The COVID pandemic has led us to the worst educational crisis. Education has almost come to a grinding halt. School closures; cancellation of board examinations; interruptions in learning continuity; challenges faced by teachers in virtual learning spaces; perplexed and disoriented students – all add to exacerbate the learning crisis further making it a generational catastrophe. This disruption in education is pushing educational leaders, practitioners, and policymakers to figure out how to drive engagement at scale while ensuring inclusive e-learning solutions. All these demand deep introspection, reorganising and reimagining.

An unprecedented crisis has no available template of best practices that may work and guide leaders in this new landscape. That makes it one of the most fertile grounds for innovation and experimentation. The need for the ‘science and arts of digital learning’ has assumed a central concern. Blended learning, some experts claim, is the future of education. The questions of technology-aided solutions, digital pedagogy and its efficacy in learning processes are other aspects of the crucial concerns today. Many school leaders have been adopting remarkably novel ways of dealing with this unaccustomed situation. Sharing and collaboration become the most prized virtues for education and educational leadership. We also believe that this is the time to reassert the fact that no one ‘Grand Narrative’ but a sound understanding of the local context and voices on the margin would lead us to arrive at a collective wisdom to reimagine education in the post-COVID world.

So, today we need to listen to each other, learn from the experiences and find creative answers to the unprecedented questions – what we call the Big Questions. Schoolnet India decided to initiate a series of Webinar called ‘Big Questions’ to create a forum of educators to engage with these questions in a candid way and in depth. It has been designed as an intimate platform to listen to the views and voices of various stakeholders in education like school leaders, teachers, and others to share ideas, experiences, and expertise. Big Questions aims to better understand the emerging landscape of teaching-learning in the process of what UNICEF, UNESCO, and World Bank call Mission Recovering Education in 2021.

So far we have conducted four Big Questions webinars featuring over a dozen school leaders and teachers. From Arunachal pradesh to Chennai; Lucknow to Aurangabad, Bahraich to Bhopal, these school leaders represent the Affordable Private School segment of schools that cater to the maximum number of students in India. Our commitment to cater to the Middle and Bottom of the Pyramid (MBoP) of education makes us reach out to the leaders and practitioners of these affordable private schools to understand and address their issues and offer support and solutions. Their experiences bring such rich perspectives on the table to deepen our understanding of the field of education in India. Here, to begin with, we present one aspect of the challenges and concerns as expressed by these leaders and practitioners in our conversations with them.

Big Questions

The best strategic plan, everyone will agree, has to be based on adaptability, not aspiration. We present here a variety of problems identified by these experts which gives deeper insights into effective interventions that need to be designed and implemented. A summary of what school leaders say:

Learning Recovery and Talent Loss: the need to listen

Education leaders, world over, have recognised the learning loss exemplified by the disruptions in education due to the pandemic. The main brunt of such a learning loss is faced by the early years students who are at a complete loss of a stimulating and enriching environment, learning opportunities, social interactions and in some cases adequate nutrition. Many recent studies have also pointed this out. The central question we as school leaders are faced with is how to address this age group’s requirements in an online scenario? We need parents to be by their sides in the online classrooms. This is not very helpful because parents don’t have the time, nor do they have the required skills to follow up. We need teachers to be mentally prepared to listen to and understand students’ socio-emotional needs when they come back to schools. There is a pressing need for the recovery of this learning loss that has pushed a generation into a situation comparable to a catastrophe.

Sudha Mahajan

“When the teachers come back to the physical classes, will we be ready to listen to our students? They have had a terrible, terrible time; they didn’t understand why their parents were worried, what happened, why it happened – especially the younger children. So the teachers will have to be ready to listen before they are ready to teach.”

Mrs. Sudha Mahajan
Ex. Principal,
Cambridge International School, Kullu


“Students are losing on the emotional and creative aspects of learning apart from other skills. I would like to share here a Harvard University study done in October 2020 discussing that the talent loss that has happened from March to August 2020 will only be recovered in not earlier than 60 years. So, the loss is already multiplying and that’s where the access of education to all is absolutely necessary.”

