Despite the coronavirus-induced lockdown, primary school teacher M K Krishnaja has been tied up in a busy schedule these days. What keeps the 26-year old on her toes is recording videos of online classes for the tribal students in Wayanad district of Kerala, which has the largest concentration of tribal population in the state. 

The shooting, which is taking place at a community centre in Andoor, a tribal hamlet, sometimes runs into five hours or even more. However, Krishnaja is not complaining.  She is thrilled that she is getting to conduct classes in Oorali’ — a dialect spoken by the tribe she belongs to.

Krishnaja is part of a unique initiative by the Kerala government, in which tribal students will be imparted lessons in their own dialects. As the pre-recorded videos are scheduled to go online next week, Krishnaja is confident that virtual classes in the local language will help the children to grasp new concepts in an effective way. “For a first-grade student, classes in Malayalam will be difficult to follow. This is a step in the right direction,” she says.  The mentor also recollects how she used to struggle with an alien language during her initial school days.

Sreeja Nidheesh, who teaches another tribal language ‘Kattunayikka’, feels that learning in local dialect will go a long way to tackle dropout rates among the tribal community. Nidheesh says that it’s imperative for a primary class student to comprehend the lessons in their mother tongue. “We are targeting the first-grade students as they are comfortable in indigenous languages and they will be able to connect with their spoken language more,” she says.

“Every teacher is entrusted with an ‘ooru’ and we monitor the children. We have set up community centres where students can attend the virtual classes on TV,” adds Nidheesh, who teaches at Appad school, Wayanad.

The state education department has identified six local languages— Kattunayikka, Paniya, Adiya, Kurichiya, Oorali and Kuruma to begin with. Classes will be available through a YouTube channel and WhatsApp groups of parents, says Dr AP Kuttikrishnan, Director, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan Project (SSA).

The lessons in tribal languages will be translated from original Malayalam content, which is already being telecasted through state government’s official channels. The virtual classes are telecasted through VICTERS Channel, which is available on cable networks and other platforms.

“Students from tribal belts often find it difficult to understand Malayalam, which can be demotivating for them. As a result, dropout rates can be high since face-to-face interaction also doesn’t happen,” adds Kuttikrishnan. To carry out the programme, 241 teachers and 60 volunteers are engaged in Wayanad district alone.

After launching its ambitious virtual learning programme, targeting 45 lakhs students on June 1, Kerala has been making meticulous efforts to reach out to the underprivileged and those who lack access to resources and technology. The virtual and broadcast-based classes, called ‘First Bell’, have been lapped up by the student community in the state.

In remote villages and tribal areas, TVs and laptops have been put up in the community centres and libraries to ensure that even one student is not left out.

Local self-governments, NGOs, and other bodies also play a significant part in bridging the digital divide, says O Pramod, district programme officer, Wayanad.

However, even after providing necessary infrastructure, educators realised that the challenges for deprived students extend beyond technology. “There was a lukewarm response from primary class students two weeks after the online classes started. That’s when we decided to introduce learning in tribal dialects,” says Pramod.

Apart from Wayanad, the ‘local dialects’ programme will be extended to tribal belts in Idukki, Palakkad, Malappuram and Pathanamthitta districts as well.

In areas where electricity and internet connection is still an obstacle, there is a solution at hand. “Teachers personally visit students who face a problem in accessing classes. They go with downloaded videos on laptops to assist the students,” says Kuttikrishnan.

The virtual learning in tribal dialects is only an extension of a scheme which was executed by the state education department three years ago. Mentor teachers, belonging to different tribes, have been appointed in schools to support tribal students in understanding the lessons in their own language.  “Since the mentors are from the same sect, children establish a good rapport with them. Dropout rates also came down after that,” adds SS Sindhu, state programme officer, SSA.

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