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Mandar Shinde

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Changing Landscape of Education in Italy and in India

Changing Landscape of Education, in Italy and in India

Tobias Jones is a journalist living in Italy with his Italian wife and three children aged 15, 13, and 9. He wrote an article for The Guardian on April 24, 2020 about the situation after school closure in Italy due to COVID-19 outbreak. The article helps us understand how the education system in Italy works. At the same time, some important points in the article made me think about and compare with the state of education in India. Please read and let me know your views.

Mandar Shinde | June 02, 2020 | shindemandar@yahoo.com

Jones mentions that Italy spends a lot less on education than almost every other western country. Spending per student (from primary school to university) equates to 8,966 US Dollars per annum, compared to 11,028 US Dollars in the UK and 11,502 US Dollars in Sweden. Education activists in India have been demanding that 6% of the country's GDP should be spent on education, while the latest reports indicate up to 3% of GDP being spent in reality.

Interestingly, Jones mentions that the Education Minister, Lorenzo Fioramonti resigned in December 2019, in protest of the under-investment on education in Italy. Can you imagine any Indian minister doing that? Just kidding!

Jones informs that there's minimal teacher-training in Italy. Well, it sounds very similar to the Indian approach towards capacity building of teachers. According to Jones, university graduates are often thrown into a classroom without any knowledge of pedagogic theories or practical experience. Inspections are almost unheard of. The result is that Italian education is, at its worst, particularly conservative and condescending: the student is seen as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge that is poured back in exams. Sounds familiar to the Indian ears, doesn't it?

Jones writes that Italy has the oldest teachers in the world - 59% are over 50 – which has left Italian schools heavily analogue. Kids carry a dozen books to and from school every day in massive backpacks. Jones compares the Italian children with Obelix, a cartoon character in the French comic book series Asterix, who is noted for the menhirs (huge standing stones) he carries around on his back for sculpting. This does not seem like a promising basis for remote learning, he mentions.

Several museums, theatres, aquariums and zoos opened their virtual doors during the lockdown period. Parents started posting pictures of their well-behaved children clicking their way through the museums in different parts of the world. Jones admits that his children spent time watching TV series on Netflix, which made him and his wife feel guilty that they weren’t sharing these cultural delights with their children. It seems that the pandemic somehow took the people out of the rat race, but it could not take the race out of the people. This applies to the Indian parents as well.

After two weeks into lockdown, the teachers in Italy started dumping a load of homework on their students. Jones mentions that many teachers decided it was the best way to send out entire chapters of books for children to learn, and hundreds of pages of exercises to complete. So much for the use of technology and moving towards online education! Even in India, many of the teachers and authorities consider conversion of books from printed to pdf formats equivalent to digitalisation of education. Most of the lockdown period in India was supposed to coincide with summer vacations, but some over-enthusiastic teachers continued to teach children through various online platforms even in the months of April and May.

Jones mentions that the closing of all Italy’s schools forced teachers to invent a new kind of classroom from scratch. There were no ministerial guidelines or approved websites. Jones quotes Daniele Martino, a middle-school teacher in Turin saying: “The entirety of this new form of online teaching was created by us teachers at the last minute." It appears that Governments, in general, never prioritize education, especially in crisis situations.

According to Jones, the situation was chaotic at the beginning. There was little coordination between different teachers within the same schools, let alone across different schools. The parents were overwhelmed by a vast array of IT platforms: Meet, Classroom, Zoom, Jitsi, Edmodo. Even in India, many urban parents kept hopping through platforms like Meet and Zoom, while another section of rural and poor population is still clueless about the role of emerging technology in the education of their children. Similarly, Jones mentions that sites and servers crashed as the almost 80 Lakh Italian students all logged on, while many kids couldn’t connect at all.

Jones mentions the Digital Economy and Society Index that rates Italy 24 out of 28 European countries in its “digitalisation index”. Italy’s national statistics agency, Istat, reported in 2019 that 23.9% of Italian families have no access to the internet. In India, the penetration of internet technology seems to be big in numbers but questionable in terms of quality usage. The spread of technology here is unorganized and industry-driven, instead of being need based and service-driven. Therefore, use of technology for education - in an alternative or supplementary manner - seems quite challenging in India.

