You and me; we have something in common.
We certainly went to school, and collage at different places, and times but these were all full of friends, colleagues, seniors, and juniors with whom we shared many cherished moments of happiness and sorrow; grief and turmoil; achievement and accomplishment; heartthrob and heartbreak; dine and wine; hash and tag; and so on. In the process we learnt many things, as also imbibed, and inculcated many qualities, practices, and habits.
I still remember, and cherish many memories of those good old days, but then when it comes to recollecting the purpose for which I had been there? I am really not sure about you, but I have not been able to apply most of what was taught during those days, in my professional pursuits. But like you, “how to learn” is perhaps one thing learnt passively, and mostly out of classroom during those days, that I keep applying every now, and then.
What about the experience of our children?
Chutput, and thousands, and thousands like him are all restricted to the boundary of their homes for more than a year now.
I remember he having come home for a few days just before Holi in March, 2020, and was to return soon thereafter for his final examinations. But then, he is still around. Final examinations, admission to the next class, and another final exams; all are over virtually, with no real interaction with peers, classmates, and teachers.
This is perhaps the first time when I find it hard to muster courage to object to his being online chatting, talking, and playing games for long hours.
There is really no denying that riding on the wave of misery, hardship, deprivation, uncertainty, and death Covid has introduced many changes in our routine socio-economic life that no one had ever contemplated. Despite being averse to change masses have surprisingly accepted the new normal within a very short span of time. This could be a research topic for the students of human psychology.
Online education experiment
Not ignoring the concerns of the various affected groups I would highlight the uncertainty, and anxiety being faced presently by millions of school, and college going students. None of us would have ever thought in our wildest dreams that the manner in which education has always been imparted since the good old gurukul days with close teacher–student interaction would be transformed, and that too at this fast pace.
To me, one of the reasons for quick acceptance of online education by the masses is related to the fact that it provides a convenient alternative to facing the risk of being exposed to Covid; it has to do with survival instinct with which we are all hardwired from the very beginning.
Drifting away from the level of acceptance, the initiative seems a knee jerk reaction rather than a well-planned, and organised intervention. Scant attention was really paid to assess the level of acquaintance of both teachers, and students with techniques, and tools. More than this, what surprises me the most is the fact that no effort was put in from any quarter to evaluate the status of availability of the tools, and implements required for this intervention that covers the entire socio-economic spectrum of the society.
Needless to say that no one assessed the impact of this intervention on the future of the upcoming generation, particularly from lower strata of the society. Paucity of time could be an alibi for this haste, but this is something too much to compromise the future of the entire generation.
This format is however convenient for most stakeholders, and therefore my gut feeling suggests that it is unlikely to be discontinued even after the Covid crisis is over. A certain proportion of the curriculum might thus be permanently delivered through online means.
It is therefore required that the challenges of online education be identified, studied, and analysed before efforts are put in for setting the things right. We cannot really ignore this issue as it is to have lasting adverse impact on the disadvantaged sections, and widen the disparity in our society.
Education: Only hope for millions
One needs to understand that education is much more than just gaining knowledge, and enlightenment; these really are luxuries that socio-economically deprived strata of our society can hardly afford. For this section education is a means of social mobility; one that holds some promise howsoever bleak, to alleviate their socio-economic status, and free them from the clutches of vicious cycle of drudgery, and hardships.
Thus in education lie dreams, hopes, and aspirations of millions; no one thus has right to deprive them of all this that makes them going despite odds of all shades. It is a harsh reality that not all dreams are fulfilled but depriving opportunity to strive for these is sure to bring forth anarchy, discontent, and unrest that is not good in the larger interest of the nation.
Everyone around would agree that in the competitive world of present times every single day does count, and there exists no alibi for anyone for the opportunities lost. But then, under the changed ground realities playing conditions have been abruptly made adverse for large proportion of the candidates, and there seems no efforts for setting things right.
It is a reality that online education is not a passing phase and is here to stay. One therefore has to seriously analyse the challenges it poses and come out with solutions that could help in bridging the gap.
