Tamil Nadu government school education: how much have students benefited in this academic year?

Representative image | Source: Vishruthi Girish
Representative image | Source: Vishruthi Girish

With the learning experience in Indian government schools being plagued with digital divide and deprivation, here is what the Tamil Nadu government could have done to prevent complete academic stagnation

Vishruthi Girish | April 28, 2021 | Chennai

The education sector across the world has been irreversibly impacted by Covid-19, slowing down the academic process. As educational institutions shift to virtual classrooms, it becomes critical for teachers and students to have the necessary technological tools and be adept at dealing with remote learning.

India: Not just a digital divide

In India, government-run schools and colleges face a unique challenge – the digital divide that explicitly highlights the deep-rooted socio-economic gap between the haves and the have-nots. According to the National Sample Survey in 2017-18, only one in 10 households in India has an electronic device – a laptop, desktop or tablet. Additionally, only 23.8 per cent households have access to the internet.

India’s student population at the school level stands at 250 million, of which 84 per cent resides in rural areas. 70 per cent of this student population attends government schools, availing benefits like midday meals, fee concessions, free books and uniforms. One might reasonably conclude therefore that these students are from relatively underprivileged backgrounds.

Kalvi TV – Tamil Nadu’s state-run educational channel

In Tamil Nadu, government schools have adopted varied measures to conduct classes for students. While, due to Covid-19, some schools rigorously attempted to conduct online classes despite the dearth of connectivity, many other schools – especially in rural districts – have had little interaction with students in the last ten months, leaving them with no other option than to learn through the state’s educational TV channel, Kalvi TV. Many schools also adopted a mixed approach of planning their lessons in accordance with the television classes.  

The Kalvi TV channel was flagged off in 2019 exclusively for telecasting educational content for Government school students. In an attempt to transcend the limitations posed by the digital divide, the Tamil Nadu State Government proposed the utilisation of this channel to broadcast lessons for students studying in Government schools with limited or no access to technology. Classes were scheduled and telecast through the day for classes 2-12. Session-wise videos were also uploaded on the Kalvi TV YouTube channel for the benefit of the students.

Explore the Kalvi TV virtual classroom through the interactive experience below!

“Our teachers have asked us to watch Kalvi TV to learn the portions. They say that we could call them to clarify doubts,” said Hemamalini, a class XI student at the Girls High School, Pudukottai district. She also added, “I don’t think anybody I know is interested in watching Kalvi TV. Sometimes, it is difficult to follow lessons with just a textbook, without a teacher’s real-time guidance. Some of my friends in private schools had online classes, and I wish we had that too.”

Educationalists in close interaction with government school students say that Kalvi TV has inadequate penetration, as school students often need external impetus and continuous monitoring to be involved in any meaningful learning activity. J. Krishnamurthy, educationalist and General Secretary of the Palli Kalvi Padhugappu Iyakkam (PKPI) asserted that Government schools should actively take part in the process of television learning. 

“Most of these children have working parents, who were already preoccupied in making ends meet in a disaster such as this. Rather than simply telecasting classes, Government school faculty must be in regular touch with all students and make sure they are following the Kalvi TV content,” he said.

Kalvi TV’s YouTube channel is seen to have poor viewership, unlike its counterpart Victers TV – an initiative by the state government of Kerala – which has ten times the number of subscribers and video views. The latter has also received wide recognition for employing augmented reality elements in session videos. 

Tamil Nadu: The free laptop scheme provides some respite

Higher secondary students in Tamil Nadu Government schools have been relatively less affected in bearing the brunt of the digital divide, as the gap in device inaccessibility has been significantly bridged by the AIADMK-led Government’s scheme that distributes free laptops to all class XI Government school students. A pet project of former Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa since 2011, the scheme is reported to have had a wide reach across the state, having provided laptops worth INR 5550 crore to over 37 lakh students.

Where, then, is the problem?

