At its ideal best education is the greatest equalizer but the corona crisis has set back this journey in important ways. Because when schools and universities move offsite and online, students with lesser digital access get further disadvantaged, and those without any digital access are at risk of dropping out altogether. At the school level this digital divide now risks nullifying some of India’s hard-won enrollment gains.
Schools and universities in different parts of the world are looking at several weeks of lockdown getting extended to several months. In France the ‘bac’, which is the main university entrance qualification, has been cancelled for the first time since it was introduced by Napoleon in 1808.
In India some school board exams have had to be postponed, without any certainty about when they will be rescheduled. The same fate has befallen major university entrance exams in fields ranging from engineering and hotel management to agriculture.
As for when schools and universities will reopen Union HRD minister Ramesh Pokhriyal has said this decision will be taken after April 14 upon reviewing the Covid-19 situation in the country. Meanwhile he has advised that all students studying in classes I-VIII be automatically promoted, while students of IX-XI be promoted based on school-based assessments conducted so far.
In this situation how do the new academic sessions get underway? Digitally. To begin with, this is not a small challenge for teachers. They have to master new technologies and then shepherd students through these too, even as they prepare course materials in newfangled ways. Most of them are now teaching in ways they were never trained for.
The well-off schools and universities can provide necessary support to smoothen online learning. Indeed the coronavirus may only have hastened them into a future that they would have entered sometime soon anyway – and that several of the world’s universities have been rolling out efficiently for nigh a decade. School learning apps like Byju’s, Zoom classrooms, YouTube science tutorials, online university courses and the like have been on an upward curve anyway but it just grew dramatically more vertical.
With proper guidance and organization e-learning has a lot of potential. Its Indian votaries say too many of our classrooms have changed too little over the years – in terms of really giving students multiple options and multiple formats that make rote learning history. But simply formatting existing curriculums for the internet won’t cut it. More importantly, where there is no connectivity this game is a nonstarter.
In its Budget this year the Delhi government allocated close to a quarter of its overall budget to education, indicating its serious commitment to this sector. It is a reflection of this commitment that even government schools are offering online classes in the capital. But participation is hampered by the digital divide – where some students do not have access to any laptop, tablet, Wi-Fi etc.
There are families that haven’t been able to recharge their smartphones during the lockdown because the shutters of those neighborhood recharge shops have been pulled down. There are families which share a smartphone between school going and college going children (and working adults) so someone has to miss the class. Then there are children whose families just do not have a smartphone. Whether it is accessing learning modules or uploading assignments, everything is out of their reach.
And if benefactors wanted to gift them a smartphone, where are they going to buy one these days? The fact that stores of mobile companies as well as the small service providers were considered ‘non-essential’ and shuttered, will have broader implications for delivery of coronavirus subsidies and benefits to the poor. Actually in these days many better-off parents would also be feeling the need for a new computer or router or printer etc and these too have become unavailable. In a landscape exponentially more dependent on all this gadgetry, sending it into hibernation has been a misjudgment.
To put things in perspective, education in the times of coronavirus is magnifying the accidents of birth in all countries not just in India. In the US in millions of household with limited data plans, children are not allowed to monopolize it. In China internet can be slow in rural areas or even missing altogether. Even where TV steps in to fill the void the students dependent on it can be seriously disadvantaged in the runup to make-or-break nationwide tests. But all this massive disruption across diverse educational landscapes is not a diss on technology. It still remains a fact that the internet like education can be a great equalizer. But not if some race on 5G and others crawl on 2G. These lockdown days are a reminder that India is nowhere as networked as it needs to be – with downside implications for not only education but also health. If the haves and have-nots continue to play on entirely different bandwidths never the twain shall meet. And democracy shall have failed its promise. But the past speed of mobile adoption in India suggests we need not be pessimistic on this front. Instead what we need is ambition and commitment and an enabling telecom sector. In the short-term much can be accomplished by massively multiplying free Wi-Fi hotspots and maintaining them well.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.