Universalisation of education has been on the national agenda for several decades in India. Availability of resources plays an important role in providing equal learning opportunities to all children, irrespective of their social and economic backgrounds. When we talk about online education, we must think about the availability of technology and infrastructure across all sections of society. Do all children in the country have access to the internet and devices necessary for online education? The answer is No. The situation doesn't seem to be very different in Italy, as Jones quotes a teacher saying: “We’ve discovered how democratic pencil-and-paper is.”

Jones reports that the Italian Ministry of Education claimed to have distributed 46,152 tablets throughout the country by the third week of March. Since then, an emergency budget has created a fund of 7 Crore Euros for providing computers to those without. Jones was told by a teacher that even if the necessary hardware is distributed, online classes just don’t work for children who need bespoke (one-to-one) lessons: “Those who are already doing well at school are now doing even better, but those who were struggling are just falling further behind.”

Jones also notes his observations regarding the online classrooms. He mentions that students can hide far more easily online as compared to the physical classrooms, if they're not interested or not motivated. They can give a false excuse of technological issues, freeze the camera, or mute the microphone whenever they want to avoid the session. Teachers need to be proactive and creative in making the online sessions more interesting and attractive.

In Italy, students are given many tests each month and if, at the end of the year, their average score is insufficient, they are failed and have to repeat the year. According to Jones, the new Education Minister, Lucia Azzolina, suggested that in the current situation, no students would be sent back to repeat the year again. On the contrary, the Indian Parliament amended the Right To Education Act, 2009 last year, cancelling the No Detention Policy implemented since 2010. The amendment allows schools to hold back students for a repeat year, if they are unable to achieve the desired learning levels. However, with the medium of education shifting rapidly from offline to online, it is going to be difficult for the teachers to conduct exams under strict supervision, whether in Italy or India. Innovative methods of assessment will have to be derived, considering changes in the overall mechanism of delivering and receiving knowledge.

Jones notes that some students find it embarrassing to share their personal spaces – their bedrooms and, in the background, even their embarrassing parents, during online sessions conducted by their teachers. In The New York Times article dated April 04, 2020, Nicholas Casey wrote that the corona virus has exposed how unequal the lives of students studying together are. When the university students were all in the same dorms and eating the same dining hall food, the disparities in their backgrounds were not as clear as they are over video chat. In India, the differences would be highlighted even further, not just between urban and rural set-ups, but also between urban poor and urban rich. Psychological impact of this exposure needs to be discussed and mitigated proactively.

Another observation noted by Jones is the change in teachers' behaviour from being in an offline classroom to an online one. Jones mentions that one of his children has a class that is usually very noisy: the kids misbehave and the teacher yells, and soon everyone is shouting over each other. Now, the children are controlled by their parents’ presence during online sessions. At the same time, the teacher is also aware that parents could be listening, so the yelling is avoided, resulting in more peaceful sessions. Jones hopes that this could also lead towards an improved and warmer relationship between the students and their teachers.

Jones makes an important comment on the changing landscape of education in Italy. He mentions that students have always felt worried and stressful because of their weekly tests and the stigma of being held back a year. But now many teachers feel insecure, too. It is because of the overall ignorance of the Government towards education, and also because the teachers are scared of digitalised learning and they fear being replaced by screens. In India, the entire education system may not be digitalised so fast, but similar insecurity can be sensed among teachers from urban schools, where students already have access to internet and digital learning resources.

Jones mentions that teachers are trying to cope with the changes and challenges in education, while children are also adapting themselves to the online environment. However, he also quotes a middle-school teacher, Chiara Esposito saying “parents are the most conservative element in the school ecosystem. They become paranoid if their child isn’t ‘an eight’ or hasn’t completed the set book. They’re the ones we really need to educate.” The transformation in the current education system will be incomplete without acceptance and active participation from the parents. In India, teachers experience two extreme conditions - excessive involvement of urban educated parents and absolute disinvolvement of less educated rural parents. A fine balance needs to be achieved in the best interest of the children and their education. The change of medium from offline to online and the growing emphasis on self-learning are going to demand even higher levels of parent participation in children's education. How are we going to prepare parents from various backgrounds to bear this responsibility? Who is going to take care of their capacity building - the schools or the Government? How will the teachers strike a balance between over-involvement and disinvolvement of the parents? We may not have ready answers to all these questions, but it's high time we start thinking and experimenting in the forward direction.

