This pandemic, a vast majority of India's students are missing out on their education

Indian school children in classroom, Rajasthan, India. Photo: Getty Images

My son’s school recently sent out a circular announcing that they would be resuming their classes online. As I wondered how I would be able to make an energetic five-year-old sit through digital classes, while also managing work, the school sent another update announcing the postponement of sessions until June - a little solace as this has given me a month to try and adjust my schedule so that I can fit in time to sit through sessions with my child.

As per the UNESCO, around 1.57 billion children across the world have been affected by the ongoing school closures due to the pandemic. With cases flaring up and no clear picture as to when schools and universities across the country would be able to open their doors again, for many students, education continues at home through daily online sessions which are trying to take the place of traditional, face-face lessons.

A number of schools and students have moved on to Zoom, Skype and WhatsApp to attend classes, complete assignments and clarify doubts - not an ideal situation considering that children benefit the most when they are physically present with their fellow school mates and teachers. However, my son, and the others in his school and peer group, are the luckier ones who have access to technology that would enable them to attend classes online.

A glaring digital divide

For the vast majority of children in the country, online education is not a practical option. As per data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), only 23.8 per cent Indian households have access to the internet. The rural-urban divide is even starker here - in rural households, this number stands at 14.9 per cent, while in urban households, this is 42 per cent.

Also, only 8 per cent of homes have members with a computer and internet link. Further, even in case of access to both, sustained electricity is another challenge. Despite the Government’s claim that India has achieved total electrification, the number of hours and quality of electricity is not consistent across the country. As per data from a nationwide survey of villages conducted by the Ministry of Rural Development, only 47 per cent of households in the country received more than 12 hours of electricity a day, 33 per cent received 9-12 hours daily, while 16 per cent of the country’s household received only 1-8 hours of electricity a day.   

Though mobile penetration in India is high at around 78 per cent, only around 57 per cent of those in rural areas have access to mobile phones. Again, in households which have a smartphone, access can be restricted as the all learning members of the house would often have to share a single phone.  

The difference in internet penetration is also stark across states – after the National Capital Territory of Delhi which registered 69 per cent internet penetration, Kerala comes second at 54 per cent internet penetration, and with 23.5 per cent home internet penetration. Karnataka, despite being a technology hub, only has 39 per cent internet penetration, while states such as Jharkhand (26 per cent) and Odisha (25 per cent) have very low penetration.

Further, there is a huge divide between government and private schools, with regards to the infrastructure needed to continue education online. While most private schools are able to make this transition, as many of the students have access to the internet, it becomes difficult for government and municipal schools to adjust. 

There is a huge gap along gender lines as well – as per data from Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI), 67 per cent of men had access to the internet, while among women, it is an abysmally low 33 per cent – this puts children at a further disadvantage as, in many households across the country, it is the women who take on the main role of educating children. The rural-urban divide in gender is even higher, while 72 per cent of men in urban households have access to the internet, this is as low as 28 per cent in rural households.

Language is another issue here. With a majority of the apps and content available in English, it becomes difficult for vernacular medium schools and students to manage and continue with their learning process.

Testing times for all stakeholders

These are challenging times for parents and teachers, as well. Most teachers have had to swiftly reinvent their teaching methods and adapt their lessons to make it more effective for the online mode of teaching. Getting the attention of students during online sessions becomes even more difficult, both among the very young children, who have difficulty sitting down for sessions, and among the older children as well, many of whom are tech savvy but not responsible enough to handle it maturely. The internet is full of viral videos of students playing pranks on their teachers, or not turning up for classes, adding on to the strain of teaching online.

Above all, a number of teachers, who are already in a profession that barely pays in India, also have not been receiving their salaries for the month of May. Hence, these teachers end up taking double the effort preparing for their online sessions, with limited technology and expertise, but at half, or sometimes no pay, at all.

For parents, online lessons come with an extra burden - that of teaching their children, while managing their household and professional work -p and these are the privileged ones. With nearly 45 per cent of India’s population aged 15 and above termed as ‘illiterate’ as per the NSSO, a majority of parents across the country do not also have the skill sets to supplement their child’s learning process.

Meanwhile, efforts are on to bring education on track. Early April, the Union Ministry of Human Resources Development launched the Bharat Padhe Online campaign to crowdsource ideas and invite expert suggestions and solutions to improve online education in the country. The Government has also been making platforms available so that schools can continue their curriculum online, while the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT) has developed a curriculum to suit online needs.

The Human Resources Department (HRD) is planning to launch 12 DTH channels to ensure that those who do not have access to the internet do not miss out on their education. As per reports, the HRD Ministry is also looking at the idea of using community radio centres to reach out to disseminate lessons to a larger public. There have also been proposals to reduce portions by 30 per cent this year.

With the WHO warning that the virus could be here to stay, and that the world would need to learn to live with it, the Government now needs to ensure that all steps are taken so that the country does not lose out on any strides it has taken to bridge the education gap. These testing times need to be looked at as an opportunity for the Centres, states and all stakeholders to come up with innovative solutions to ensure that the learning continues, across the country.  

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