Edit/Op-Ed

Digital Class amidst COVID-19: A Far Dream for Millions

The COVID-19 pandemic a notified disaster declared by the World Health Organization on 11th March has put the educational sector an irreversible crisis. The uncertain closure of educational institutions across the globe has brought an unprecedented effect and deep shadow on the congenial atmosphere of school-going children. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), over 1.26 billion children worldwide have lost their educational trail due to the shutdown of academic institutions as a desperate attempt to curb the spread of the deadly pandemic. Amidst this crisis, both government and private schools have been advised by the HRD Ministry of India to uphold education through digital platforms.

The offline education system plays a significant role in children’s physical, intellectual, social, psychological, and moral development. The conducive classroom environment facilitates ideas and insights through engaging in critical dialogues and debates. A diverse and inclusive classroom offers the potential space for solidarity in the face of social anxiety, discrimination, and human capital development. Underpinning the undeniable importance of school education and to endeavour 100% literacy, the Right to Education Act 2009 administered all the States to ensure free and compulsory education to all the children aged between 6 and 14 years.

According to the All India Education Survey (AIES, 2002), the country has over 1.3 million recognized primary, upper primary, secondary, and higher secondary schools. And, it is being estimated by UNESCO that almost 320 million children in India are acutely uncertain in reopening or resuming their schools. As uninterrupted learning of millions of children amid lockdown, schools are being prompted to embrace an e-learning based education system.

Eventually, a question aroused about the preparedness of schools in adopting digital forms of education. By the dint of huge capitals and digital technologies, most of the private schools across the country have started disseminating education online. But, this streamed education will, unfortunately, dismantle harmony among a vast majority of students and will discourage millions of students to continue their further education. And, it will also be a cause of depriving and discriminating economically weaker sections of students and will make education limited among the advantage groups.

However, this paradigm shift in the teaching and learning process has shattered the backbone of hundred and thousand of government schools which are one of the fundamental platforms in providing education to over 69% of children (ASER, 2006-13). The plight of these students is painful and remains untold amidst this crisis. Since independence, the education sector in the country has been immensely neglected.

The severe infrastructures, adverse environment, shortage of teachers, and lack of basic facilities are the harsh reality of almost all the government schools still in today’s India. As per the UDISE (2016-17), the country has more than 92 thousand single-teacher government schools at both elementary as well as secondary levels. It is also evident that over 18% of teachers at government schools do not have any professional training, and further large numbers are incompetent in delivering and designing structural pedagogies for effective classroom-transactions. 

A study on the teacher by Jeevan and Townsend (2013) found that nearly 25% of teachers in India are irregular to schools and this discontinuity is again a deeper grave in rural-based government schools. The cases of teacher-absentees have been reported highest in the economically poorer states such as Jharkhand (41%), Bihar (37 %), Punjab (34.4%), Assam (33.8%), Uttaranchal (32.8%), Chhattisgarh (30.6%), and Uttar Pradesh (26.3%).

Moreover, the DISE data in 2015- 2016 revealed that almost 76% of schools do not have computer facilities and accessibility to electricity. And, the states that are having schools with both the computer and electricity availability are occupied less than 2% of the total, for instance, Assam has 0.27% followed by Bihar (1.52%), Jharkhand (1.49%), Madhya Pradesh (1.55%), Manipur (0.85%), and Odisha (1.63%). Again, the available computers are not for teaching-learning purposes but to record official data. In such a perilous condition, how far digital outreach and the implementation of ICT will achieve success in the government schools remain today’s biggest concern. 

Likewise, the World Bank report showed that roughly 200 million people are out of reach to access electricity. Based on the 2017-18 National Household Social Consumption of Education Survey report, less than 15% of rural Indian households have internet access. In this circumstance, getting a connection of the internet and accessing electricity to use smart-phone or computer or any e-learning device will be the greatest impediment to retain in the e-educational dream. The recent suicide of a 10th standard student Devika Blarisknan from Malappuram district of Kerala for failing to access online class has left a haunting mark on the mission of ensuring digital classes for millions of poor students across the country. 

Evidently, due to the poor academic milieu and lack of constructive teaching-learning climate at government schools, students are already in a meager state in educational performance. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER, 2018) stressed that about 49% and 27% of children from class V and VIII cannot read class II level textbooks respectively.

Similarly, more than 72 % from class V and 56% from class VIII cannot solve simple mathematical problems. Now, siding this extreme maelstrom crisis of education, hoping to uphold education online is nothing but a mockery of millions of hapless lives in the sphere of teaching and learning culture. It is a way to force them out from the right to get an education which is ensured by the Indian Constitution in Article 21-A. Expressing the concern on e-learning, a Delhi-based nursing teacher, Meghna Saxena has told Quartz that kids don’t understand half of their activities even in the physical classroom. In this gloomy picture, launching or intriguing online education would hardly make any sense to them.

Besides all these, parental involvement is an essential component of home-based e-learning. However, a significant proportion of students at the government schools are first-generation learners and thereby faces several hardships and challenges at home, and also they often failed to get perpetual support and motivation from their parents.

Lastly, having said all monumental setbacks about the e-learning of government schools, it is required to be agreed on the continuation of the educational process in the gripped of this pandemic. During this pervasive dark, it is imperative to think and rethink on the crucial plight of millions of children across the country.

However, in a bid to minimize the learning-disruption, following points must be taken into consideration: First, it is very significant to empower the teachers with digital skills through inaugurating diverse strategic plans of operating various digital apps and e-learning devices, and establishing connections over the virtual classroom and creating and uploading e-contents.

Second,  as most of the government schools which are spatially located in rural regions have been suffering from a shortage of digital resources, hence, the immediate stimulus micro-economic package as an intervention must be released.

Third, a local-based education management system is a pressing need to establish for monitoring and inspiring students’ learning at home.

Fourth, as to avert exclusion of financially weaker communities, a short-time welfare scheme like delivering free smart-phone, computers, or tablets or any e-learning gadgets and internet is an exigent to achieve digital learning.

Fifth, an inter-school library management system must be initiated to transfer e-learning materials among the schools at the district or state level.

Sixth, the regulatory bodies such as NCERT, SCERT, and DIET are the utmost embodiment and need to reconcile to promote and mobilize context-specific e-contents to destined people in rural areas.

Seven, the last but not the least, the community radio and television broadcast based on the class and syllabus must be instituted at comprehensive levels.    

Shahid Akhter is a Ph.D. scholar at the school of Humanities and Social Sciences, Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS), Pilani, Hyderabad, India.

Md Nawaz Sarif is a Ph.D. scholar at the School of Education, North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong, India.

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