Without internet at home, students in remote areas have found it difficult to connect to online classes in the pandemic, forcing them to log into virtual classrooms in bus stops, roadsides and temple verandahs.

A girl, a boy and an old man in a bus stopStudent studying in a bus stop in Kamila, Dakshina Kannada
news Education Friday, July 02, 2021 - 16:40

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It is 9 am on the first day of the new school year. Shree Poorna, 13, packs her bags and walks for a kilometre along the main road to her makeshift study hall — the public bus stop in Kamila —  a tiny platform with red oxide flooring and a tiled roof. She is accompanied by her grandfather and her younger brother, and as soon as she enters the bus stop, she gestures to them to be silent. She takes out her mother’s mobile phone and connects to her class that’s being relayed live online, using her bag as a table to take notes, while her brother plays around nearby. A lesson on the study of cells is being taught, and she tries to concentrate even as the sound of speeding cars and bikes interrupt her focus. 

Five kilometres away amidst lush greenery, 14-year-old Kuladeepak props himself up on an abandoned metal structure, once meant for a powerline, on the side of the main road leading to Kamila. Holding a phone in one hand and a pen in the other, while balancing a notebook on his leg, he tries to follow the lesson on the Indian Constitution but he’s struggling to keep up. When the network snaps midway, he is only able to reconnect when the lesson is over.  “I will just wait for the PDF of the notes to be sent,” he says, sheepishly. 

Shree Poorna and Kuladeepak have been studying this way in Sullia taluk of Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada district ever since schools were shut down last year during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rural areas of the state have long experienced snail-paced, unreliable and often inaccessible internet connections. But as schools were forced to move to virtual classrooms in 2020, the issue has become a major obstacle for students simply seeking an education. Their search for an internet connection captures the hardships faced by those living in remote areas of the state. 

“We called telecom companies but each one said there is no service available in our area,” says Shree Poorna’s grandfather G Ramachandraiah, who accompanies her to the bus stop every day.

G Ramachandraiah and Shree Poorna walking to the bus stop in Kamila village

The villages of Sullia taluk are located on the foothills of the Western Ghats, known for its gently undulating landscape and its slopes separated by the fences of rubber and arecanut plantations. Before the pandemic, internet was a scarce commodity in Sullia with stable network connectivity limited only to major towns and smaller villages relying on a feeble Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) signal to get by. “Often, we used to get a burst of messages at 5 am on our phones but we would not have network for the rest of the day. We would climb the main road up the hill to receive messages and make phone calls,” says Soujanya, a medical student in Ballaka village in Sullia. 

Soujanya attended online classes at the verandah of the local temple, 4 km away from her house along with 15 others from her village for the majority of last year. Others studied in paddy fields, in plantations or in the forest, wherever the network was stable, carrying with them mosquito coils and sticks to ward off animals, along with their books and stationary. A few students found a spot in sheds set up on the side of roads where people in the villages routinely gather to use their phones. One student, Manushankara, 16, went to the extent of setting up a mosquito net in one of these sheds.  

Manushankara, studying in a shed in Guttigar village

“It is simply down to luck where we find a stable network. We are marked absent if we are not connected when the classes begin,” says Nikita Bitty, 21, another medical student staying in Malkaje village of Sullia. Her father Bitty Nedunilum would set aside his work at his areca plantation to drive her to a roadside spot to help her access the network for her studies last year. Now, he has set up a telephone on top of the water tank in their house to ensure network connectivity at home. But even then, it is at the mercy of power cuts which are frequent in his home.  

Bitty Nedunilum has set up a phone on his water tank for connectivity

Recently, a viral photograph taken in Sullia showed a girl attending online classes sitting on a pipe next to the road even as her father held up an umbrella to protect her from the heavy monsoon rains. The photograph was of Bindu Kumari, a Class 10 student from Ballaka village in Sullia, preparing for her upcoming examinations with her father Ganesh Balakka holding the umbrella. “There is no network at home so we usually go to a spot 1.5 km away to access the network for her studies. I usually stay with her till she completes her studies for the day. Her studies should not come down to whether a village has a mobile tower or not,“ says Ganesh, who works at an arecanut plantation near his home and cannot afford an internet connection. 