Jones quotes Edoardo Montenegro from Betwyll, which is launching a new social reading app for Italian schools, saying: “A WhatsApp video call or a Zoom meeting isn’t digital learning. Those encounters can be just as frontal and rhetorical as an old-style professorial lesson.”

I believe these are very important comments on the haphazard efforts to digitalise the education system overnight. Most of the teachers are trying to use the online platforms for conducting classroom sessions in the same old traditional manner. The organic need of digitalisation is missing and we are just reacting to a pandemic situation, trying to compensate for loss of teaching hours by exploiting all available online platforms. We need to look at online education beyond the knee jerk reaction during lockdown and should explore the opportunities it might bring to our children in the years to come.

Kindly e-mail your feedback to shindemandar@yahoo.com or Whatsapp on 9822401246.


Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Generation Gap

Marathi Writer Mangala Godbole writes in her book 'Zuluk' (meaning Breeze) that the generation gap phenomenon is rooted in the use of words - 'in our times'. People from every generation feel that the next generation is luckier and happier. In fact, the living standards keep rising with time; lifestyle keeps becoming better over years. Technological tools and facilities become available and easily accessible. People from previous generations claim that they could have done better if these tools and facilities were available to them 'in their times'. But indulging in reminiscence is in a way declaring that they've given up on themselves in current times, isn't it?

(Click on image to read)


Sunday, May 31, 2020

Mental Health During Lockdown

Hindustan Times, Sunday May 31, 2020

Life Under Lockdown: Mental Health Also Matters

We are under lockdown for two months now. Physical movements, business operations, and social gatherings - everything is restricted. This has a direct impact on the economy, lifestyle and health. But I am a little more concerned about its indirect impact on our mental health.

Most of us have missed going to the gym or going for a walk everyday. Some might have compensated for it by exercising within the comfort of their own house or having a walk on the terrace everyday. However, the feeling of being locked inside the house has created a significant amount of stress among most of us.

There are two major sources - first, the orders issued by Government officials and second, the fear of contracting Coronavirus the moment we step out of our homes.

There is a difference between situations where I voluntarily decide to remain inside home and when I am ordered to do so. And to add to it, when I am punished if I do not follow the orders. I cannot meet friends and family members, cannot travel to places I want to, cannot be a part of social activities, and my business opportunities are also reduced or somewhat vanished during the last two months. Particularly when I am self-employed and cannot expect a full or part salary when I don't work. This is taking a toll on self-confidence, pushing many others like me towards an unhealthy state of mind, even depression.

Words of wisdom and motivation do not help under such circumstances. If the lockdown is extended any further, the mental health of many will get beyond recovery. I am wondering how one can sustain their morale in these difficult times. Are there any exercises that we can continue at home to keep ourselves fit mentally until we are back to normal, if we ever are going to be?

- Mandar Shinde


Friday, May 29, 2020

Gulzar on Migrant Workers

Why does one leave their place of origin? What is the difference between migration for better prospects and a forced migration? What happens when the migrated ones are scared for their lives? How does one choose between life and livelihood? Questions that lead to more questions. Read Gulzar saab's take on the plight of migrant workers and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown situation across the country.

(Click on image to read)


Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Sar Zuka Ke Zameen Par Rakhne Se... (Gulzar)

You need not become a politician to make a political statement. Your films, your poetry, your stories, your performances, anything and everything can express your thoughts and views. Salaam Gulzar saab and Vishal Bhardwaj ji!
(Click on image to read)


Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Restaurant Business Crisis

The government has partially lifted lockdown after two months and businesses are reopening in phases. However, the restaurant business is still not allowed to operate, except take-away or delivery. There isn't any package in sight for supporting the business either. Take-away or delivery cannot generate enough revenue for this industry to survive. The restaurants are waiting for dine-in customers; the sooner the government allows it the better. Journalist Vir Sanghvi has presented a deeper view into this situation through his article in the Hindustan Times, dated May 26, 2020. The link -

The restaurant business in India lacks public support. Especially, the middle class considers eating out is a luxurious thing to do. 'I can cook a better Biryani or make a cheaper Paneer dish at home,' moms and wives boast proudly and the entire family at the local restaurant eats in guilt, never forgetting the 'right side' of the menu card.

