School children in Odisha on water tank.
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In the village of Landimala, under the Ghosharamala GP of the Maaktist-affected Naktideula block in the Sambalpur district, Laxmidhar Roul, a 10th grade student from the nearby high school, climbs on a 150-foot water tank under construction every morning so that he can access the online Can access classes of his school. Like him, Ramachal Swain, a 9-year-old student from another high school, climbs onto the water tank as he squeezes for space.

“The BSNL tower in our village is useless for taking part in the online class. When I climb on the water tank, I manage to get a weak network of the Airtel 4G tower 12 km from our village. Sometimes I climb the Mahul tree to catch the Airtel network from the tree, ”said Roul.

Hundreds of kilometers away in the Koraput district, children in the Pottangi Block climb trees every day to receive a mobile signal.

At the block’s Maliput Rajiv Gandhi High School, children routinely climb trees and hills to receive a mobile signal so they can participate in government-launched WhatsApp classes. In the Daringibadi block in the Kandhamal district, which is affected by Maoists, children most often come out of their homes to access online education because mobile connectivity is irregular most of the time.

Months after the Odisha government launched online courses for around 70 lakh students due to Covid-induced barriers and shutdowns across the state, students in districts like Sambalpur, Koraput, and Kandhamal are trying everything to reach this elusive mobile network. “In the village of Landimala, the BSNL tower cannot support more than 30 mobile phones at the same time. To get a 4G signal from Airtel, children climb both the water tank and trees, ”said Mahesh Swain, a villager from Landimala.

While students in some districts like Khurda, Cuttack, Balasore, and Bhadrak somehow managed to take the online courses, those in other districts found it a big task. “Our school has 100 students and only 41 have phones and some of them are Android. Even teaching people with Android phones is not easy due to the lack of cellular signals, ”said Akshay Kumar Nayak, headmaster of Maliput Rajiv Gandhi High School in Koraput’s Pottangi block. Of the 14 high schools in the block, the schools in Ambabali, Kusuma, Digaguru, Nuagaon, Pukali and Chandka have no mobile network.

The national sample survey on “Social Consumption of Households: Education”, carried out between July 2017 and June 2018, showed that 24% of Indian households in the education sector had an Internet facility, while only 10% had access to the Internet in Odisha. It was worse for rural households in Odisha – only 5 percent had access to the Internet.

Anil Pradhan, an education rights activist, said online education in a state like Odisha is a luxury for most students. “No more than 20 percent of the students have access to smartphones. Even if they had a smartphone, it would have been with the parents. Then there are problems with mobile connectivity and frequent power cuts. The government should have waited some time before leaving to start online education, ”said Pradhan.

Bhupendra Singh Poonia, Senior IAS Officer and Project Leader of the Odisha School Education Program Authority, admits that it was not possible to reach all students using smartphones. “We can reach about 30 percent of the students. But nobody who couldn’t log into the online courses should feel excluded. We are trying to attract NGOs to reach all students, ”said Poonia.

In the Jagdalpur district in Chhattisgarh, loudspeakers are used for teaching in the villagers, since most of the students do not have a smartphone. District administration official Niklesh Hari, who looks after the schools, said it started with three panchayats, and 53 other panchayats started the program themselves when people asked.

“We teach English through semi-tribal language, television broadcasts, nutrition awareness messages and direct instruction from teachers. There are approximately 50-150 children per panchayat and more than 100 teachers are involved at the field level. We have a team of 10 teachers who develop content for the English Halbi program, ”said Hari. “Bastar tribal children are at a disadvantage compared to the rest of India. We started this program to ensure all possible means of learning, ”he added.

In Jharkhand, headmaster Shyam Kishore Singh Gandhi from the Dumka district set up several loudspeakers in the village of Bankathi to teach over 200 students who do not have a smartphone. Students sit near the speakers, which have been placed on trees and walls in different locations, and attend classes.

“Loud speakers are set up where more students are present. According to Gandhi, five teachers and two para-teachers teach from the classroom using the microphone. Thousands of schools and colleges across India have switched to online as classrooms have been closed since mid-March during the Corona virus outbreak. There are 246 students from grade 1 to grade 8, and 204 of them don’t have a cell phone, ”said Gandhi. “If the students have any doubts or want to ask questions, they can send me their questions from any cell phone and we’ll explain it the next day,” he added.

Gandhi said that the model works and that students understand well what is being taught. Students are receptive and enjoy the new learning style, said an elderly villager. The headmaster, Dumoon’s district education officer, Poonam Kumari, said that all 2,317 state schools should emulate the model here so that students do not have difficulty completing the curriculum once the lock is released.

(With Ranchi PTI inputs)

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