Of 790 dropouts, 91 married 

Some students in Lunana didn’t even get books to study

Yangchen C Rinzin

Leki Tshewang and his three friends from Ramina in Lunana gewog completed the 2020 academic year without going to school.

The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the conventional teaching mode and forced the education ministry to embark on virtual learning which resulted in many challenges for rural students.

The students of Bjishong Central School in Damji, Gasa come from one of the most remote villages in the country. Nestled among the mountains rising more than 3,400 metres above the sea level, the village has no electricity, television network, or road. The residents climb to certain spots to catch the mobile network signal to communicate with the world beyond.

Every year they walk days to get to the boarding school, but not this year.

Before their school, which usually opens in April, could open, the government in March instructed all schools to shut down and the education ministry adopted distance teaching and learning methods.

For Leki Tshewang, 10, and his three friends, options ran out.

Given the remoteness, teachers could not visit them to teach. Teachers arranged to send Self Instructional Materials (SIM), but they did not have a teacher to teach using the material. The social media application WeChat became their classroom.

Leki Tshewang will be studying in Class II this year, and his friends who will be in class III and IX used their parents’ phone to study through WeChat.

Teachers sent lessons through voicemail and image. Given the poor mobile network coverage in the area, especially in summer, accessing them became a challenge.

“We used to search for a mobile network signal, and wherever there was a network, we would sit together and then refer to the assignments shared by teachers through WeChat,” Leki Tshewang said. “I used to complete my homework, but I was always late in submitting my work because of the network problem.”

Chiwog Tshogpa Norbu Tshering said sometimes students walked about an hour to get connected to the internet. “When they do, downloading images was an issue,” he said. “But students patiently waited in the cold until the download was complete.”

He added when the internet did not work, teachers guided them through the phone calls.

Leki Tshering sometimes sought help with the lessons from his elder brother who dropped school after the fourth grade.

Likewise, two students of Esuna village under Lunana also completed the academic session. Esuna is more than two days walk from Ramina village, but except for the locals and a few villagers from Ramina village, no one knows how to reach Esuna. There is no mobile network either.

Even though teachers tried all possible means, they could not reach the students.

Students who had access to online education in urban areas studied through Google classroom with proper and continued guidance from teachers on their mobile phone, ipad, computer or laptop.

The year 2020 was a pandemic year that compelled the Ministry of Education to embrace digital teaching and learning model.

The government decided the academic year for Classes PP-VIII would be completed through an e-Learning platform. In the process, the decision triggered the issue of the digital divide.

To make up for the lost instructional hours and implement distance learning, the ministry ensured various technologies to engage students during the school closure.

Some teachers came forward to initiate tele-education. The education ministry launched it as ‘Bhutan e-Learning.’ The initial idea was to deliver lessons through national television. The ministry recorded more than 400 video lessons. It was simultaneously broadcast on the radio too.

But many private schools in Thimphu were ahead of where Google Classrooms were already in practice and implemented immediately after the school closure.

The ministry also came up with SIM, a printed version of tele-education in a concise period to cover students without access to gadgets, television or internet. Then as an emergency in education, the Royal Education Council developed an adapted curriculum and prioritised curriculum. The prioritised curriculum was implemented when the government decided to reopen Classes IX-XII.

The ministry to enable e-Learning also initiated additional data than regular internet packages with TashiCell and Bhutan Telecom Limited and allowed access to only e-Learning sites.


Digitally divided/access and disparity in learning

Like Leki, many students from every part of Bhutan had to embrace online education with or without access to information and communication technology (ICT) or other forms of digital tools.

However, the prolonged school closure widened the digital divide creating a disparity in the learning opportunity. Many argued that learning did not take place apart from engaging students.

If it was about limited guidance from parents in urban areas, even with access, children in rural areas landed up helping parents in the fields without devices like mobile phones, electronic tablets, radio or television to access tele-education or SIM. There were several incidents, mostly in social media, of students pressuring parents to buy mobile phones.  Some students in Yobinang, Shongphu gewog walked a km to watch the lessons on television at their neighbours’ place.

The digital access was vivid when the ministry found that around 17,000 students did not have access to television and had to print additional SIM to distribute to students. These children were either from socio-economically disadvantaged parents or lived in places with limited internet access or reliable connection.

The digital divide had students learning from SIM and on the other hand students with access to digital learned online. Commentators shared that students from economically advantaged would be more advanced in learning than those in the remote areas.

However, many people came together and donated either phones or television or collected donations to help economically disadvantaged students. Teachers also came together to help identified children to get mobile phones.

“My husband and I are working and it’s difficult to be with my son for online education,” Deki, a civil servant said. “We were almost at the verge of giving up and let him repeat the class.”

Teachers shared that despite several trials, some parents did not bother to respond to online education and assist their children with assignments and homework. “While parents in rural areas were clueless in helping their children, parents in urban areas didn’t have time to guide their children,” Jigme, a teacher in Thimphu said.

Another teacher, Sonam from Punakha, shared that children with access to mobile phones were not studying. There were reports of children getting addicted to different games accessed through the internet in many cases. “I had about three cases where children did not do even a single assignment.”

A private school proprietor said the government rushed in providing free internet and phones to bridge the digital divide. “Children stayed up late at night playing games because of the unlimited internet offered after 1pm by the service provider.”

The lack of enough devices like mobile phones, both in urban and rural areas became another problem for parents with more than one or two children. “My two children took turns to study. It became expensive and inconvenient,” Pema Chenzom, a single mother said.

Without proper internet access, some teachers took the matter in their hand and took mobile teaching upon themselves. Teachers of many remote schools walked days to reach the SIM and took along instructors to deliver lessons.

Some graduates volunteered to guide and teach using the SIM in their neighbourhood. Some parents treated students and teachers studying on mobile. For instance, a taxi driver in Talo, Punakha offered free rides to teachers and a principal of Laptsakha.


Tensions lead many to drop out

With schools remaining shut for months, some students did not return after Classes resumed for IX-XII. Many teachers shared that without access to learning and remaining home for a long time, students lost interest in education. Some wanted to repeat.

The education ministry recorded about 790 students (343 female and 447 male) who dropped out of school. 472 students decided to leave school because of domestic or health issues. A total of 120 wanted to repeat.

More than 90 students got married, 49 found jobs, 37 became monks or nuns and 21 joined the armed forces.

Expressing academic concern, stress, tension and other issues while at home during the school closure, many students availed Sherig Counselling’s service initiated by the department of youth and sports.

The career education and counselling division received about 2,324 cases as of December 2020. More than half of the callers seeking counselling were students (1,097 female and 1,037 male), according to the division’s real-time report.

Students said that they were worried about failing exams or not being able to cope up with online teaching.

Filling the gap in 2021?

One of the forces driving the development of ICT in the education sector this year is the digital education flagship programme that will digitise classroom teaching and learning. Schools have launched the ICT subject for Classes IX-XI.

Digital Drukyul flagship programme could supplement the push towards a “modern” education system.

The ministry is already working on a learning management system (LMS) to fill the digital disparity gap. It (LMS) is an e-learning platform and will have contents of every subject. It will be virtual teaching.

The government is also exploring ways to issue tablets to each student in the country, mainly those in rural areas like Leki Tshewang.

Although the government has supported every initiative that teachers and education ministry took during the pandemic, some doubt that providing tablets may not address the digital gap unless the country builds on the ICT.