A hidden jealousy and revengeful sentiment has made the great Indian middle class indifferent, rather apprehensive of the survival and prosperity of the restaurant industry. Of course, the industry, too, has failed to establish an emotional connect with the customers.

It's not just about offering discounts or remembering customers' birthdays. The attention when they arrive, the personalized service remembering and incorporating their choices, effective and transparent feedback mechanism can induce a sense of belonging and love about the restaurant among the customers.

Unfortunately, the restaurateurs do not think this could pay them in any way. They consider all these things to be fancy and overheads to the business. On the contrary, my ten years in the food business tell me that customer loyalty depends more upon the way you treat them than the products you serve them. The quality and rates can be competitive and replicable, but your service model can set you apart in the market.

While big brands and star hotels can get away easily on the hygiene and safety part, local restaurants are going to face many challenges in near future. The increased sanitation expenses will eat up their profits or make them lose customers over increased prices. The infrastructure and skill level of employees will hardly be able to handle the expectations of customers graduating from the Whatsapp University. Only restaurants with an emotional bonding with their customers would be able to pull this off in the difficult times to come, I guess.

Hope the pandemic and subsequent market conditions make the restaurateurs and customers rethink about and reinvent their mutual relationship, in a more human and empathetic way. Let the connection step up in the future from kitchen-to-stomach to heart-to-heart.

- Mandar Shinde 9822401246


Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Innovative Teachers

Bridging the Gap between Online and Offline

1. Jagadish Kude is a primary teacher from Jalna, Maharashtra. During the lockdown period (because of COVID-19), he couldn't reach out to students in his school. They lived in Shriram Tanda area and most of the parents did not own a smartphone. Jagadish sir approached the youth that had returned to the villages from cities due to lockdown. They had smartphones with internet connection. Sir requested the youth to help at least one student each, living in the same area. The youth responded positively. None of the students in this area is left out now. The youth would visit the students on a stipulated date and time. The homework is communicated to students personally. Students take down notes in their notebooks. The youth would take photos of previous homework completed by the students, to be shared with Jagadish sir.

2. Keshav Pawar is a teacher from Vanisangam, Taluka Sonpeth, District Parbhani. He knew that some parents could not join the school Whatsapp group due to lack of resources. Worried about the students, Keshav sir approached the owner of a xerox (photocopier) shop in the village. Sir started sending photos of homework to the shop owner, who would make multiple photocopies of it and keep them available at the shop. Parents would visit the shop at different times during the day, to collect the copies. Keshav sir also prepares audio clips for students whose parents do not own a smartphone but use a simple phone. Teachers returned to the village due to lockdown are also helping in this activity, along with the member of local School Management Committee, Mr. Sandipan Zirape.

3. Prakash Chavan is a teacher from Karanjwan, Taluka Dindori, District Nashik. His self-discipline of preparing notes for further lessons and next month's activities has helped during lockdown period. The notes are laminated and distributed among students for self-study. Since the distribution took place before lockdown, the students already had worksheets with them during the lockdown period. The laminated sheets were rotated among the students in the village, so that entire homework was covered by all the students, without attending the school. Prakash sir cannot enter the village due to current restrictions, but he has collaborated with the health workers visiting the village for a health survey. The homework is distributed among the parents through the health workers. Previous sheets are also collected at the same time. Considering the huge cost of laminating sheets for every lesson, Prakash sir purchased a lamination machine on his own. The shops are closed during the lockdown period, baut Prakash sir is able to continue his work with the help of this machine at home.

(As reported by Vandana Dhaneshwar for Daily Divya Marathi, May 2020)