A primary school teacher in Mullur, a remote village in Karnataka state in southwest India, has found a unique solution to ongoing internet connectivity problems that were making his online classes a challenge: a handbuilt treehouse classroom, which allows for better internet access. He is one of many teachers and students in rural areas who have to navigate connectivity issues after India’s devastating second wave of Covid-19 in April and May led to reinforced lockdowns and school closures.
A February 2021 survey by Learning Spiral, an online exam provider in India, found that more than half of India’s student population does not have internet access. Students around the country walk several kilometres or trek up hills to reach areas with an internet connection. Others climb trees in order to get better, uninterrupted signals from faraway cell towers.
‘I thought that maybe if I climbed a tree, I would get a better network’
C.S. Satheesha, a primary school teacher of 34 students at the Government Lower Primary School in Mullur village, has been teaching his classes online since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. He decided to take matters into his own hands after experiencing ongoing connectivity problems during his online classes. His solution: to build a treetop platform classroom in a mango tree near his house.
When I was conducting my classes online, I was getting a poor network connection. I thought that maybe if I climbed a tree, I would get a better network. Incidentally, I got a good network connection, so I built the treehouse there in the exact place.
There [are] a lot of disturbances at home. Inside my house, there [are] network issues, noise from children, noise from the TV, so I built the treehouse with all kinds of learning tools that would help me to conduct independent learning classes.
Most people in India depend on 4G mobile networks rather than WiFi connections. Raised around six metres off the ground, Satheesha’s treehouse gets better signals from nearby mobile network towers than his home, because there is less interference from buildings and trees which might weaken signal strength.
It took him two months to build the structure, which he finished in April 2021. He uses cables to connect the classroom to an electricity source in his house. Built primarily from bamboo, hay and other natural materials found in the area, the construction of the classroom cost Satheesha close to 5,000 rupees (around 56 euros).
‘I searched on Google for how to build a treehouse’
Even in [in-person] school, I used to spend some money on my students. The same amount has been invested here. I used all the materials that I could get around my house, so I didn’t spend much. I searched on Google for how to build a treehouse, and I did all the work myself. It was not difficult, because I was so interested in having a good classroom. Now, we get a very good network connection and the classes are going successfully.
‘The students’ participation and responses have improved’
I conduct the classes online now using Google Meet, and the students are responding very well to me. I’m getting good results and I’m feeling really happy now that I can conduct classes in a real classroom without any disturbances. The students’ participation and responses have improved and it shows how eager they are to learn. They seem really happy to follow my classes and they always look forward to what I’m going to teach in the next class.
India’s digital divide
The Covid-19 pandemic has shined a light on the “digital divide” in countries around the world. In India, lack of access to electricity, technology and internet connections have made telework and online courses difficult since the start of the pandemic.
>> Read on The Observers: Some Iranian children are literally climbing mountains to access online school
In India, this divide is particularly pronounced. Urban areas have a 99 percent internet penetration rate, while rural areas reach only 33 percent, despite access and availability increasing rapidly.
Satheesha counselled the students in his village to use a particular mobile provider, which provides better service in his area. He also tells them to test around their homes to find the location with the best reception, and then follow their classes from that spot.
But beyond internet access, students need adequate devices to attend their online classes. Many students use smartphones to follow their classes, but often devices belong to parents or guardians and are shared among several students in the household. A study by India’s Department of Public Instruction released July 1 showed that 3.1 million students in Karnataka state lack a device to access the internet, and 3.7 million do not have internet access.
A mentorship program in which teachers meet biweekly with parents of students without internet access has been launched to help maintain continuity in learning for India’s rural communities. The government has also initiated a plan to bring high-speed internet services to India’s rural villages, but Covid-19 has caused delays.
Internet availability issues have also affected India’s vaccination campaign, where people must book a vaccine appointment on a dedicated online portal.