Learning over coverage
One needs to understand that online education or moving classrooms online is not an end in itself, and it does not amount to effective remote learning. In reality there exists no substitute to interactions amongst peers, and teachers, and no online platform howsoever strong, or interactive can provide an alternative to that.
Moreover, learning curve, and communication trend of the students on a digital platform are a function of preparedness of both teachers, and students. The proponents of online education often tend to put forth successful examples of distance learning. This however amounts to comparing apples with oranges, for distance education is intended to serve a distinct community that is self-motivated to learn, and where the onus of learning is largely on the students.
In the realm of online education there exist challenges even for the teachers; many of them are digitally inept, and majority has never used an online environment to teach. Moreover, teaching online requires preparation; designing lesson plan, and preparing teaching material such as audio, and video contents. Most teachers are not fully conversant with the intricacies of all these.
Software used for sharing lessons is another challenge; there exist a number of these, and all have different protocols, and features. The education department has neither prescribed, nor trained the stakeholders; the teachers therefore use the softwares convenient to them. In such a scenario the teachers of three different subjects might use three different softwares for teaching the same group of students. The students thus face the dilemma of downloading, and familiarising with features thereof.
No one can deny that learning requires a conducive environment, which unfortunately is not something all have equal access to. Online education thus discriminates the students of weaker sections that do not even have access to a quiet space for learning at home; 37% households have only one room dwelling. It is therefore a luxury for many students from humble backgrounds to attend lectures in an undisturbed environment.
More so, there are no free lunches; online education, and that too on a regular basis, comes with a cost. So the digital divide in the community is to expose the students from deprived sections to a new form of discrimination.
The digital divide
Unlike routine classroom education online education requires tools, and implements, access to which is not equitable. So the biggest challenge of remote learning is disparity in access; from electricity, and internet connections to devices like computer or smartphone.
Access to electricity
Computer, smartphone and internet connectivity; all are powered by electricity. Access to electricity is therefore crucial for digital education, both for powering the devices as well as for connecting to the internet.
According to Saubhagya scheme of the government, almost 99.9% homes in the country have an electricity connection. The picture however turns out to be less luminous if one starts to take account of the quality of electricity, and the number of hours for which it is available every day. According to a nationwide survey of villages undertaken under Mission Antyodaya by the Ministry of Rural Development in 2017-18, 16% households receive electricity for 1-8 hours daily, 33% for 9-12 hours, and only 47% for more than 12 hours a day.
The data clearly shows that powering the gadgets required for online education is a major challenge for large proportion of the students as 53% households have access to electricity for less than 12 hours. These households generally represent ones with humble background as also from rural areas, and are not expected to have power back up alternatives. Moreover, power cuts generally take place during hours of peak demand, and this coincide with productive time of an individual.
So the students coming from 53% households are unable to either attend online classes, or complete the assignments due to unavailability of electricity.
Tools and implements
Computer is certainly preferable for online education but smartphone can also serve the purpose. The phone is however convenient for apps, but not for carrying out lengthy assignments on a routine basis. While 24% Indians own a smartphone, only 11% households possess any type of computer, including desktop computer, laptop, notebook, netbook, palmtop or tablet.
As has been stressed earlier, computer is a must for online education, and smartphone is no substitute for the same. With 89% households not possessing any type of computer one can very well contemplate the fate of online education. Even if smartphone is taken as an alternative to computer for online education, 76% Indians do not possess smartphones. Data suggests that access to smartphones is minimal amongst girls, particularly in the rural areas.
Access to internet
The penetration of digital technologies is haphazard, and exclusionary. According to the 2017-18 National Sample Survey report on education, only 24% households have an internet facility. Despite 66% population residing in villages, only a little over 15% rural households have access to internet services. For urban households, the proportion is 42%.
In fact only 8% households, with members aged between 5 and 24, have both a computer, and an internet connection. It is worth noting that as per the National Sample Survey definition, a household with a device or internet facility does not necessarily imply that the connection, and device are owned by the household.
