Since the COVID -19 pandemic has disrupted the normal lifestyle of people across the globe, the virtual world has come to the rescue. Amongst many institutions schools have also shifted their base to virtual platforms to conduct classes online. Consequently, catering to the needs of all stages of education from pre-primary to university level, online education has emerged as an alternative to ordinary face to face classes. Accordingly, various stakeholders such as government and private organizations are trying their best to assist each other by sprucing up their existing online platforms, apps and providing training to teachers to use these apps and platforms to the optimum level. Moreover, efforts are being made by both government and non-government organisations and edtech companies to support the school system to make a smooth transition to the virtual world. Upskilling and motivating teachers, organising counselling sessions for stakeholders such as teachers, parents and students are some of the important measures taken by the administration in the recent past. Making a continuous effort to provide customised teaching-learning material suitable for online classes is another way of facilitating the schooling of children. The Central government has recently launched the PM e-VIDYA platform, with 12 new DTH channels, one for each class to reach out to all stratas of society. These efforts have proved beneficial to a sizable chunk of the school-going population.
However, this alternative medium has also brought to the fore some stark persistent realities of Indian society characterised by social inequalities in terms of availability of resources, essential to access these online classes/platforms. These digital initiatives are perpetuating the hegemony of elite schools over the education system, resulting in the digital divide between rural and urban and rich and poor. This digital divide is also affecting the work and role of the government as well as non-government organisations across states as they are facing challenges due to the recent migration of millions of labourers to their native places. Both the central as well as state governments will have to make a road map not only for labourers’ employment but for the education of their children too. Given the great difference in the infrastructure across states in terms of internet and allied facilities it appears to be a huge task. In addition, the non-government organisations that support the marginalised sections of the society in terms of health, education and livelihood and also collaborate with governments are facing financial crunch as most of the funds are being diverted to tackle the pandemic.
Students and teachers also have their own struggles while accessing these online platforms. Due to financial constraints, students are not able to access the internet, and are devoid of electronic gadgets and laptop, phone or computer or even radio and TV. Those students who have facilities to attend to online classes face barriers in terms of unavailability of physical space, which is equally applicable to teachers who are supposed to conduct online classes from their home. There are also social barriers such as discrimination against girls as they are expected to do household chores instead of attending online classes in the mornings. In rural areas, boys are often expected to work on the family farmlands. In homes where TV and radio are available, the question of who has control over these gadgets is important. Most of the time, girls are not allowed to watch educational programmes.
It should be noted here that missing from all the narratives of online education is the question of equity and equality, the cornerstone of the Constitution of India. Envisioned in the Constitution of India is the aim of providing equality of education opportunities to all citizens irrespective of caste, class, gender and religion. Article 29 (1) provides for equal access to educational institutions maintained by the State without discrimination on grounds only of religion, race, caste, language or any of them. Similarly, the Right to Education Act 2009, mandates to provide equitable quality education to all children from six to 14 years of age. However, all the efforts of the government to facilitate education processes during the pandemic draws attention to the fact that the milieu of public/government education system, and low fee private school or affordable private schools, are out of the purview of government initiatives of online education. Even people from disadvantaged communities- be it, teachers, students or parents-have been left to fend for themselves while Government is making provisions for online learning or planning to resume offline on-campus school post-COVID. Alarming is the fact that the government is oblivious to the stark realities of social inequalities which are proving to be the greatest barrier to access online education.
On the contrary, from politicians to bureaucrats to private companies, all are concerned with completing the syllabus, assessing students and conducting entrance tests for medical and engineering courses through online mode in a haste, ignoring the issues and concerns of the marginalised section of the society. When only 24 per cent of the households of students in India have internet access and in urban areas, 42 per cent of households have access to the internet as compared to 15 per cent in rural areas, this online education is catering to the needs of a chosen few.
Moreover, the COVID 19 pandemic has put the spotlight on the ever-increasing structural imbalances in school education in terms of rural-urban, rich and poor and gender divide. There are reports in the media about teachers and principals of low fee private schools from across all over the country who are forced to change their job to survive and support their families as most of the schools have their shutters down due to plummeting revenues as their students have either dropped out from the school or have migrated to their native places due to joblessness and subsequent poverty of their parents. The schools which have managed to sail through such difficult situations are finding it difficult to acquire resources and upskilling their teachers to teach online. Some of the insights emerging from this scenario are the gaps in addressing the needs of students as well as teachers belonging to the marginalised sections of society. Inclusivity is the hallmark of the National Curriculum Framework 2005 as well as the draft National Education Policy 2019. Still, while addressing the issues arising out of this pandemic, the marginalised sections of the society are being neglected.
Technology has been considered central to the reform of school education and has gained unprecedented momentum during this pandemic. It is being perceived as a panacea to combat all the education/schooling related issues, hence the hurry to transfer classrooms into the virtual world without taking into consideration the reach to all learners. In a country as diverse as India in terms of regional, linguistic, caste, class and gender, and socioeconomic status, the school system is also characterised by stratification from elite to low fee private schools as well as government schools, creating a plethora of issues about specific educational, psychosocial and financial needs of students as well as teachers based on gender, caste, class and socioeconomic status. Under these circumstances, there is no way a unilateral approach to mitigate school education disruption is going to address these diverse and complex set of issues of multiple dimensions.
There are some lessons to be learnt from the countries like Syria, and Kenya and other African countries who for reasons such as conflict, refugee and recurring epidemics like Ebola have the experience of making provisions for the education of children during difficult times. Over the years they have developed strategies to keep the schooling of students going. There is evidence to show that for children belonging to disadvantaged groups, low tech mediums such as radio, television are useful. In circumstances where even these two are also out of reach, the distribution of paper-based learning materials helps, mostly for girls. Because even if there is a radio or TV in the house, she may not get the opportunity to access it due to the burden of household chores. Therefore the option to distribute books and supplementary notebooks based on audio-video lessons should be contemplated. The experience of tackling the Ebola crisis has helped Sierra Leone to prepare a better strategy to address Covid induced educational disruption. The country has implemented a plan to provide education to its children which includes radio broadcast as well as distribution of pen, pencil and books to students. With 80 per cent mobile phone penetration, the country is trying to capitalise on it by developing a mobile phone-based educational intervention.
No matter how simple a technology or plan is being used to provide education to all, some of the children will remain left out during critical situations due to multiple causes such as poverty, migration, family problems and so on. The education system is destined to face an array of issues post-Covid. These range from a new burden on Government schools due to influx of students from low fee private schools as many of them will no longer be able to afford to pay for education due to financial constraints to psycho-social problems of children arising out of problems at home. All these hardships are going to affect children immensely. Given the above, the government should come forward with a policy perspective on post Covid response to education. This should entail a plan to address the specific academic needs and psycho-social needs of children once they return to school as well as strategies to mitigate Covid induced issues related to the management of schools, addressing emerging learning gaps among children, and training of teachers to use principles of blended learning flipped classroom. Such plans that clarify where to use low as well as high tech educational solutions which will prepare also prepare the government to combat any post Covid crisis such as conflict, natural disaster or for that matter pollution.