Equitable access to education in the COVID-19 Pandemic-stricken India
The COVID-19 Pandemic has had major global effects. Single-handedly transforming the way people live lives, it has brought about change to major economies, and strata of societies.
When the pandemic forced corporations, institutions and governments to go online with their daily functioning, it was viewed as a smart and convenient solution. It transformed working into a smooth sailing process from the safety of one’s own home. Meetings and classes were organized on online platforms, and these platforms even profited from the Pandemic. In the larger scale of things, it looked like good way to adapt to the sudden change that was thrown on them.
However, when we look at situations from the “large scale” viewpoint, we tend to overlook the small yet vital storms that might look like major issues to some but a small hiccup to others.
The people who view it as a small hiccup, tend to be the people with power & positions of responsibilities who usually make the big decisions. These decisions give direction to these institutions. While doing so, they tend to forget that what they view as small issues might be big hindrances for people at the lower strata of the organization. A major chunk of this certain problem affects education sectors of India.
India is one amongst the 153 countries in which schools had to close due to Covid-19. With over 320 million students affected in the country, pandemic-stricken India is anxiously wrestling the hit to its education system that is already not equipped to handle distance learning solutions.
With educational institutions still functioning online, the ideation and implementation of feasible solutions to provide unhindered education to students from ALL walks of life has been on the minds of the government, policymakers and concerned citizens alike.
School closures due to the nationwide lockdown in March 2020 meant that children were disengaged with formal education for a prolonged period. The resulting talks around e-education exposed India’s digital divide, with only 24 percent of households having access to the internet. Children studying in government schools were hit particularly hard, with studies indicating that more than 80% of government school students (in Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Uttar Pradesh) hadn’t received any educational materials during the lockdown.
Covid-19 pandemic has caused an unprecedented and sustained disturbance in every aspect of life, including education and pedagogy. Skilled and educated workers in the economy immediately transitioned into working digitally, with some level of efficacy. The poor and unskilled, however, simply lost their jobs.
Educational institutions around the world, backed by their governments, have adopted online teaching as a solution to compensate for the major deficits in school hours. In India, most public and private educational institutions, including the University Grants Commission (UGC), have followed the same path. However, they seem to be imitating the developed countries without a nuanced & proper understanding of their own ground reality.
Without tackling educational disparity, the digital divide cannot be addressed. Educated India is a prerequisite for ‘Digital India’. Unfortunately, several studies and a national-level survey show that the quality of learning at primary and secondary level has been declining. That added to the current situation places the education system at a risk to the youth.
The solution that I propose to this problem is as follows:
Set up a sub-commission under the ambit of the HRD Ministry which is currently being headed by Mr. Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ and selected professors and teachers with distance learning or rural education experience.
The Ministry of Human Resource Development has previously launched e-learning projects and initiatives that serve as appreciated resources for both students and educators. In a statement in late March, Union Minister of Human Resource Development, Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’, reported that these initiatives have seen a sharp increase in access during the nationwide lockdown imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Complementarily, Union Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs, Nirmala Sitharaman, in her national address on 17 May 2020, introduced several initiatives and reforms to enhance the education sector. Laying emphasis on technology-driven education, she announced the launch of the PM e-VIDYA initiative, a program that would serve as a unifier of all modes (online, digital, on-air) of education in the country, allowing for easy, multi-modal access. Sitharaman also announced three new initiatives focused on providing students, teachers and their families with psycho-social support during the pandemic, achieving literacy and numeracy targets countrywide, and attaining global education standards.
However, the question still persisting is: How will these initiatives reach the masses? Especially the masses without access to quality internet.
This sub-commission mentioned above, will solely focus on improving the *access* of internet facilities in rural India. This project can work closely with the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and also help migrants to get work to build the necessary infrastructure.
Distance learning education solutions are possible through a combination of efforts made by motivated students and educators, encouraged by reassuring families, and sustained by governments who provide programs and policies with the necessary infrastructure to support them. While the country has adopted these measures as short-term, crisis-combatting solutions, these new initiatives and a transition to e-learning will address some of our society’s most pressing problems and change the nature of our education system wholly in the years to come. To ensure widespread access to these opportunities, however, a number of steps need to be taken.
Along with this, the New Education Policy focuses on Vocational Education. This can be pushed further in rural education as well as it will help in shaping a more plausible & foreseeable future for them (as there are going to be a loss of jobs for unskilled labourers in the future). This sub-committee should also discuss and implement this policy focusing on people who cannot afford the direct and indirect costs of digital education.
The government is to use funds from the privately collected PM Cares funds as well. PM Modi is the sole private benefactor of the PM Cares fund collected in the beginning of the pandemic. It is said to be worth INR 3000 crores but only a percentage of it has been shown in the official statements of the government.
When it comes to infrastructure, a quick glance at statistics of the reach of AM and FM radio, and television and Internet penetration rates shows the progress these services have made in India over the years. In 2017, TV penetration in India stood at 64 percent, with 183 million households owning at least one television set. As for radio, broadcast radio (AM) reaches 99 percent of the Indian population, and FM radio reaches 65 percent. After China, India has the second largest number of Internet users in the world: over 560 million. With an Internet penetration rate of 50 percent, nearly half the country has access to the Internet in 2020, with more men than women accessing the Internet on average, and more urban users than rural ones. A notable statistic is that a majority of Indians (29 percent in 2018) accessed the Internet via their mobile phones, reportedly due to affordable and accessible data plans — 4G networks are most widely used across the country — and government schemes and incentives.
While these numbers may seem impressive, India still has a long way to go to ensure that its citizens are able to easily access and properly utilize these services. Were digital and electronic devices provided for free under government welfare schemes, NGOs, and corporate CSR initiatives, those who needed them the most would greatly benefit. Another viable alternative would be the availability of loans on easy terms and low-or-no-interest EMI schemes to make purchasing these devices easier. The government must also work towards strengthening the country’s telecom infrastructure to make it more robust to be able to support digital remote learning.
Discussions on how to innovatively work and study with at-home technologies have been prolonged. However, the implementation of these policies has not addressed the educational inequalities that have today emerged as a crisis in the caste and class struggle in India.
The scope of e-learning is enormous and can help realize the potential of each student. There lie both opportunities and challenges for the government and the private sector. The aim should be to ensure equal and adequate access to such platforms as the country continues to globalize and catch up with advanced economies. If the Indian education system aims to transit to online learning in the future, it must emphasize policies that bridge the digital divide and move the country closer to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
Alternative: Ask the public through digital media as to how *they* want to and can help rural and urban education. I came up with this for an MUN Conference I attended in early 2020 which had an agenda related to education. (Long term solution)
The following mechanism can be used for that:
A brief explanation of the above:
Use digital media (including radios) to collect opinions from the public regarding what *they* wish to learn. This will help in forming a new curriculum which is more futuristic and beneficial to the country. I mention the word “beneficial”, because in the next 30 years, due to the development of AI and ML technologies, there will be a whole stratum of the economy which will consist of jobless youth.
India having one of the highest youth population, needs to start redesigning curricula based on what people think might benefit them. This will boost interests, creation of niche job sectors and in general: more jobs. Only an individual can know what they truly want to learn and how to design their future.
This system will help a whole generation in having a say in the way their country progresses.