The COVID pandemic changed the way we looked at education worldwide. The crisis prompted governments to shut down schools and universities to protect community against transmission. With the pandemic waxing and waning, educational institutions still remain shut, and the government is in a quandary as to how to maintain continuity in learning. This was as if life had come to a standstill for the majority of the 700 million youngsters under the age of twenty-five. India leans heavily on the modernization and growth of its education system to propel economic growth and development for the future. This harbinger of hope had come to a standstill. The dilapidated infrastructure notwithstanding, making education reach the underprivileged, marginalized, remote, and rural corners of India has itself been a challenge. Now we have a crisis situation brewing as the government looks to boost education with an infrastructure that is not geared up.
Pre pandemic inequity
The Indian school system is the second largest in the world after China. Similarly the higher education system is the third largest in the world after the US and China. However, even before the pandemic hit us, almost 40 million children were out of the school network due to issues such as lack of accessibility, affordability, gender discrimination, etc. Similarly the gross enrollment ratio (GER) in primary education stood at a dismal 26.3 as compared to the developed economies the like US (88.2), Germany (70.3), UK (60.0) and China (49.1). India even lagged behind the global average of 29.
Clearly, the issues were there to see and be tackled. The National Education Policy 2020 set out a roadmap to expand the scope of school education and increase the GER in higher education to 50 percent by 2030. It also talked about the “Ensuring Equitable Use of Technology” through online and digital education.
The Covid Whammy and the widening divide: the reasons
The logical prolonged closure of educational institutions had a huge negative impact on students belonging to vulnerable sections of society. Offline learning and assessment transitioned online for obvious reasons, but this has only caused the chasm in educational inequity to become wider, particularly in rural areas.
Thanks to the Digital India campaign run by the government, the rapid growth in information and communication technology (ICT) has changed the way we live, interact, study, and work. However, with the peculiar and skewed demographics and social profiles in India, the ICT revolution has also led to a digital divide due to lack of technology access and the inability to harness it. In addition, the educators themselves are underpaid and ill equipped to handle such a radical change and a process that “excludes” and “discriminates.”
The issues that lead to digital divide in education, especially in rural areas, can be summarized as follows:
- Accessibility. Students lack hardware, internet, and software, due to affordability or accessibility issues or both. Internet connectivity is an issue in rural hinterland and is one of the major dividers. Many students in rural areas belong to underprivileged sections of society, which do not have access to laptops or smartphones. In addition, regular and continuous supply of electricity in rural areas is a significant challenge of online education.
- Hesitancy. Teachers are wary of changing their methods and are scared of becoming redundant. Many are unable to adapt to the online teaching methodology, and with little or no training, it is difficult to expect them to adapt.
- Developmental. A major part of the learning experience is derived through a social environment. Many students from rural settings have a block against digital learning because an online setting is boring and they thrive more easily in a social setting. E-learning does not have the advantage of one-to-one interactions, and the digital divide in education is accentuated for students of rural origin.
Tackling issues of accessibility in rural India
The pandemic has exacerbated the digital divide in education for learners in rural India, and the disparity in education has ballooned. A new dimension of technology has been added to the existing challenges of decline in attendance in schools, lack of teaching staff, infrastructure, quality of education, etc. With a suffering primary education system, fewer students transition to secondary and higher education.
Technology is the keystone to improving quality, access, and affordability in rural India. Given a proper policy direction, technology and infrastructure have the capability to bridge the ever widening chasm that exists. India is a multilingual, multicultural, and socially diverse country where a broad framework that fits all may not be a practical approach. Now that e-learning is the new normal, issues must be tackled on an emergent basis. The new education policy is the first step toward this and hopefully will evolve into something that is suitable for India’s needs. Urgent and immediate attention must be channeled to building infrastructure and developing human capital to create a synergistic environment for a more wholesome learning approach.
Some areas where urgent intervention or effort may be required:
- Improve tele density.
- Improve internet coverage and services.
- provide human resource training and development.
- Improve availability of electricity.
- Make technology accessible.
- Provide free/affordable hardware access to e learners.
- Make MOOCs available to students.
Many projects are run concurrently by the government directly, or in cooperation with NGOs, to look at making education accessible and affordable for every citizen. Private organizations through CSR activities are contributing to tackling issues of inequitable development in general. Some of these initiatives:
- E-Kranti. An initiative by the government of India to bridge the digital divide between rural, remote and urban areas by developing infrastructure for internet services.
- Education delivery through collaboration. Collaborative efforts of NGOs and corporates to encourage a shift from blackboards to digital platforms.
- The Learn, Out of the Box program. Vodafone and Pratham Education Foundation
- Smart Class initiative. Samsung and Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti
- eVidyaloka. A social enterprise helping to connect individuals as volunteer teachers from across the world with government elementary schools in remote and rural villages of India through technology.
The Zeal to Transform Rural Education. S M Sehgal Foundation
TRANSFORM LIVES One School At A Time
A model created by S M Sehgal Foundation, an implementing NGO that has worked in seventy-three schools in four states, is called Transform Lives one school at a time.
The model has two components:
- Transform students’ lives by creating an optimal environment for learning.
- Empower the community toward the education of children.
These interventions are fundamental in order to improve school education and create a better future for rural youth. A vibrant school should provide an effective and comfortable learning environment that instills a strong sense of confidence and hope, empowering the community to sustain and enhance the efforts.
As part of school transformation, classrooms are upgraded, drinking water is made accessible and basic infrastructure is also created and/or repaired.
Smart classrooms are constructed with innovative designs and equipped with a smart TV that can be connected to any android smartphone through screen mirroring. Teachers leverage this feature to show audio-visual educational content to students to aid their learning and make it an interactive and immersive experience for them.
As part of community empowerment, several initiatives are undertaken, e.g., training of School Management Committee (SMC), and the formation and training of community champions of the Village Development Committee (VDC), along with a cadre of adolescent schoolchildren as youth champions. The empowered panchayat ensures the continuity in the work related to improving the schools on a sustained basis.
Overall, around 70 percent of schools maintain their improved infrastructure. The first school to be renovated was in Santhawadi of Nuh district, Haryana, which is still being well maintained by the people eleven years since its renovation in 2009. The VDC and SMC hold regular 1–3 meetings per year to address school-related issues, even after S M Sehgal Foundation has completed the work and left the village. Youth champions take part in development initiatives of their village such as immunization drives, school enrollment drives, and others. The trained SMC has begun devising annual school development plans for submission to the district education officer and even the Bukharkha School, Nuh district, Haryana, received higher than the allocated funds from the highly impressed government functionary.
As a result of the Transform Lives one school at a time initiative, enrollment has increased by about 12 percent, and absenteeism has reduced by about 10 percent in the schools where it has been implemented.
The frenetic shift to e-learning due to the pandemic has brought the issues of inequality back into focus, this time due to the existing digital divide. After several years of policy inaction, the road forward is an arduous one and can only be addressed by future economic, education, and digitization policies. The rapidly changing landscape has put the onus on the policymakers to move fast and decisively.