According to a recent UNESCO survey, just 22% of schools had computers and only 19% had access to the internet. Only 14% of rural schools had access to the internet, compared to 42% in metropolitan regions. India has the world’s second largest school system after China. There are 320 million learners in India with a network of 1.5 million schools. During pandemic, schools had to be suddenly shut to prevent community transmission. However, huge disparities in access to internet and technology in schools particularly in rural areas and in underprivileged segments, exacerbated learning outcomes. Besides infrastructure, majority of teachers were not trained for online education when the pandemic struck.
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World Teachers’ Day is observed globally every year on October 5 (though, in each country different, in India September 5). The theme of World Teachers Day 2021 has been ‘Teachers at the heart of education recovery’. UNESCO on this day launched ‘State of the Education Report (SOER) for India’. UNESCO paid tributes ‘to rapid strides made in the education sector in India, role of teachers and National Education Policy 2020.’ However, this report, as also another survey report, paints a worrying picture of online learning outcomes in ‘Bharat’.
As illustrated in an analytical FE editorial, there is a shortage of 11 lakh skilled teachers, with two-third vacancies in rural areas, 89% being single-teacher schools. Shortage of teachers, lack of job security, low salaries, lack of benefits, respect of profession, reflects in their low morale. In private schools, teachers are even more poorly paid, no formal contracts, pension benefits, healthcare or gratuity. Lack of motivation, digital illiteracy, poor infrastructure, no internet, all widened learnings rift.
During pandemic and lockdowns, when online education had to be suddenly resorted to, neither the school infrastructure was ready, nor teachers trained, most rural households and marginalised students did not have computers or mobile phones. According to the above UNESCO report, only 22% schools had computing equipment and only 19% internet facility. Of this, only 14% rural schools had internet as compared to 42% in urban areas.
Some of the recommendations in the Report, included, (i) improving the terms of employment of teachers in both public and private schools (ii) increasing the number of teachers and improving their working conditions, especially in NE states, rural areas and ‘aspirational districts’ (iii) recognize teachers as frontline workers (iv) provide teachers with meaningful ICT training (v) develop teaching governance through consultative processes, based on mutual accountability, etc.
A recent School Children’s Online and Offline Learning (SCHOOL) survey, discussed in a report titled ‘Locked Out-Emergency Report on School Education’, paints even more gloomy picture, highlighting need for the Governments to re-start education in brick and mortar classrooms. This report, analysed in FE (https://bit.ly/3iZ3bYa) brings out the catastrophic consequences of prolonged school closure during the pandemic. In rural areas, only 8% of children are studying online, 37% not studying at all, half unable to read more than a few words. They were deprived not only of the right to learn but also other benefits of school participation, playground, school meals and social interaction with other children. Most parents wanted schools to reopen as soon as possible.
The survey which was conducted in 15 States and UTs across the country in August revealed a start digital divide. Only 51% of rural households had a smart phone, mostly used by working elders, only 12% of rural kids had own. There were other issues like poor connectivity, speed and lack of money for data, only 4% of rural SC/ST kids were studying online, compared to 15% others. The digital divide is evidently real, hurting the lower income groups grievously.
The NEP 2020, specifically addresses these issues (para 24) ‘the recent rise in epidemics necessitates. alternative modes of quality education, leveraging technology, optimizing online digital education. Teachers require suitable training in new pedagogy. Appropriate existing e-learning platforms such as SWAYAM, DIKSHA, to be provided to teachers. A digital repository of content, learning games & simulations, Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) and for fun-based learning, student-appropriate tools like apps, gamification of Indian art and culture to be developed in multiple languages.’
All the above technological measures are proven tech-tools for enhanced digital learning, being extensively used for profit in commercial ed-tech enterprises, now becoming unicorns with commercialisation. While our neighbouring country has imposed severe curbs on commercial exploitation of education, this being a necessary public good, it is now time that these commercial enterprises also realise their social responsibility, initiating special programs for the disadvantaged children too. Another case in example is Haryana where under an ambitious ‘Super 100’ program, a scheme was initiated for specially helping poor and bright students in government schools with spectacular outcomes.
It is to be recognized that in building strong foundation of our future, no compromises or short-cuts can be made and every child deserves tech-support.
(This is a slightly modified version of an article originally published in Financial Express. The original article can be found at https://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/bridging-learning-divide-outcomes-in-online-education/2375950/)