Dr. Rajesh Sharma
Viniyam Public School, Bhopal

Connectivity challenges in a connected world

The availability of internet connection at the student’s end was one of the main concerns of the school leaders. In most cases it is not reliable and stable. This simply results in frequent interruptions. This breaks the flow of the class not just for the teachers but for students as well. “Are you able to hear my voice?”, “Am I audible?”, “The screen is not visible”, “I am getting disconnected…”, are the irritants that persist and mar any prospect of quality education. “How do we expect teachers to teach and students to learn in such an utter cacophony of the online environment”, wondered Mr. Devjeet Dutta, Principal and owner of a residential school called Eklavya Public School, in Itanagar, Assam.

Access to devices

We are expected to travel long distances quickly without a vehicle available for it, as it were. Don’t talk about laptops for students. Even most of the teachers don’t have them. In fact, even a smartphone is a big ask. Students depend upon their parents. Parents can spare their mobiles only when they may not need it. What about a home with two kids in two different classes? Who will use the only phone available with parents? We addressed this issue by making changes in the timetable. But in such cases, clashes are not always possible to avoid, said Mrs. Deepika Watal, Sr. Principal, The Hamilton Academy, Lucknow. She echoed the experiences of other leaders as well. A global economic contraction on family incomes, the minimalist requirements of having adequate data in phones to support and extend remote, digital opportunities are challenges.

Mr. Devajeet Dutta

“The continuity of online classes depended on at least a minimalistic digital infrastructure. Purchasing gadgets in order to support online learning for 5 children, 4 children or even 3 was difficult for most parents. So most parents denied online classes for their kids.”

Mr. Devajeet Dutta
Eklavya Public School, Itanagar

Turn on, tune in, drop out: the challenge of student engagement

As every household has become a classroom student engagement emerges as the barometer of motivation, retention, and learning. Also, imagine this – a child is attending an online class on the parent’s phone, and suddenly a call comes. The phone must be received. The child has to drop out of the class. Teachers can’t stop teaching if one child drops out. The child misses important connections in the lesson. Moreover, teachers have barely learnt using on-line platforms. They are at loss as to how to create meaningful engagements in this environment where lively students have turned into a stamp size entity. Without engagement no learning can happen. Finding ways of student engagement in an online class is the most important challenge that every teacher faces. Teacher training in digital pedagogy is the most urgent requirement.

Mr. Hemant Sharma

“The challenge for teachers is not only to cover the syllabus but also maintain the engagement with the students who are connected from their homes.”

Mr. Hemant Sharma,
Director, English Medium Schools,
Mula Education Society, Aurangabad

Mr. Ajinkya Ambarkhane

“The core concern for education, whether online or offline, is to ensure that individual touch points stay established between students and teachers. The priority is the interaction between a learner and the teacher throughout the schooling years.”

Mr. Ajinkya Ambarkhane
Meghe Group of Schools, Nagpur

Adoption of Ed-tech tools is a challenge for teachers

The pandemic has highlighted the critical need for a robust cadre of teachers with requisite digital capacities and pedagogical adaptations to scaffold the digitisation of the education system. Schools and teachers suddenly had to move into the online space. For such a transition, teachers are not trained to use ed-tech tools or platforms comfortably. There are a number of platforms to deliver lessons but inadequate knowledge of teachers in using them effectively causes hurdles. WhatsApp is the most preferred medium, but this is mainly a delivery platform. The LMS that teachers use is not necessarily the best suited ones. To create attention, engagement and interaction using ed-tech tools and platforms is one of the greatest challenges for meaningful learning to take place. Even those who can ‘manage’ some platforms or tools need to upgrade their knowledge to ensure engagement and attention. Teacher’s training in ed-tech adoption is the most urgent need of today.

Mr. Ravi Kumar

“Teachers adapting to technology and coming upto the expectations of the management and the parents is a big challenge. Teachers are forced to learn, to adapt immediately to the new demands.”

Mr. Ravi Kumar
Sboa Global International School, Chennai

Mrs. Jyoti Kumar

“There is a great need for teachers to speed up in the race for technology adoption and access to information. Teachers will have to learn continuously, evolve and raise the bar with the rapidly advancing field of education and technology.”

