The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the issue of digital learning that India has been fighting since years. Although India has been propagating “Digital India”, the global pandemic has served as a test of how successful the country has been in passing it frictionless. With the education sector being the worst hit, it has underlined the need of digitalization of schools where the basic necessity of students i.e. education is not compromised. As the privately run schools has also been impacted, government owned ones are at a major setback. It has questioned the basic infrastructural development of the country, its broadband connectivity and accessibility of the services provided by the government. It has accentuated the three principles, “Universality”, “Affordability” and “Quality” of digital education available for the citizens of the country, predominantly the ones residing in the rural areas.
At the time when e-learning has captured headlines, there has been a significant reduction in the allocation of the budget towards the same. The Ministry of Human Resource Development Budget for e-learning has been reduced from Rs. 604 crore in 2019-20 to Rs. 469 crore in 2020-2021. Also, in 2020-21, only 3.2 percent of GDP was spent on education in contrast to 4.14 percent in 2014-15. Electricity, a major pre-requisite for providing digital education has suffered from short supply of electricity poles, LED bulbs, non-installation of energy meters at the house of beneficiaries and charging of high electricity bills from the poor consumers. Along with the school, proper disposal of facilities promoting e-learning is needed at home such that what is learned at schools can be followed at homes. Facilitating data access for students is very essential for e-learning. Due to higher cost of data packs and limited cap on its usage, it is not affordable by many. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India report, in 2019, while 67% men had access to internet, it was only 33% for women. The disparity is more prominent in rural India, where the figures are 72% and 28% for men and women, respectively. A survey by Swabhiman (an NGO working mainly in Odisha), in association with the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People indicated that 73% of the students with disabilities had concerns regarding the availability of study material in appropriate formats.79% of the teachers reported that it was difficult to teach without the use of touch to students with learning disorders, autism and low vision. As per the Oxfam survey, less than 15% of Adivasis, Muslims and Dalits have access to Internet.
These data corroborate how the structural divide in the country can root to an educational divide, leading to large dropouts in the country. However, with some constructive steps, the divide can be lessened:
-Without a proper definition of digitalization in education and the conditions fulfilling the same, it becomes difficult to assess the schools that are well equipped with it. There should be a proper metric of measurement for the schools. This would ensure a regular check on how the schools are performing on the parameters defined. With a measurement metric, schools will be bound to perform and excel itself in online mode of learning.
-A new method of teacher enrollment mechanism shall be undertaken. Along with the importance of qualifications and credentials, a round shall be kept ensuring if the teachers are well equipped with computers and software operation and how well versed they are with online teaching. Also, a set of teachers is required in every school where they can help students with disabilities to accommodate themselves to this new mode of learning, given their physical and mental constraints. This will promote tech savvy teachers on board and will ease digital learning at schools. Until the deployment of such teachers, it will become difficult for the students to catch and maintain the pace of e-learning.
-Internet cafes allow the usage of computers publicly where an amount is charged on an hourly basis. It ensures smooth internet connectivity. As computers and laptops aren’t affordable by all, Internet cafes at subsidized rate allow the students to not be at a disadvantage and follow up with the online exercises given at schools.
-Education redressal boards shall be set up such that public’s grievances related to online learning can be entertained. It can have different verticals on women, disabled students and marginalized sections such that their needs can be catered differently by the concerned departments.
-Subsidized data packs and additional data has to be provided for students. Countries like Japan allow its students to avail extra internet at low or free cost such that Internet cannot be a hindrance to online mode of learning.
-Although government has ensured electrification of the villages through the Saubhagya Scheme, quality and regularity of electricity has to be ensured. Under the surveillance, energy meters and electricity poles have to set up. There has to be personal visits by the concerned departments to the assigned areas to check the availability of the same. Regularity of electricity will ease online learning.
Targeting the poorest of the poor is the need as they are deprived of the facilities which have become a necessity in today’s era. Although we have policies aiming at “Digital India”, electrification of houses, Broadband connectivity Mission, there are sections which haven’t been able to reap quality service from the same. Although connectivity provisions are being provided, electricity is still a distant dream for many. Usage of the Internet is beyond the reach due to high cost of data packs which are not affordable. COVID-19 was a reflection of how education was compromised as long lectures couldn’t be attended due to limited bandwidth, hence calling for additional and subsidized data packs for students. Although teachers are employed, all are not prone to handling technology and are comfortable teaching on an offline mode. This calls for the new mode of enrolment mechanism which can help students guide themselves by tech-handy teachers. There is a need for database which can have a record of students who can be assisted with technologies after-school as technology can’t be affordable by all. “Availability”, “Accessibility” and “Affordability” are the three areas of concern. Alike COVID-19, India has to prepare itself for similar global pandemics where the Right to Education of the students is not compromised and can easily adapt themselves to online mode of education.
“If we teach as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow”- John Dewey.
-Bishakha Jajodia (Freelancer)
Picture: Representative Image (qrius.com)