Bindu Kumari, along with her father Ganesh : Photograph by Mahesh Puchchappady

The photograph, which was shared widely on social media, was clicked by Sullia-based journalist Mahesh Puchchappady, who says it is a common sight for someone who travels in villages in his taluk. “I have seen students on the side of the road glued to their phones and attending online classes in the past year. The internet is now a necessary basic right for students to continue their education,” Mahesh, who runs a  rural news website, tells TNM. “There is one BSNL mobile tower in Kamila village and two more in Guttigar village, one each of BSNL and Airtel, but this is not enough to ensure students get internet in their homes. The slope in this region is such that if the mobile tower is on one side of the slope, the other side does not get network connectivity,” he says. “If there is a power cut, then the network is not available until the power is restored because there is no battery backup at the BSNL tower.”

The lack of connectivity for remote learning has revealed a digital divide in education — the gap between those who have ready access to computers and the internet, and those who do not.  A disproportionate number of the students disengaged from schooling are from rural areas. 

Data shared by the State Department of Public Instruction revealed that as many as 41% of the students (37.79 lakh  students) surveyed in the state did not have access to the internet and 34% of the students (31.27 lakh students) did not have access to gadgets like smartphones and tablets.  This included 86,466 students in Dakshina Kannada district who did not have access to the internet and 69,694 students who did not have access to gadgets. Only 85% of the 93 lakh students surveyed had a mobile phone.

Teachers are not immune to this problem and face network struggles of their own but ask them about online education and they point out another equally big concern — the absence of a human connection. “Teaching involves human connection and that has been taken away in the pandemic. We are not able to gauge the reaction of the student and recognise if they have understood the lesson or not,” Pradeep, who teaches in a primary school in Murulya village in Sullia, says. 

He adds that even teachers grapple with network disruptions and they have had to improvise as social workers and tech support to help students during the pandemic. “It is tough to take live lessons and only recorded lessons are possible sometimes. But even then, if the student is unable to log in, they won’t be able to learn the lessons,” Pradeep says.  

Unlike students of private schools, those in government schools have not had regular online classes in the last year. Students in government schools were taught through the Vidyagama scheme, which involved teachers meeting small groups of students in community centres, religious places, or under the shade of big trees, to take classes twice a week. This was discontinued in October last year with the state government using public television networks to broadcast lessons for high school students. Many students have found the lessons on television confusing and parents, who may have limited education in their childhood, are not prepared for home tutoring.

“There is a personal touch when students see their own teacher is teaching them. If classes are aired on television, most students do not feel like paying attention because it is a stranger talking to them,” Pradeep says.

Students studying in Mudigere, Chikkamagaluru

An in-depth study by Azim Premji University on online schooling backs up Pradeep’s observations. The study was undertaken in 2020 in 1522 schools in five states including Karnataka. It stated that online education was inaccessible for students in government schools and that it was ineffective in providing substantive learning opportunities. “Almost 60% of the children cannot access online learning opportunities. Reasons for this varied from absence of a smartphone, multiple siblings sharing a smartphone,difficulty in using the apps for online learning, etc,” the study said. 

The problem is not specific to Sullia alone but has been reported across the state, particularly in the Malnad region along the Western Ghats. Last year, students in Devalamakki, a village near Karwar in Uttara Kannada district, gathered in a public bus stop for their online classes. Students in Sagar taluk of Shivamogga were recently seen climbing hills to access network for online classes.  In Kodagu’s Somwarpet taluk, a teacher built a make-shift room on top of a tree to overcome the problem of weak network connectivity. 

Read: Searching for a mobile signal in Uttara Kannada with schooling shifting to WhatsApp

Students studying in a bus stop in Devalamakki, Uttara Kannada

Students studying on a hill in Sagar, Shivamogga

Mahesh and a few other public-spirited residents in Sullia are trying to address the issue at least in their region. They came together to set up BSNL’s Bharat AirFiber network hotspot at the public bus stop in Kamila, where Shree Poorna now attends her online classes. “We watched Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech last year where he mentioned India’s villages will be connected by optical fibre network. Instead of waiting for it to happen, we found out more about the scheme and decided to implement it ourselves,” Mahesh says. 

The money needed, around Rs 35,000, was raised through donors and the hotspot was set up at a house located opposite the bus stop. 

But it is not a foolproof plan, Mahesh is quick to add. “This solves the issue in one village but there are so many villages still unconnected. Private mobile networks don’t find it profitable to set up a tower and the Union government is yet to improve connectivity in our villages,” Mahesh says. “The pandemic is tough for everyone and it is hard to seek help now but since internet connectivity is now essential for students to continue their education, the network problem here should be fixed,” he adds. 

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