Mrs. Jyoti Kumar
Director of Education
Arya Vidya Mandir Group of Institutions, Mumbai

Online assessment is the Achilles’ heel

Without assessment, the learning loop is not complete. Most of the learning assessments are not the real reflection of a student’s learning. How do we know if students have not used Google or taken the help of others to find their answers? Teachers need to know effective ways of online assessment. Tech enabled assessment offer randomised questions. But we don’t have those things with us yet. This is not just an issue of the use of tech-enabled assessments. There is a need for teachers to develop the ability to formulate ‘Google proof’ questions that require students to use higher order thinking. Teachers need training for that too.

Digital fatigue and educational dilution

For how long can one keep looking at the small screen? Many children are complaining of discomfort in their eyes, neck and other physical problems. Teachers are used to taking 35-to-45- minute classes. That is proving to be a bit too much for the children. Learning lethargy and fatigue are there during online teaching-learning, both for students and teachers. This has led to factoring in frequent breaks in between the periods. This necessitates teachers to do chunking of the chapters which could be a good thing if done carefully. It may require a different approach and training.

A dedicated learning space: schools encroach the homes

For meaningful learning to take place, students need a designated learning place. While accessing online classes, the home does not provide such a space. Most students do not have a marked place in their homes where they can attend online classes without interference from family members which often causes disturbances.

Insufficient parental education to support learning continuity

One good and bad thing is that parents have emerged as a major player in educational practice. The good part of it is that parents have now got a first-hand experience of what is happening in their child’s class. They also realise more intimately now as to what kind of role they need to play to support the continuity of learning for their children and to mitigate the role of the remote teacher. As a result, parent orientation, if not training, is an emerging need of today. On the negative side, many parents have become overly critical of the process without appreciating the exigency and even pedagogical imperatives. With parents becoming the primary liaisons for their child’s learning in a remote learning environment, teachers are constantly under a supervision radar and there is a thin line distinguishing parental intervention and interference. Parents, thus, have emerged as one of the important factors determining whether their presence acts as a contributor or a deterrent in the process of learning.

Mrs. Deepika Watal

“Teachers were the most impacted during this pandemic era. The teaching community was on their toes to catch up with the changes. They were not just forced to change the style of their teaching but were also open to being judged by parents, grand-parents, siblings and others.”

Mrs. Deepika Watal
Sr. Principal,
The Hamilton Academy, Lucknow

Cyber threat and online security issues

Cyber threat and cyberbullying have emerged as the major challenges affecting online teaching-learning processes. We stepped on to the online cyber highway without knowing the safety rules. The need to ensure that the data and information is not leaked out into the public domain is a major concern of the school leaders. The cases of cyberbullying have increased many folds during the pandemic. Students and teachers need to be trained to safeguard themselves against these to provide a safe and secure learning experience.

Mr. Joy Raitani

“During the live online classes some miscreants do come into play. There are some unsolicited messages that appear in the live chat box.”

Mr. Joy Raitani
Principal cum Director,
Guru Kripa Divine Grace Public School, Bahraich

Online learning alone is not sufficient: Blended is the way out

Online learning is the only way out in the current situation, but this can’t be the only mode for learning to take place. Apart from the challenges associated with online learning, there are a lot of hands-on activities which cannot be taken online. The one-on-one interactions, the relationship that the teacher and the student share is very crucial. Learning at school provides a safe psycho-social environment which is essential for the students. The classroom provides a safe zone to express, seek clarifications and ask questions freely. These features of a traditional classroom setting will have to be there in the online teaching-learning experiences.

But online learning, we have realised, provides other advantages. Teachers can share resources in one go. This allows for anytime-anywhere learning and ease of accessing the learning materials. Online learning is the next big thing in education by simplifying resource sharing with students, helping in reduction of board work done by teachers. Even though online classes cannot be equated to face-to-face interactions in the classroom, we can’t ignore the advantages of online learning. So, most of our school leaders feel that the Blended Learning mode is going to be the future of education.

Shraddha Ghumre with inputs from
Vagish K Jha & Swati Nirantare