Delhi’s Government Schools Have a Jugaad System For Lockdown. Classes are Now Held Over WhatsApp

Social Commentary

Delhi’s Government Schools Have a Jugaad System For Lockdown. Classes are Now Held Over WhatsApp

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

When the Covid-19 virus first hit India, experts started expressing their many worries about what it would mean for a country as dense and as complicated as ours to deal with a pandemic of such ginormous proportions. Public health was a natural first concern – the second, perhaps, was education. As if it isn’t difficult enough for the world’s second most populous country to also be home to the world’s largest population of illiterate adults, the little that we do for our children through classroom education came to a standstill with the eruption of the current pandemic.

While children from privileged homes were immediately anointed with the blessings of modern technology by their concerned parents, and technology-driven online education companies went ballistic with their offerings and discounts, there were those little kids, living in houses smaller than most of our kitchens, who were seen peeking out of their windows solemnly all day, wondering when they might get to play in the school lawns again. The statistics did not favour them.

Does Covid-19 mark an end to their education for the foreseeable future, then? When only 8% of Indian households with young children can boast of a computer and an internet connection, is online education even an alternative for these kids?

Turns out, it is.

My mother is the principal of a state-run primary government school in New Delhi. Every morning, for a fixed number of hours, she can be seen glued to her phone, scrolling through WhatsApp groups. This is not classic Boomer indulgence – she’s really looking through messages, pictures, voice notes, and videos being exchanged between the teachers and students of her school.

Presenting, the new face of poor, yet strangely modern, Indian public education – WhatsApp University.

WhatsApp University is my choice of name for the government’s rigorously implemented remote education strategy that is currently being practised across its many state-run schools in Delhi (and perhaps India). Here, every morning, teachers share educational material prepared and sent by the education department, and then explain it through voice messages. For more difficult concepts, the teachers make use of various editing apps to create explanatory videos. In one video, the teacher goes, “Dekho bachhon, ye raha phool, aur ye raha bhool, aur ye raha mool, aur ye hai dhool,” while using her cursor on the screen to place rhyming words next to each other to demonstrate the similarity in their phonetics.

It was sound to be reminded of what “better than nothing” means to those who have nothing.

It doesn’t stop at academics, either. The physical education teacher sends pictures of exercises that the children should perform. One teacher sends voice messages singing songs to give the students something to hum together, even if separately. If you’re a privileged millennial like I am, your first reaction to all this might be, “There is no way the kids would engage with it.” Who even has such an attention span anymore? And then you might be humbled to see pictures of students holding a Paschimotanasana, videos of them doing the daily PT routine, and voice notes and videos of them singing, reciting, even asking questions. The parents of these students, who cannot afford laptops or often even WiFi, are now a part of their education, “attending” these WhatsApp classes with them and making sure that they answer the quizzes teachers pop into the voice notes every once in a while to keep the students engaged. Sure, it isn’t as good as classroom education, nor is it real time, but close, and in some cases, even better.

“But mom,” I asked my mother, “how many of them would even be paying attention? It is WhatsApp, after all. This isn’t scalable.” In response to which I was reminded, “Maybe not all 40 in a class attend, perhaps 10 or 20 do, but gradually, the other children follow in their footsteps. It is better than nothing, no?” What a grounding moment it was for me to listen to my mom talk about the benign effects of peer-pressure, and to realise that not everything can be measured by my capitalist ideals of scalability. It was sound to be reminded of what “better than nothing” means to those who have nothing.

What is also precious is the way this medium of education is bringing students and parents together. When seven-year-old Suraj asks his father, who is currently on a break from his vocation as a tailor, to make a video of him singing, “Hind desh ke niwasi sabhi jan ek hain…”, even as the more sophisticated and educated people of this country are forgetting the song they once sang, it isn’t just Suraj receiving the modest little that our education system can do for him in these times. It is his father, too.

As I was browsing through heaps of photos, voice notes, messages, and videos from my mother’s “Whatsapp University”, I wondered which of these students would go on to find a well-deserved, but heartbreakingly underserved, bright future.

Is it the one who drew these little drawings of animals and human figures next to words, to illustrate the difference between singular and plural nouns on a ruled sheet of paper?

Image Credit: Sugandha

Or is it the one who sent in her “Art and Craft” exercise, with a fat bird drawn in coloured pencil on white paper, incorrectly labelled “Hen” and corrected to “Cock” by the teacher?

Image Credit: Sugandha

Perhaps, it is the brother-sister duo, seen holding their toes in a superior yoga stretch posture, with bright blue walls and a gas cylinder behind them and a plastic mat underneath.

Image Credit: Sugandha

Or is it the kid who completed the word game quite successfully, unaware that he was in fact recreating “Dora The Explorer” – a popular show that his more privileged peers watch on the television, while he draws it out on paper, to receive a “Wow” from his teacher.

Image Credit: Sugandha

For all we know, it could be the child who wrote “pure” when she meant “peas”.

Image Credit: Sugandha

Who knows… but as long as our governments keep trying, as long as our teachers don’t give up, as long as the parents of these children understand the value of the education they never received, and as long as these children’s pencils remain sharp, one might say, not all hope is lost for this country.

And in the end, if even a few children, if not all, go on to find anything close to the life that many of us got without having worked half as hard for it, it will be a story to remember.