private classes,” she said, adding that now she is confused due to overwhelming study material on the internet, lack of guidance and incomplete syllabus.
Similarly, another class 11th student Sahil Ahmed has paid a hefty amount to one of the private tuition centres at Nigeen. He skipped his private school classes but attended a private tuition centre.
“But I do not understand physics and chemistry. I complained but to no avail,” Ahmed said. “One is not able to understand or question through audio. The only board is visible and the teacher is missing.”
In order to compensate, he studies Physics on a YouTube Channel which has 5.2 million followers.
“Compared to teachers outside who teach on YouTube channels, the teachers in Kashmir are not equipped or trained to teach online. I can easily understand any concept of Physics on that famous channel,” he said.
Dozens of students of different classes from kindergarten to university told this reporter that online classes are boring, the students are not actively participating, have difficulties while learning and recalling, and are yearning to attend physical classes.
“We wake up late, attend classes or at times skip as we get homework on WhatsApp. We cannot understand subjects like mathematics through online classes but we compensate at private tuitions,” said a group of students of primary and high school.
However, most of them either have had to buy new smartphones to attend online classes or have availed their mother’s phones.
“At times our tuition classes clash with the school. But we prefer the former because the teacher is physically present and there is a focus, and discipline,” they said.
Abdullah said even though he attends classes regularly and actively, many teachers initially faced problems while delivering online classes as they were not tech-savvy.
“The outsiders would come to our group and politely request teachers to open mikes. When they were allowed to speak, to everybody’s astonishment they started abusing and catcalling teachers,” Abdullah revealed, adding that as a student he, in turn, felt embarrassed over this online abuse.
Most of the time, the family conversations, were heard as many students attended classes in kitchens or in other social gatherings. Recalling the horror he went through, Abdullah said that someone played mischief by creating an account in his name and teachers started presuming the fake account was mine. Later they were made to shift to a voice App to avoid nuisance.
Raqeeb Bhat, a resident of Pulwama, enrolled himself at Mass Communication and Journalism at Cluster University Srinagar months before August 5, 2019. Except for his first semester, his all exams and classes were mostly held online due to successive lockdowns. As the third wave of Coronavirus is predicted, Bhat believes he may eventually graduate online by the end of his sixth semester.
A few days back when Tahseen Qazi’s teachers asked him to switch on the camera of his phone to see if he was attending classes actively he ran behind a side screen at a cricket stadium where he was watching the league games. He was able to convince his teacher that he is at his home.
Qazi said since he passed out his tenth he has rarely been to school. Before abrogation of Article 370, Qazi had been to school, and in his eleventh and twelfth class, the lockdowns prevented him from doing so. Now after passing higher secondary, he is yet to acquaint himself with new teachers and batch mates at college despite the end of the first semester.
Similarly, many students from Kashmir who paid hefty amounts of money to get professional degrees like MBBS or BTech have been confined to four walls since the pandemic and are studying online.
Fowaad Fayaz, a resident of Anantnag, is in the fourth year of MBBS at a college in Bangladesh but he is studying from home. “There are no practicals, no ward classes,” he said. “It is just all theoretical.”
Danish Farooq is writing his Class eleventh exams. But when he opened the link of Multiple Choice Questions (MCQ) questions, his face changed colours. He soon opened a laptop to look for answers for his business studies but could rarely find direct answers on Google.
When asked if he read the book or attended lectures, he said, he cannot understand subjects like accountancy and business online.
When the time for submission of the paper came, he randomly answered all the questions irrespective of their accuracy.
Many teachers had to seek help from tech-savvy young at home to conduct classes. One of the teachers with 26 years of teaching experience struggled with digital tools to communicate with her students.
“I had no digital knowledge and sought the help of my son to install zoom and related educational apps,” she said.
The teacher said very few students are active in the class and the rest either do not respond to questions or have entered for attendance. Last year, she was satisfied as she completed the syllabus and delivered lectures effectively to students.
But when the schools reopened she was surprised. “I asked my student’s simple questions which I had taught online but they were blank,” she said.. “I have 89 students enrolled in a class and a maximum of 30 students attend the class,” she said adding when she enquired from absentees why they did not attend classes, they said, it was boring.
Dr Yasir Rather, Professor at the Department of Psychiatry in Government Medical College, Srinagar, said schooling is not essential only for academic growth but for emotional, physical and social development.
“It helps in the holistic development of a child,” he said, adding that he fears that if the current state of affairs continues, there are chances that we may see schizoid personality disorders in children.
He, however, added that while closing down of schools played a role in containing the contagion but continued closure of the educational institutions was detrimental to education.
“Schools should be opened while adhering to proper Covid19 appropriate behaviour,” he said. “Parents and students should prioritize mental health and engage in sports activities to overcome physical and mental health issues.”
Similarly, many students are complaining of headaches, neck issues and eye problems as they are exposed to screen for a longer duration.
Dr Aalia Rasool Sufi, Assistant Prof, Department of Ophthalmology at GMC, Srinagar, said that children are increasingly complaining of headaches, fatigue, red eyes, dry eyes, and computer vision syndrome.
“The tear distribution on the ocular surface gets disturbed due to increased use of a screen,” she said, “We now see cases of refractive errors in children.”
Besides ophthalmological manifestations, there are other problems like posturing, behavioural problems.
According to her children should not be exposed to more than a maximum of three hours of screen time. “The parents should make sure the children have proper lights and protection from screen light while attending classes and are in the right posture,” she said. “After twenty minutes students should give rest to their eyes.”
Sociologist, Professor, Dr S Khurshid- Ul-Islam said that socialization and development of the child or any personality does not happen in an exclusive situation.
“Our lifestyle has altered because of the pandemic and the social circle has got derailed,” he said as according to him. “In the absence of a disciplined life which was ensured by schools or colleges, the students now sleep late and wake up late. Earlier the students had a routine to follow.”