Access not equitable
The digital divide is also evident across class, gender, region or place of residence. Amongst the poorest 20% households, only 2.7% have access to a computer, and 8.9% to internet facilities. In case of the top 20% households, the proportions are 27.6% and 50.5%. The difference is apparent across states as well; access to computer varying from 4.6% in Bihar to 23.5% in Kerala, and 35% in Delhi.
The difference is starker in case of internet access. In states like Delhi, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, and Uttarakhand, more than 40% households have access to internet. The proportion is however less than 20% for Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, and West Bengal.
Access to technology is not uniform, and there exist stark divides along gender, caste, and class lines. According to a report of Internet and Mobile Association of India, 67% men had access to internet in 2019 as against 33% for women. The disparity is more prominent in rural India, where the figures are 72%, and 28% for men, and women, respectively.
The reality check
Surveys undertaken across the country by various organisations on the implications of online educations have brought forth issues that would help us better appreciate the problems being faced by students, particularly those coming from lower strata of the community, and more so residing in rural areas.
Most students, particularly those of lower strata of the community do not have access to devices required for carrying out online education. Desktop, laptop or tablet that is ideal for this mode of learning is not generally available to most of them. Having accepted smartphone as being an alternative, one needs to understand that it is hard, and tiresome for one to hang around with it all through the day.
In most cases the smartphones are generally owned by male working members who carry these along to workplace during the day time. So the devices are not available for large proportion of the day when classes are generally conducted. Moreover, due to privacy related issues male members desist sharing their mobiles.
In most homes the number of students requiring access to devices exceed the number of available devices. In such a case general gender bias of the society works against girls. So, the education of girl child is severely impacted by online education.
With familial incomes reduced drastically most households find it hard to procure a new gadget for continuing the education. This problem is being faced by middle class families as well.
Moreover, the device is required not only for attending the classes but also for accessing, and completing assignments, and uploading these for evaluation. So rather than just casual access, the student is required to have the device almost full time.
Internet connectivity comes at a cost and in most cases persons from humble background do not subscribe to unlimited access package. So by the time the working member comes home, and the student has access to his mobile the internet access limit is already exhausted. Recharging the mobile phone thus requires money, and with little affiliation towards education this investment is hard to come by, particularly so for the girls.
Downloading different applications being used for online education, and becoming conversant with their features is a major challenge. Smartphone is generally used by students for chatting, and sharing/watching videos, and they are not conversant with specific applications; WhatsApp, Zoom, MS Teams, pdf conversion and others. Moreover, large proportion of the students are not familiar with tools for converting their assignments to pdf version.
On its part the state should have developed, acknowledged or recognised a single platform for online education. Not having done so the educators are resorting to the softwares with which they are conversant. The students have therefore to download a number of softwares, and learn features thereof. Besides space this requires a lot of effort, and hinders learning.
Downloading reading material, and assignments, together with installing, and operating various applications required for assessing the online classes, doing assignments, converting these to the required format, and uploading these requires storage space; both on the device, and externally where previous lessons could be stored. Most smartphones do not have the required storage space, and external storage is a luxury that only a few can afford.
Female students have minimal access to both internet, and mobile devices. Moreover they are plagued with the fear of breach of privacy while connecting to their classes, and uploading assignments. To add to it, girls particularly the ones coming from humble background, and rural areas have also to take care of other household chores. The digital divide has thus further deprived them of learning opportunities as their education is otherwise also not given due attention.
For a large proportion of the students access to mobiles is restricted to the period when working members owning the mobile come back from work. By this time the battery of the mobile is drained off, and productive time is lost in recharging the same. Not having adequate number of recharging points is another issue faced by the students.
Privacy and space
Most students from lower sections do not have private space for attending online classes, or doing assignments. This results in reduced span of attention, and the students are therefore not in a position to fully understand what is being communicated. Plagued with constraints of access to device, power, and privacy the students of humble background have no option but to attend to assignments during late hours that often amounts to disturbing earning members who return home late, and have to go for work again in the morning. These students are thus not able to complete their assignments.
