In India, due to COVID-19, the state declared lockdown from the mid of March, one of the biggest concerns since then has been the disruption to education. Anganwadis, schools, colleges and universities have been shut since then. March and April being the peak months of examinations, all school examinations, and entrances and recruitment exams have also been rescheduled. The latest UNESCO report on the impact of COVID-19 on education has highlighted that nearly 32 crore learners in India have been affected by this.
To combat this situation, the Government of India, in an official document mentioned that online learning is to be encouraged and educational institutions must adhere to the academic calendar through online education. To ensure continuity of receiving education in a secure and healthy contactless environment, the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) has released a list of 41 e-learning platforms to help learners acquire knowledge and most of these platforms are providing education for free. Both schools and higher education institutions have started numerous models of online classes and sharing of study material.
These range from structured online classes through platforms like Skype, Zoom, Google Classroom, Google Hangout, Piazza to teachers uploading lectures and notes through YouTube, WhatsApp, sharing links and providing access to online journals. In addition to internet-based education platforms, the government has also devoted 32 DTH channels to telecasting high-quality educational programmes on a 24×7 basis using GSAT-15 satellite and the content have been provided by premium national institutions. Furthermore, radio stations have been established on a 24-hour basis to offer the best of educational programmes for learners enrolled in universities and colleges.
This model of imparting education is functioning well for TV channels and Radio stations however when it comes to using internet based platforms, it could have worked better if India had the digital infrastructure or the digital literacy levels to manifest and support it. Unfortunately, the country lacks in both.
To begin with the issue of infrastructure, as per the recent data from Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in February 2020, India has over 1.15 billion wireless subscribers, of which around 660 million have access to broadband-quality internet. The definition of broadband in India is equal to or above 512kbps with regards to download speed. This means that in India, half of the population has access to a decent level of internet connection. However, this half of the population is mostly residing in cities and they have better purchasing power and access is limited in rural areas in India. Further, to conduct digital learning lessons for children enrolled in education systems; there are multiple perspectives that of the educational institutions, access to services and of the learners enrolled.
The concern from education institution’s perspective is that some institutions may have the digital infrastructure to move all their classroom procedures online, but the same cannot be presumed of most private and public universities or colleges across the nation. Now, from the perspective of students, only some students from privileged families may have access to personal computers and smartphones. Moreover, in primary schools learners are taught about the use of ICT as part of their syllabus to familiarize learners with the different functions of a computer. One flaw here is the use of computers as the unit of training, rather than smartphones. This ignores how technology penetration is happening in India, with the majority of first-time users coming online directly on smartphones and totally skipping computers. The data shows that 24% of Indians own a smartphone and only 11% of households possess any type of computer. Even the penetration of digital technologies in India appears to be haphazard and exclusionary. In addition, according to the National Sample Survey report on education 2017-18, only 24% of Indian households possess internet facility. In India, 66% of the population lives in villages, of which, only a little over 15% of rural households have access to internet services. For urban households, the proportion is 42%. This calls for an expansive IT infrastructure, as well as broadband connectivity, to make these courses possible.
Another major challenge of remote learning is the disparity in access to electricity and internet connections to devices like computers or smartphones. Access to electric supply is the basic necessity for internet connection. A nationwide survey of villages conducted by the Ministry of Rural Development in 2017-18, showed that 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.
Furthermore, to learn effectively, a peaceful environment for the study is essential. While 37% of households in India have one dwelling room, to have a quiet learning space at home is a luxury for many. Also, attending online classes on a regular basis involves a cost implication too, as students have to bear the cost of internet services or subscription charges. In the current situation, wherein many people are losing jobs, many students will not be able to afford this.
Lastly, merely moving classrooms online would not lead to effective and quality learning unless one-to-one interactions among peers and teachers are taking place. Therefore, the focus should be on learning rather than coverage or expanse. There are challenges for teachers too. A large number of teachers are not adept with or have never used an online teaching-learning environment. This has posed new challenges for many teachers, who have not received adequate training on educational technology.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed how rooted structural imbalances are between rural and urban, rich and poor, even in the digital world. With the existing digital divide, expanding online education may lead to increase inequity in educational outcomes. Therefore, the digital divide in India needs to be addressed. For which, promoting online learning should not be seen as a short-term measure, but must be integrated into the overall education policy of the country and the State must ensure that all stakeholders in the education system are fully prepared for it.