Did technology heed or harm education during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Students, teachers, educators, mental health experts and policymakers discussed the impact of technology in classrooms, at a recently held National Conference on Education in Anaikatti, Tamil Nadu.

Pankaja SrinivasanPankaja Srinivasan   30 May 2022 10:07 AM GMT

Did technology heed or harm education during the COVID-19 pandemic?

While the experts agreed that technology helped them keep in touch with their students during the pandemic, it also fell far short of expectations. And, for many of the teachers, being forced to use technology was frustrating and a very real struggle. Photos by arrangement

Anaikatti/Tamil Nadu

The challenges of the lockdown, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, forced students, teachers and guardians to think out of the box, innovate and rethink learning and teaching processes. A two-day National Conference on Education held on May 27 and 28, at Anaikatti, a village in Tamil Nadu, focussed on how technology in education, while it helped in learning and teaching during the pandemic, also exposed the huge digital divide in India. In remote and rural areas, lack of infrastructure, connectivity and access to smart devices created huge learning losses.

Students, teachers, policy makers, scientists, agencies that worked with state governments in education, and experts on mental health, discussed the impact technology or the lack of it had on learning outcomes.

Sundar Sarukkai, founder of Barefoot Philosophers, an organisation that provides an open access platform for philosophical discourse in India, gave the keynote address. Sarukkai is visiting faculty at the Centre for Society and Policy at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and author of several books including Philosophy for children: Thinking Reading and Writing.

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He set the tone for the conference and pointed out the severe limitations of online learning, even where infrastructure was not a problem. He said while technology could not be wished away, it was important to go back to the basic process of thinking and being creative. He impressed upon the need for humans to be in control of technology, and not the other way around.


Prema Rangachary, organiser of the conference and director, Vidya Vanam, a school for the children of the tribal communities in Annaikatti, hoped there would be meaningful discourse on education. "These conversations on and off stage should help teachers to learn from each other, air their views and take back these learnings into their respective environments," she said.

The focus of the conference was on technology in education, because it was necessary to understand how different people dealt with the challenges. "I hope each participant, be they student, teacher or influencer, takes back ideas from here that will reduce the struggle," Rangachary told Gaon Connection.

The second day of the conference began with a discussion on the digital divide in education. BS Rishikesh, Associate Professor at the School of Education, Azim Premji University, Bangalore, who also leads the hub for education and law and policy, and Sudarshana Srinivasan, from Reach To Teach, an organisation that partners with state governments to strengthen teaching and learning outcomes through systemic interventions, spoke of the use of technology, how it could be alienating and how it was critical to empathise with the social-economical and also geographical backgrounds of children.

Both the speakers emphasised the importance of teachers being heard. They also pointed out the necessity to empower the community, including parents, the other influencers and include them in the process of understanding the use of technology.

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Rishikesh who has worked closely with the Dr Kasturirangan Committee, which wrote the draft National Education Policy, 2019, said it was important to assess if technology was really aiding the journey towards desired learning outcomes. "It is very important to establish teacher agency while using technology. Technology should be an aid and not a replacement to the teacher," he said.

Sundar Sarukkai, founder of Barefoot Philosophers, an organisation that provides an open access platform for philosophical discourse in India, gave the keynote address.

Srinivasan, who has also been a Teach For India Fellow and has worked with the member of parliament of Sikkim on education projects in government schools said "Online teaching can be an isolating experience. While technology can support teachers, it cannot and should not be a substitute for them."

Neuroscientist Sriram Subramanium, from Vanderbilt Medical Centre, Tennessee, USA, S Mohan Raj, consultant psychiatrist, Chennai and Karthikayani Murugan, clinical psychologist from the Kovai Medical Centre in Coimbatore discussed the impact of online education on mental health.

Subramanium explained the working of the human brain and how social interaction, and human intervention was crucial to the development in children. And, unregulated and unsupervised screen time could have an adverse impact on them, he said. Doctors Mohan Raj and Karthikayani spoke of the immediate consequences of online education in the past two years of the pandemic. It deprived the young of an opportunity to be empathetic, sympathetic, and at the same time take defeats and disappointments in their stride, they said. The isolation of online education was detrimental to the overall development of a child, they also added.

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In a well curated panel of teachers from government schools to public schools, Navaneetham from Vedavalli Vidyala in Ranipet, Latha Jayaraman from Yuvabharati Public School in Coimbatore, Uma Devi from Government Tribal Residential High School, Annaikatti and J Rubin Mercy and R Gowri Shankar from Vidya Vanam, discussed their experience. While they agreed technology helped them keep in touch with their students during the pandemic, it also fell far short of expectations. And, for many of the teachers, being forced to use technology was frustrating and a very real struggle.

S Armugham, co-founder of Mango Education - an after-school community for children on fundamental sciences, based in Coimbatore, told Gaon Connection that the conference was edifying.


"Listening to the teachers made me realise how insensitive we as a society are towards them," he said. Armugham also attended a workshop at the conference on "Creating interactive online community" by School Initiative for Mental Health Advocacy - Tata Institute of Social Sciences (SIMHA-TISS). "The workshop made us think about what a sense of community means. Just as a conventional community offers emotional support, belongingness, and sharing, so should online communities," Armugham said. Kanak Kataria, a clinical psychologist and project manager for SIMHA and Lamia Bagasrawala, a psychotherapist and senior consultant at SIMHA led the workshop.

Vishnu Thozhur Kolleri, artist/architect and educator and visiting professor at Cenre for Environmental Planning and Technology, and founder member of the collaborative design studio, Clay Club in Ahmedabad conducted the "Teaching Art Online" workshop. Twenty five teachers took part. "We learnt how art could be therapeutic to both teachers and the students," Gomathi R, a math and environmental studies teacher from Vidya Vanam, told Gaon Connection.

"Art is a great way to draw out the introvert child in the classroom," Rubi Mercy told Gaon Connection. It was also a lesson in hand and eye coordination and almost a meditative experience, described the English teacher from Vidya Vanam.

TM Srikanth, principal Vidya Vanam, moderated a session with class 12 students M Priyanka, Pooja Mahesh, Sathya Sree and KR Sudharma who represented both government and private schools. The lack of a smart device caused anxiety, as they had no way of keeping up with what was being taught, said some of the students, especially those from rural areas. For others, it was the stress of appearing on camera.

"Screenshots were taken by classmates and shared with unkind captions," said one of the students. They also felt that in a bid to keep them 'occupied' teachers inundated them with home assignments which again meant spending long hours in front of the screen. "We missed being with our friends and confiding in our teachers face to face," they said.

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