Whatever be the language of imparting education in the classroom most teachers are comfortable in sending across teaching material, and assignments in English that most students of the weaker sections of the community are not able to understand.
It comes forth that the students coming from humble background, and rural areas particularly from families not having assured incomes together with girl students are being negatively discriminated, and denied their right to educational opportunities.
In case adequate, and necessary supportive measures are not taken urgently by the state, the prevailing disparity in the virtual world is to translate into widening educational inequalities along caste, and class lines.
The state has so far made no effort to bridge the technology and access gap. On the contrary the budget for digital e-learning of the Ministry of Human Resource Development has been reduced to Rs 469 crore in the Financial Year 2020-21 from Rs 604 crore in the Financial Year 2019-20.
As suggested by some studies, it is important to note that the economic hardships imposed on the lower strata of our community due to the onslaught of Covid has resulted in increased instances of (i) child labour to substantiate familial income, (ii) students, particularly girls dropping out of school to save tuition fees, and (iii) child marriages; limitation of guests is luring parents to marry girls. Disasters are often looked upon as an alibi for withdrawing children from school, and girl child is often the first victim as their education is hardly accorded importance
Education being the most potent enabler; this scenario is sure to widen the gap amid our community whereby the children coming from humble background are deprived of opportunities of carving out a destiny for themselves. This is sure to be bring forth instability in the community that, if not addressed timely, would soon be reflected in increased strife, lawlessness, crime and insurgency.
Structural and infrastructural imbalances faced by the students, particularly girls coming from lower sections of the society as also from rural areas by way of access to electricity, internet connectivity, and gadgets have definitely widened inequalities in access to education wherein digital have-nots are being pushed to the periphery, thereby increasing the inequity in educational outcomes. Students coming from humble backgrounds are also being deprived opportunities of peer learning, regular interactions, and sharpening their cognitive skills.
It is a stark reality that with this digital divide, and economic uncertainty brought forth by Covid many students have been forced out of school. These now work so as to contribute to familial income. Many girls have at the same time been married untimely.
May be, we have initiated the online experience without planning for cost implications, and digital infrastructure ground realities. Inequalities have thus come forth starkly; rich vs poor, boys vs girls, urban vs rural. This gap is sure to widened, and have definite adverse impact, if not addressed equitably, and timely in a planned manner.
What is required is to look for ways of ensuring continuum, addressing new challenges through small group learning initiatives facilitated by technology, development of special curriculum, together with parent education, support, and involvement.
It is important to note out here that most upper, and upper middle class families have more than one gadget (smart phone, tablet, laptop and desktop) that they no longer use as they frequently migrate to a higher version. In most cases one would not even remember when these devices were last recharged or used, and where these are actually dumped. Most interestingly this electronic waste has no antiquity value, and their prices do not appreciate over time.
These unused gadgets however have have the potential of fuelling the learning graph, and bringing back hopes for a large number of students from humble backgrounds. It is high time that the upper and upper middle class families realise the need to get rid of these unused gadgets, and help ones in their neighbourhood. On a happier note this initiative would provide (i) some free storage space at home, (ii) hassle free disposal of e-waste, and (iii) satisfaction of having served the underprivileged sections of the society.
As an icing on the cake the persons deciding to part with their gadgets can also donate internet access time to help these underprivileged students. Only thing to be kept in mind at this crucial juncture is that we do not part with defunct devices, and before handing these over to anyone we ensure that these are functional, and have capability of being utilised for online classes.
One can at the same time update, and install the required softwares, and if required get the hardware repaired beforehand so as to ensure that the gadgets parted by you do neither evoke false hopes nor turn out to be a burden.
And you don’t have to go to some far off place for doing all this. There do live many underprivileged students around your locality as well. More so a number of social groups have already started the voluntary initiative to bridge the digital divide. You can easily get in touch with them.
You do have the power to bring back hopes in the lives of people around you.
So act fast, and help the needy.