AVINASH RAMESSUR

« For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong » (Menchen). Yet we are continuously exposed to half-baked solutions usually proposed by deciders (public and private) and aggravated by a general tendency to absolve themselves from or to plainly ignore the operational issues arising from their implementation.  More than often, these half-baked solutions stem from a “one-size-fits-all” approach not dissimilar to the way a fast-food burger is expected to fill all stomachs alike.

But socio-economic realities usually beg for a differentiated approach to the specific needs of the various strata of a given population. In the view of which, the current simplistic approach to distance education during lockdown fails to address the needs of countless students deprived of the required ways and means to properly access the online educational streams. What was said can be resumed to the following “Teachers will organise online classes and will use Office 365 and Zoom for this”. How could this be deemed enough to address the issue at hands should be beyond the understanding of any reasonable person. 

It ignores the following (note: I have no pretention to exhaustiveness): 

1.The fact that, students coming from lower strata of society do not necessarily have the required hardware to follow classes online. By that, I mean a proper computer with a correct screen size to follow a class in a decent manner. 

Having a mobile phone should not be used as an excuse to ignore the above as using a mobile phone to follow an online class is akin to using a peephole to look at the blackboard in a classroom. Why should we make our students (the future of our country) endure that? Further, not all mobile phones are built alike and it is not given that all students have a decent one to use as a last resort. 

Side note: Let’s also not discuss about the miracle of 45 million rupees disappearing in nature for no tablets in return.

2.The fact that not all families and therefore students have a internet access with the required bandwidth to follow an online class in a seamless manner that does not impede their understanding of the teachings being given and to interact with their teachers.

Some students are relying on mobile internet which can be a costly thing when all internet activities linked to studying during confinement are put together. Live streams of video and sound does consume significant data.

3.The fact that not all teachers have the required material to conduct a proper online class depending on the subject being taught. Notwithstanding the above issues that also apply to some teachers, some subjects require the support of a board to be taught in a proper manner. A word processor and a keyboard are no substitute for that. How do someone write a complex mathematical formula with a keyboard? This is not an impossible task but any reasonable person will understand that a cumbersome process will transform a teaching session into a jagged inefficient ride where not much will be achieved in the imparted time. 

And by no means, sending notes through social media for students to copy in their notebooks should be construed as completion of the syllabus to be covered. 

4.The fact that TV has never been a proper channel for education purposes. School education is and should always be about the interaction of a grown-up and children to foster growth and knowledge. Sitting passively in front of a TV is therefore not an adequate substitute and should not be used as an excuse for not doing more, at the very least to try. 

This is where the Universal Service Fund (USF) comes into play. Its purpose as announced officially is to promote Universal Access/Service:

“The Universal Access/Service aims to ensure that information and communication services, which are essential to social and economic inclusion, are available to everyone and to address specific market failures in an efficient way by offering services at affordable prices.

The concept of the Universal Service/Access is characterised by availability, accessibility and affordability and has thus been developed as an ancillary tool to promote access to ICT services in un-served or under-served areas or sectors.”

The USF amounted to 494 million rupees as per the ICTA Annual Report 2014 which is the latest annual report posted on their website. On a side note, absence of yearly annual reports from parastatals and other public bodies should be pointed out for what they are: a shameless act of opacity in obvious contradiction with any basic rule of good governance.

So, taking into account the fact that lockdown will be extended for students in the foreseeable future, I suggest the following (with minimal red tape for fast execution):

1.To make an agreement beforehand with local retailers for a Maximum Retail Price of computer hardware and other required ancillaries to avoid crooked dealers making undue windfall gains. To also ensure that these items are sold with the appropriate guarantees and after-sale services.

2.To tap into the USF to 1.) procure and provide decent computers to the students in low-income families 2.) to subsidise (in a scheme similar to solar water heaters) the purchase of computers for students in middle-income families as well as for teaching staff. 

3.To tap into USF to pay all mobile internet charges incurred by students during the lockdown period (where applicable and with the appropriate safeguards to scrutinise unnecessary expenses).

4.To require the operator holding the monopoly of fibre-to-the-home connections to consider activating a free internet connection on the existing phone-only fibre lines for students living in houses without wireline internet connections and to use for the USF for the incurred charges.

5.To purchase (or subsidise) out of the USF, graphics drawing pads for teaching staff so that they can use online whiteboards to carry out their teaching activities in a similar manner to a physical class.