Srinagar: As the clock struck 11 am, Waseem* rushed to his room. He hurriedly placed his mobile phone on a pillow and clicked onto Zoom, the video-conference app, to join his school’s online classes school.
“I hope it connects instantly,” he said, holding a pen in one hand, sitting cross-legged.
“Connecting,” the screen responded.
A Class 6 student at a government school in Budgam district, 11-year-old Waseem grew restive. A few minutes later, he lost patience and rushed to another room, going round and round, holding the phone high in his hand, to try and connect to the “Zoom class”.
Amid the government-mandated lockdown in Kashmir, the school education department last week asked schools to start online classes for students, apart from announcing a few other initiatives to keep students engaged in the studies.
The Zoom meeting platform, despite the security concerns flagged by the Union home ministry, has emerged as the go-to portal for holding online classes in the Valley. But the slow-speed or 2G internet is playing spoiler.
“This is my math class,” said Waseem. “I don’t want to miss it.”
He, however, was left with no option but to wait. More than 15 minutes later, he managed to connect to the class. “Waseem, did you solve the questions?” were the first words he heard from his teacher.
“Sir, I couldn’t see or hear anything all this while. It (the app) was not working,” the student responded politely.
“What can I do now? This is an everyday problem,” the teacher said, as his tone grew louder.
There were seven other students connected to the class. The teachers asked them to recheck their answers before shifting focus on Waseem to help him solve the question. Suddenly, the screen on Waseem’s mobile phone turned blank again.
He burst into laughter. “Yeth kah gou waen (What happened to it now),” the student said, only to realise the problem the next moment. “This 2G net is too slow to work.”
In August 2019, the Centre abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and locked down the region. The lockdown was followed by the democratic world’s longest internet shutdown, which was partially lifted on January 25 when authorities restored access to 2G internet.
The denial of high-speed internet has, however, prevented people from using banking apps, paying bills online and accessing other services. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors in Kashmir are struggling to update themselves on the latest information on the deadly infection. The students are the latest to suffer now, as the slow internet speed continues.
According to Waseem, the online classes were fun and could have made students more interested in their classes. “But the ban on 4G internet is a big problem,” he said.
Two of his classmates missed a “major part” of their Urdu class earlier that day owing to the slow internet speed, he said, adding that fluctuating connectivity owing to slow internet was a permanent feature during the classes.
“This happens regularly. Sometimes the screen of my phone turns blank and at times even the audio is erratic,” Waseem said.
Only eight of the 21 students from his class have joined the online classes which began last Tuesday. Other students, according to him, don’t have smartphones at home.
This slow internet speed has irked teachers as well. Some of them have taken to social media to demand the restoration of 4G services. A teacher talked about the problems he faces while holding the online classes on Facebook.
“While we were in the middle of a class, a student kept repeatedly saying that he can neither see the board nor hear my voice clearly,” the teacher says in the video. “I felt so helplessly, but there was hardly anything I could have done.”
“Restoring 4G internet is the minimum the government can do in this situation, to ensure students don’t lose precious time,” he says. “If you don’t want to restore 4G service, at least increase the speed of the internet.”
Another teacher said Zoom was the only web-based video conferencing tool that works on the slow-speed internet. “I came to know about the security concerns flagged by the (Union) home ministry and tried to use other apps like Skype, Zoom and others, but they don’t work on 2G,” he said.
Last week, principal secretary higher education, J&K Asgar Samoon also talked about the slow speed internet and how it was a hindrance for students who had to download study material.
kids have no ipads/no access to desktops; cant download text books as internet is slow; Rs 2030.87 lac released for 1st-8th classes; DSEJ Rs 1105.44 lac & DSEk Rs. 925.43 lac; kmr div/ distributed books; remaining Jmu districts-dsej/ ceos/zeos to expedite in 2 wks
— Dr Asgar Hassan Samoon IAS (@AsgarSamoon) April 10, 2020
Director of school education, Kashmir, M.Y. Malik said besides Zoom classes, teachers were also uploading recorded video lectures on Youtube and different social media platforms like Facebook for students.
The department, he said, has also uploaded subject-wise and class-wise material on its website for students and is televising lecturers for one hour in the evening for students of different classes on alternative days.
When told that teachers and students have described slow-speed internet as a major hurdle to online classes, the director said, “I will check and let you know.” He did not respond to repeated calls from The Wire later.
On April 3, the J&K administration ordered the continuation of the ban on high-speed internet “in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India,” after a review of the situation in Kashmir.
“The internet restrictions have, while enabling access to essential services and sites, not posed any hindrance to COVID-19 control measures, or to access the online education content,” reads the April 3 order that was issued by principal secretary J&K home department, Shaleen Kabra. On April 15, the government extended the ban till April 27, when the next review will take place.