We Don’t Need No Education?

The immediate future of education depends on its portability to digital mediums. But here’s a long list of reasons why this may prove to be difficult, if not impossible. IPC shines a spotlight on a critical area that isn’t receiving the attention it deserves in current policy discussions. 

Most schools in India have been shut since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic and there is no saying when they might reopen. Furthermore, we do not know how many cycles of lockdowns we might go through before a cure or vaccine for coronavirus is found. The immediate future of education therefore depends on the portability of teaching to digital platforms. In order to make this shift we need the requisite digital infrastructure. The first basic step for this is access to electricity. Government data claims that India has achieved nearly 100% electrification. The devil, as usual, is in the detail. The data from government sources is unreliable But even if one was to trust this data, as per the official definition of electrification, a village is declared electrified if just 10% of the households have electricity connections. This masks poor household access to electricity. Even the households that have access to electricity have irregular and limited supply. 16% of India’s households received one to eight hours of electricity daily. 33% received 9-12 hours, and only 47% received more than 12 hours a day. (The reasons for the abysmal quality of electricity are highlighted in this article.) The second issue is the limited access to computers and smartphones: only 11% of households possess any type of computer, which could include desktop computers, laptops, notebooks, netbooks, palmtops or tablets. Smartphones are far less ideal than computers but can be used for basic learning via apps. However, a PEW study of developing countries found that among the surveyed countries, ownership of smartphones is lowest in India, with only 24% report having a smartphone. The third issue is the access to the internet. According to the 2017-’18 National Sample Survey report on education, only 24% of Indian households have an internet facility. In fact, only 8% of all households with members aged between five and 24 have both a computer and an internet connection. Furthermore, access is distinct from good quality, uninterrupted connectivity, that is even scarcer.  This is not taking into account Jammu and Kashmir where internet access is cut off across the board routinely, ostensibly for security reasons. Even when internet is available, the quality is extremely poor, making it near impossible for students to rely on online learning. Despite such digital infrastructure, in 2020-’21, the Ministry of Human Resource Development budget for digital e-learning was reduced to Rs 469 crore from Rs 604 crore in 2019-’20.

These troubling figures are further exacerbated for rural India, for the poor, for lower caste students, and for women. These groups have even lesser – in fact far lesser – access to computers, smartphones, and the internet.  In addition to access to digital infrastructure distance learning requires teachers and students to be able to adapt to the demands of distance learning. Given the poor quality of teachers on average and the large number of teacher vacancies, this is not an easy task. For students and teachers, an added issue is lack of space where they can teach or learn undisturbed - 37% of households in India have only one dwelling room. This setback to education would be troubling anywhere but in India where most children attend government schools and learning outcomes in these schools are amongst the worst in the world, it can prove to be debilitating. While students that have educated parents might be receiving some help in keeping abreast with their studies at home, most poor students will be unsupported at this time and might forget even the little basics they have learnt in school. There has been next to no policy discussion or action from the government to improve access to distance learning. In fact, teachers are being asked instead to volunteer to monitor distribution of supplies and social distancing.  The central government is believed to be making guidelines for the reopening of schools but given the upward graph of infection it seems unlikely that schools will reopen anytime soon.   Even when they do reopen, attendance might be extremely poor, given that at least one study has found that a whooping 92% of parents are unwilling to send their children to schools as soon as they open.  Increasing enrolment and reducing absenteeism has been a long and arduous journey with Indian public schools – particularly in rural India. Lessons from West Africa in 2014 portend that a large number of students might not return to schools at all. This possibility is particularly acute when it comes to girls. Poor households have been badly hit economically due to the lockdown. More and more adult women might go out to seek work under MGNREGA, leaving teenage girls with the burden of household chores.

A large number of schools might face closure due to financial constraints.

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