The impacts on education are among the most devastating, even though less visible, impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. 800 million children were affected by school closures around the world and millions are at risk of dropping out. How Kerala used technology to continue to engage all students in learning during this period was the subject of a recent international webinar organised by the Centre for Sustainable Development, Earth Institute, Columbia University, in which VMFT participated. In his talk, Prof. V.K. Damodaran, President of VMFT, explained Kerala’s early adoption of technology in education as one step in a sustained process of social reform that started with the Kerala Renaissance over a century ago, with all reformers, including Vakkom Moulavi, giving paramount importance to education as the instrument of liberation.
In contrast with many Indian states, where most children had no education at all for months, Kerala managed to ensure continuity for education during the six months after the pandemic began and even during the lockdown. Across the globe, apart from the more advanced countries, few developing countries managed to keep their education systems functioning. The webinar entitled “Reaching the hardest to reach with education technology during COVID-19” presented how Kerala was better equipped to deal with such an unprecedented situation. The meeting was chaired by Dr. Radhika Iyengar, Director of Education, Centre for Sustainable Development, Earth Institute. Dr. Sajitha Bashir (Adviser, Office of the Global Director for Education, World Bank) presented a global overview, while Prof. V.K. Damodaran (President, Vakkom Moulavi Foundation Trust),) and Mr. Anvar Sadath (CEO, Kerala Infrastructure and Technology for Education-KITE) presented the Kerala experience.
The Government of Kerala responded to the education crisis as part of the overall management of the pandemic. However, as highlighted by Mr. Sadath, the rapid shift to remote and on-line learning could not have taken place without the years of preparation to introduce Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in school education in Kerala.
Over the last two decades, high schools in Kerala were gradually equipped with equipment and infrastructure and the program was recently expanded to primary schools. Even before the pandemic, 74,000 teachers in Kerala had been given ICT training and almost all students in schools had learnt how to use a multimedia device like a laptop. In fact, teachers helped to develop digital learning resources which they used in class. Digital content was available for every subject and every grade in local language. Such a situation did not exist in other Indian states.
The government used the summer vacation period of April-May 2020 to prepare teachers for remote learning, including making videos of their classes. The VICTERs educational TV channel, YouTube and Facebook Live became integral parts of the strategy to ensure that all students could access lessons, with teachers expected to do follow up calls to students using SMS. The state was able to ensure that all students had access to a device (TV, phone) through partnership with NGOs and local authorities. The state government has said that the main purpose is to ensure education continuity and to keep children’s engagement with school and that these classes cannot be considered substitutes for face-to-face learning.
Kerala’s history of social reform, empowerment and rights protection played a very important role in facilitating societal support for ensuring children’s education, including those of the vulnerable, during the pandemic. Prof. V.K. Damodaran emphasized that education was central to the program of all social reformers, including Vakkom Moulavi, Ayyankali, Sree Narayana Guru and others, and became accepted by society as a universal right. Kerala’s practice of investing more in social development than any other state in India enabled it to be fully prepared for unforeseen shifts like this pandemic. “In the last six decades, Kerala has come to be known for its work in women empowerment, near 100 percent literacy and progressive use of technology in almost all fields. Today, those investments are bearing fruit and in education especially, we have seen how critical a role technology can play to ensure maximum access to all,” said Prof. Damodaran during his address.
Despite the immediate successes in ensuring continuity, the challenges of enabling children to learn must not be underestimated and there is a high risk of deepening education inequality, even in Kerala. Many children from poor backgrounds did not have access to learning support from their parents or teachers. Studies from some advanced countries, where children and teachers had access to web-based learning, for many hours during the day, show that learning losses were steep for poorer and disadvantaged children. These points were highlighted by Dr. Sajitha Bashir. She pointed out that two groups of children were especially at risk: children in early grades, who may not learn to read because of inadequate practice and support and who would therefore not be able to progress in their education and children at the adolescent stage, transitioning to secondary education. Education systems will have to offer additional help to remedy the loss in learning, provide additional emotional support to children who have suffered months of isolation or who many have suffered violence and abuse.
The speakers also addressed the importance of parental involvement in a child’s learning, the critical role of teachers and preserving the all-important human touch in teaching and training, ensuring emotional and mental health support for adolescents and taking steps against sexual violence and abuse of children. The meeting concluded that while Kerala has much to do in the coming period, its experience in integrating technology into education and using it during COVID times is an important lesson for all and must be highlighted for the world.