A pandemic-stricken India frantically grapples with a jolt to an education system that is seemingly ill-equipped to handle the transition to distance learning solutions.
India is amongst the 153 countries where school closures due to Covid-19 have forced 1.2 billion students out of school globally. With over 320 million students affected in the country itself, a pandemic-stricken India frantically grapples with a jolt to an education system that is seemingly ill-equipped to handle the transition to distance learning solutions. With educational institutions still closed, the ideation and implementation of viable solutions to provide unhindered education to students has been on the minds of the government, policymakers and concerned citizens alike.
The Ministry of Human Resource Development has launched numerous e-learning projects and initiatives that serve as valuable resources for both students and educators. In a statement in late March, Union Minister of Human Resource Development, Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’, reported that these initiatives have seen a sharp increase in access during the nationwide lockdown imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Complementarily, Union Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs, Nirmala Sitharaman, in her national address on 17 May 2020, introduced several initiatives and reforms to enhance the education sector. Laying emphasis on technology-driven education, she announced the launch of the PM e-VIDYA initiative, a program that would serve as a unifier of all modes (online, digital, on-air) of education in the country, allowing for easy, multi-modal access. Sitharaman also announced three new initiatives focused on providing students, teachers and their families with psycho-social support during the pandemic, achieving literacy and numeracy targets countrywide, and attaining global education standards.
As the government pushes towards creating an ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’ that will emerge stronger post-pandemic, the ambitious nature of the proposed initiatives begets the question of whether the consideration of equitable access has been made. The ripple effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have disproportionately affected the country’s population, and exposed disparities that were neglected before. Nationwide school closures have left millions of students in the lurch, and the solutions offered appear to be selectively beneficial only to those who can easily avail them.
Distance learning education solutions are possible through a combination of efforts made by motivated students and educators, encouraged by reassuring families, and sustained by governments who provide programs and policies with the necessary infrastructure to support them. While the country has adopted these measures as short-term, crisis-combatting solutions, these new initiatives and a transition to e-learning will address some of our society’s most pressing problems and change the nature of our education system wholly in the years to come. To ensure widespread access to these opportunities, however, a number of steps need to be taken.
Learning cannot take place in a disruptive environment. For many students, the inability to go to school means staying back in abusive homes, where they are subjected to the trauma of domestic abuse. There is a concerning pandemic-related surge in cases of domestic violence worldwide. More so than their male counterparts, female students in India suffer at the hands of abuse and violence, poverty, child marriage, lack of care and nutrition, and outdated patriarchal ideas.
These glaring realities point to the urgent need of the government to ensure the implementation of more targeted social safety nets, welfare and protection schemes, and the easy availability of counselling services to those in need. Dismantling patriarchal mindsets will take time, but all efforts need to be made to ensure the protection of the some of the most vulnerable members of society.
Data from the Indian government’s data bank show that across the country, literacy rates are higher for males than for females, and in urban as compared to rural areas. Interestingly, across levels of education, more females are enrolled in school than males. But the number of female students that actually attend classes is questionable. Parents are reluctant — and sometimes outright refuse — to send their daughters to school, often citing the non-necessity of obtaining an education, caregiving responsibilities and family obligations as reasons. Other factors that come in to play are those of safety and wellbeing: Long distances between home and school, lack of sanitation facilities, availability of proper meals are all causes of concern.
Availing online education may, amongst others, alleviate parents’ concerns about their daughters’ safety when it comes to going to school. Female students may take classes in the comfort of their own homes, without having to make long, sometimes dangerous, commutes to places of education, and may be able to balance their household responsibilities with their education.
In 2018, India’s total labour force participation rate (LFPR) stood at 47.9 percent, with 74.6 percent of its workforce being male, and a dismal 20.7 percent female. LFPR and the pursuit of more education, according to theories of human capital, is, in most cases, directly correlated: With higher educational qualifications and well-honed skill sets, people would secure good jobs. Uniquely, in India, female LFPR presents a paradox, wherein there is an inverse relationship between the two factors: In spite of seeking out education, women are not entering the workforce.
Socio-cultural factors may have a part to play here. New e-learning initiatives would allow women to pursue their education and targeted skill building programmes online. With newly acquired skills, they could also take up jobs that allow them to work remotely, thereby allowing them flexibility, all while providing them with a stable source of income.
With pandemic-related job losses and subsequent lack of income, many poor families might pull their students out of school. For families that choose to support their children’s education even in these trying times, a lack of access to infrastructure may be detrimental to their children’s learning. Multiple children at home means needing to split already scarce resources — a luxury that many affected families cannot afford.
When it comes to infrastructure, a quick glance at statistics of the reach of AM and FM radio, and television and Internet penetration rates shows the progress these services have made in India over the years. In 2017, TV penetration in India stood at 64 percent, with 183 million households owning at least one television set. As for radio, broadcast radio (AM) reaches 99 percent of the Indian population, and FM radio reaches 65 percent. After China, India has the second largest number of Internet users in the world: over 560 million. With an Internet penetration rate of 50 percent, nearly half the country has access to the Internet in 2020, with more men than women accessing the Internet on average, and more urban users than rural ones. A notable statistic is that a majority of Indians (29 percent in 2018) accessed the Internet via their mobile phones, reportedly due to affordable and accessible data plans — 4G networks are most widely used across the country — and government schemes and incentives.
While these numbers may seem impressive, India still has a long way to go to ensure that its citizens are able to easily access and properly utilize these services. Were digital and electronic devices provided for free under government welfare schemes, NGOs, and corporate CSR initiatives, those who needed them the most would greatly benefit. Another viable alternative would be the availability of loans on easy terms and low-or-no-interest EMI schemes to make purchasing these devices easier. The government must also work towards strengthening the country’s telecom infrastructure to make it more robust to be able to support digital remote learning.
High-stakes test taking is a distinctive feature of the Indian education system, with competitive exam results determining anxious students’ future for higher education. Across the country, their children’s admissions and college degrees are matters of family pride, and parents spare no expense to ensure their children receive the appropriate guidance and support. Coaching centre culture — seemingly a by-product of insufficient guidance provided at schools, determined students, and pressure from tiger parents — is prominent in India, with coaching centres receiving students from across socio-economic strata vying for their select few seats. A majority of these centres exist in cities, and rural families send their students far from home to seek tutelage at these established centres. Many of these centres seem to exploit the parents and students’ desperation and frustration, charging exorbitantly high fees that parents pay whether or not they are able to afford them.
Up-and-coming substitutes for coaching centres are education preparation apps and websites, which are easily available to students. The shift from in-person to online and digital education solves the problem of securing one of the limited seats at the coaching centres, waiving — or at least significantly reducing — the high tuition fees, all while being as comprehensive.
With the huge boost in technology use during the pandemic, the great hope of the Internet and digital access serving as an equaliaer in the information age lives on. The Covid-19 pandemic has driven the government, policymakers and educators to innovate and implement dynamic digital learning initiatives, and encouraged students and their families to access and familiarise themselves with these new forms of learning. If the future is to be powered digitally, this challenging moment in history should be taken as a powerful step to rethink and revamp the country’s education sector and propel the country’s youth forward to take on a post-pandemic world. Widespread, easy access to online education heightened dissemination of information will also allow the country’s older population to learn new digital skills and improve day-to-day standards of living. In creating an environment conducive for the marriage of education and technology, as educational institutions reopen, the country must not revert to its old ways but take the next steps to embracing the “new normal.”
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Meghna Chadha was Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundations Delhi Centre. Her research interests include behavioural economics the future of work AI and technology for ...Read More +