Leveraging rural TV penetration to continue education during covid times
When Soumya Sengupta, a zestful 38-year-old looked into the camera and decided to hum ‘Boli o nanadi aar du mutho chaal phele de haritey’ he wasn’t really rapping about the proverbial son-in-law but was using the rapid rhythm of this santhali folk tune to demonstrate the life-saving technique of cardiopulmonary resuscitation. “You have to do 100 chest compressions in a minute but if you can’t keep count, pump to the tempo of this song,” he explained, bent over a CPR mannequin in a makeshift set at home made to look like a classroom.
Sengupta’s performance was for an unseen audience of thousands of children in Bengal watching him on television everyday. When the pandemic shut down schools and sparked a boom in online learning, this primary school teacher from Radhanagar, a village in Bengal’s Bishnupur, vowed to not let students in his remote village — with little or no access to the Internet or smart devices — be cheated out of their education.
So he took school lessons over to the television airwaves. The call for using TV as an educator may sound feeble in a world moving towards the virtual but Sengupta was determined to harness its power to keep rural homebound students engaged in learning during the pandemic. “The internet doesn’t have much reach here and very few have smartphones but 60 percent of our school children have cable television at home,” explained Sengupta.
After much convincing, he roped in the local cable channel, negotiated an hour’s slot at Rs18,000 a month, pooled in funds and called on the charm and expertise of an eclectic band of people — literary scholars, scientists, doctors, psychologists, and environmentalists alongside local magicians, puppeteers and folk artistes — into daily telecasting of learning material. What started as a local exercise mid-June is now helping fill the void left by the lockdown and lack of digital infrastructure for children across Bengal who tune in for an hour of televised schooling everyday.
The show titled ‘Khelte khelte lekha pora, porte porte khela’ (learning while playing, playing to learn’) is not a traditional classroom but a homegrown experiment that doesn’t organise learning by age. The lessons — “a permutation-combination of content” — draw heavily from Bengal’s oral traditions, nature and the performing arts to help children comprehend their textbook knowledge of science, maths, literature and basic life skills.
The initiative has also offered fresh impetus to schoolteachers across the state — namely Bankura, Howrah, Midnapore and Purulia districts — to engage with students over stories and lessons filmed from their study table, terrace or the woods that Sengupta stitches together for television. “My laptop is slow but fortunately I have a smartphone where I could quickly download an app, learn some editing and seek help from friends after the cable TV operator who’d do it for us tested Covid positive,” says Sengupta who has spent nine hours everyday planning, filming and editing 63 episodes till date.
To make the lessons less passive, Sengupta taught himself the techniques of multi-camera shoot and graphics on a homemade chroma screen using green art paper. The mix of lessons ranges from hands-on experiments using rocks and rice; experts like cardiologist Gautam Mistry sharing tips and recipes for a healthy heart; Mallika Banerjee, head of psychology at Calcutta University explaining ‘good touch, bad touch’; and snakebite veteran Dr Dayalbandhu Majumdar’s training on how to manage a venomous bite. The lessons are interspersed with games and performances by videos of kids singing, dancing or performing science experiments.
The televised learning is resonating with students, too. In West Bengal’s Howrah district, nine-year-old Sujan Mitra’s day starts with a flicker of the TV screen every morning but for a change, his parents don’t mind. With school closed indefinitely, he gets his lessons at home from this brand new library of educational broadcasts that inspired him to film two experiments with eggs and water and send it for the show. “I watch the show, too with my son and there are important life skills like CPR or how to take care of our eyes that I’ve learnt,” says Sujan’s mother Soma.
These TV classrooms are also offering a stage to folk artistes struggling to stay afloat after the pandemic robbed them of their living. “Magicians, puppeteers and folk artistes who would perform at schools and colleges have resorted to selling groceries. We’re getting them to perform on our special shows every Sunday and for that we remunerate them,” adds Sengupta, even as he keeps his fingers crossed for continued support that often comes from unexpected quarters. “We thought schools would reopen by July but it doesn’t look like the coronavirus outbreak will end soon. I hope we can keep the show running,” he says.
While the channel boasts 66 lakh subscribers across Bengal, how many children watch the show everyday doesn’t worry Sengupta. “When a child from faraway Hooghly calls me to say that she enjoys solving maths with pebbles after watching our show or a teacher from Purulia’s tribal belt reaches out with a lesson, I know we’ve done our job. See, I’m not a social missionary. It’s my duty towards our students,” shrugs the physics graduate turned school teacher who also moonlights as a “science activist” for the Science and Rationalists' Association of India.
But if the flurry of phone-calls and written requests everyday is anything to go by then television as an educator is having its moment as a low-cost lifeline for students with few resources. “It’s not a substitute for textbooks and we’re not preparing students for exams. It’s about building their reasoning and analytical skills through the things they see around them. Joyful learning by doing will help in actual learning,” maintains Sengupta.