Expert Speak India Matters
Published on May 01, 2020
Sustained shift to virtual classrooms may not be a good idea for India

All this while we tried to keep him off the screen and smartphone. Like any other kid, he loves the screen. Now, as schools begin online classes through various platforms, one wonders why this rush? Is it at all necessary? Do we have a robust infrastructure to suddenly establish a system which was hitherto neglected? Can't children be left alone for a while, especially the younger kids?

As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced India’s education system – including schools – to leapfrog to adopt technology to continue academic activities, it is indeed time to evaluate the pros and cons of such a move. Is such an across-the-board shift to virtual education really the need of the hour? It is indeed hard to keep children creatively engaged as that requires constant attention which may not be always possible at home. On the other hand, if we succeed in altering our routines and actions to accommodate them it would greatly reduce their reliance on gadgets and increase their bonding with parents and other family members. However, this may not work for parents and kids of low-income families. 

Is homeschooling an option?

Homeschooling has often been thought of as an alternative to traditional school by progressive and educated parents. For many of them it does seem a workable option at this moment of COVID-19 crisis. However, even though it has its merits, it is yet to be seen how effective it is in reality. One cannot overlook the role of parents in complementing the inputs from school. Parents supplement a child’s math learning abilities by engaging in simple math problems. Likewise, a visit to museums and monuments furthers the history lessons. Even though parents now have the online materials besides their own knowledge and skills, it remains to be seen whether homeschooling would succeed for everyone in question.

The mode of learning – remote or otherwise – cannot change the fact that substantial disparities exist between families in the extent to which they can teach their children. Studies suggest that long holidays contribute to loss of academic achievement among children of low-income families. Thus, there would be differences in the amount of teaching time, in the resources available to parents as many may not be able to access the most suitable online materials and finally the amount of knowledge as it is difficult to explain to the child something which one herself doesn't understand. Hence, the children of less affluent, especially ‘digitally poor’ families would be left behind. As classes transition online, these children would lose out due to the cost of devices and data plans. For many parents, multiple devices for themselves and their children are only a dream.

Furthermore, as online classes become a norm, there would be a higher reliance on solutions provided by ed-tech companies which would ultimately turn the initially free online classes into paid ones. There would be a large number of children whose parents would fail to afford those classes. Therefore, excessive dependence on technology at the school level and curtailment of classroom sessions, especially in urban areas, would make school education exclusive and would deter the children from low-income families from accessing even primary education. The low internet penetration (36 percent in 2019) and the gender gap among the users would further complicate the school scenario.

Other factors 

There are several other factors which would widen the learning gap between children from lower-income and higher-income families. Very often, children from low-income households live in conditions that make homeschooling difficult. Online learning environments usually require computers and a reliable internet connection. In India, a substantial number of children live in homes in which they have no internet access and have no suitable place to do homework, do not have access to books at the appropriate reading level. Many of them face severe housing instability or are homeless. Children of migrant labourers who work in faraway cities and towns are mostly left with their mothers or grandparents, who are often not literate enough and cannot help with homework even when it involves no online solution. Therefore, children from lower-income households are likely to struggle to complete homework and online courses because of their precarious housing situations or familial settings.

The pandemic in all likelihood would result in an unprecedented economic recession. Increasing unemployment and food insecurity, can potentially make children victims of malnutrition, domestic violence, child abuse and even child marriages. If reports about the number of distress calls at the helpline numbers are to be believed, then instances of such cases are already rising. Hence, it is possible that even if basic gadgets and internet connection are provided, the home environment may not be suitable for virtual education. Moreover, post-pandemic many of them would be forced to join the labour force which would lead to a higher number of school dropouts. Therefore, a long uncertain closure would impact the mental and physical well-being of these children.

Strategies and solutions 

Amidst the pandemic, the policymakers face serious challenges in terms of nutrition and learning needs of school children. In order to overcome widespread food insecurity among the school goers the government should ensure continuity of school-provided meals. States such as Kerala, West Bengal, Delhi and Andhra Pradesh have done a commendable job by roping in the anganwadi workers to ensure that the mid-day meals are provided to the doorstep of children even when the schools are shut.

Secondly, teachers should consider structuring the learning materials to cater to the students without access to computer, wireless, internet or a dedicated place to study. Since remote learning is not only about online learning, but about mixed media learning, and its objective is to reach maximum number of students, TV, radio and SMSes should also be used. West Bengal has already begun classes for school children on television. Maharashtra is also planning the same through TV and radio for children without internet access or devices. As parents and families, irrespective of their levels of literacy and socio-economic status, would now become more closely involved with their children's education, appropriate help, advice and ideas about how to better support their children should also be conveyed to parents through SMS, TV and radio.

Once the pandemic begins to subside, the schools may conduct summer/winter schools for socio-economically poor students who are forced to totally lose out on learning time owing to the Coronavirus-induced disruption. Similarly, extra classes or regular tutorials for small groups may be organised. At the moment, many schools have cancelled the yearly internal assessments as they are considered unimportant in this crisis. However, they are necessary to understand the child’s progress. Since such assessments impact learning as well as also recognition of any learning difficulties, schools should defer internal assessment and not skip it entirely. Besides, the government should also consider providing regular economic support to families with school-going children.

The strategies must come with a caveat that at no point should market forces in the guise of ed-tech solution providers be allowed to take over the education system. The policies have to be framed in a manner which would put premium on creativity, academic freedom, inclusiveness and not profit or political influence.


While structures and strategies are being put in place, what is needed for the children at home is a bit more parental supervision and not being forced into a completely new mode of learning. There is a possibility that they may learn to engage in self-study, develop new interests or learn to look at things through a lens not coloured by the time-discipline of the regimented education system. Any child longs for and deserves a fair amount of autonomy.

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Devjani Ray

Devjani Ray

Devjani Ray teaches at the Department of English Miranda House University of Delhi.

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