Although students in crucial years of their higher secondary education were provided devices, lack of access to internet facilities hindered a consistent learning experience. Further, districts like Villupuram, Dharmapuri and Pudukottai which have the lowest gross enrolment ratios have perpetual network issues. The National Sample Survey states that availability of internet has an urban-rural divide: 27 per cent students have access in urban areas and barely 5 per cent in rural areas.

“We all have laptops. We are unable to make any use of them without a proper internet connection – laptops are useless even to watch educational videos on YouTube,” says Hemamalini, adding that providing an internet connection or data card for her smartphone would have been more useful.

“73.2% students receive all learning material via WhatsApp”

The fifteenth Annual Status of Education Report (ASER 2020) conducted in September 2020 indicates that the initiative to bring all students of Government schools together to an online classroom saw 73.2 per cent students receiving all learning material and class videos via WhatsApp. Particularly for classes 1 to 9, WhatsApp learning and Kalvi TV were the sole academic inputs, as most students lacked either devices or internet access or both.

Why did the Government not provide internet connections?

The 2020-21 Union Budget of Tamil Nadu, announced in February 2020, allocated an outlay of INR 41,626 crores towards the Education sector, a 11 per cent increase from the 2019-20 allocation for education. Of this, INR 966 crore was allocated for the AIADMK Government’s flagship project – distributing free laptops to students of class XI and INR 520.13 crore for setting up hi-tech laboratories in Government schools.

Smartphone penetration among Government school students in Tamil Nadu is reported to be much higher than the national average of 12.5 per cent, indicating that the biggest challenge lies in access to internet. However, even one year later during the announcement of the Interim Budget 2021-22, no special allocations were made to resolve this problem for students.

It is also to be noted that proposals to provide tablets and internet facilities were included in the election manifestos of both the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) parties before the 2021 legislative assembly elections, but no such outlays were proposed in the Interim Budget.

Given the unprecedented nature of the Covid-19 lockdown and the raging second wave, this expenditure would have been practical and invaluable for the next academic year, which is also mostly likely to commence online. The LDF-led government of Kerala last year distributed over three lakh digital devices to 41 lakh school students in 16,000 schools, being touted as the nation’s ‘first totally digital state in the public education sector’.

“This year has been a complete wash-out for Tamil Nadu government schools, especially for classes 1 to 9. There has been little scope for an interactive classroom experience with them due to the digital divide,” said J. Krishnamurthy.

Government teachers say that attendance in online classes was a struggle, despite experimenting with scheduling classes late at night (to ensure availability of parents’ devices). “It was only when we called students of class 10-12 to campus in micro-teaching groups that we got a good turnout, and were able to finish the syllabus”, said Sivagama Sundari, a math teacher at Arumbakkam Govt. Hr. Sec. School.

P.K. Ilamaaran, Educationalist and President of the Tamil Nadu Teachers Association proposes a point-by-point plan for the future of digital education in Tamil Nadu:

  • To expedite provision of internet connection for students of all classes
  • Scaling up telecom infrastructure in rural areas to provide sufficient bandwidth to access online content
  • To prioritize interactive education for class 6 onward instead of Class 9 – he asserts that it is vital to reinforce important concepts from Class 6 onward as opposed to alienating students until they reach Class 9
  • To facilitate micro-teaching groups for students of Class 6 onward, requesting them to come to campus when the lockdown is relaxed and to plan for a blended mode of instruction including content on Kalvi TV. Click here to listen to what he has to say about teaching students in batches of five.

While the Board exams for class 10 have been cancelled and students of all classes have been promoted, Board exams for class 12 are yet to be conducted. Government school teachers say that the process is on hold on account of the 2021 legislative assembly elections in the state. With the DMK government now in power, Anbil Mahesh Poyyamozhi is the newly appointed Minister for School Education. Click to listen to his swearing-in speech.   

Only time will tell what the next academic year will look like for government schools in Tamil Nadu.