Covid-19 has caused the biggest disruption to the education system not only in India but in the world. According to UNESCO, over 320 million students in Indian schools and colleges are impacted by the pandemic. An immediate response to the crisis was to go digital. E-learning solutions were developed, thanks to the responses by the government and partners all over the world including the Global Education Coalition led by UNESCO. But the widening digital divide has not allowed the shift to be an easy alternative, the main hindrance being the non ~ availability of high-speed internet in remote areas of India. The pandemic could also initiate reforms in fee structure and creation of cost-effective programmes, and so new trends are picking up momentum. It seems there is an opportunity to rethink the traditional education system.

Many effective ways must be thought of to substitute the old style of education delivery. Radio has been the cheapest way of delivery and extensively used for educational purposes all over the world for a long time. This technology has two aspects: radio broadcast for direct consumption and a recording of broadcasts to be stored and used much in the same way as audio material which has to be put directly on the storing apparatus by the producer without the intervention of broadcasting. The potential of radio broadcasting stems from two sources: its low capital requirements, low operating costs and wider coverage, and its pedagogical value.

The characteristics that contribute to its potential are easy accessibility even to the economically weaker section; wide coverage so that it can quickly reach the isolated rural populace; low capital investment and operating cost as compared to other electronic media; easy learner reception even as the learner is engaged in other work; motivation facilities by using special effects like music etc. and ease of production in that no complicated mechanism or sophisticated instruments are required.

In fact, it was Lord Irwin who foresaw the true potential of this medium when he declared in 1927: “India offers special opportunities for the development of broadcasting. Her distances and wide spaces alone make it a promising field. Both for entertainment and for education, its possibilities are great and as yet we perhaps scarcely realise, how great they are”.

A time has come to realise that in terms of geographical, linguistic and numerical strength, the radio’s reach is far greater than that of all other media in the country. It may be recalled that the Radio Rural Forum Project, experimented in 1956 by All India Radio(AIR), was a significant milestone in forging a link between three elements involved in the process ~ the audience, the broadcasting agencies and the specialist agencies.

While studying the overall impact of rural broadcasting, the Vidyalankar Committee, appointed in 1963 by the Government of India to study the publicity programmes of the five year plans, observed: “Wherever radio has reached, its impact has been direct and decisive, radio has undoubtedly been a powerful factor in much of the changes in the political, economic and social outlooks and attitudes as have come about in rural India in recent days.”

Indian radio has about a four-decade long history of working towards educational purposes. Major projects in this sector include Rural Radio Forum for Agricultural Development (1967), promotion of adult literacy rate and GRAMS experiment of 1975 using the medium for training women panchayat members etc. As a part of the process of bringing the medium closer to the hearts of the people, the concept of Local Radio Stations has also proved effective. The Indian experiment in establishing local radio stations began when the AIR ventured into a new phase of broadcasting with the establishment of the first local station at Nagercoil in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu in 1994.

As a tool for development communication reaching out to the people with relevant messages and useful information, community radio became the ideal medium. While in Sri Lanka, Mahaweli Community Radio starting in 1981 and in Philippines, Tambuli, a Community Radio Network operating in remote rural areas have been successful examples in organising and operating community radio, in our country the initiative was taken by Voices in 1996. The government liberalised the policy for Community Radio in December 2006 and decided to grant permission for setting up such stations to NGOs.

Gyan Vani is an educational FM Radio network operating through several FM stations from different places of the country. These stations were to operate as media cooperatives with day-to-day programmes contributed by different educational institutions, NGOs and national level institutions like IGNOU, NCERT, UGC etc.

Now that all educational institutions are closed for an indefinite period, a series of audio conferencing programmes may be initiated in collaboration with all AIR stations using space tuning of AIR at local level with local infrastructure and human resources. The main strength of this mode is that education delivery through decentralised distance mode might be provided. AIR is already broadcasting syllabus based educational contents daily in its Vidhyabhyasa Rangam programme which can be utilised by colleges and universities effectively. The service of a subject expert can be utilised by a large audience with a low per capita cost.

It is interesting to know that TV was launched in India in 1959 primarily as an educational medium. It was in 1975 that AIR conducted an ambitious experiment in serving the rural masses of the country. Doordarshan was still a constituent unit of AIR.

Termed as Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), it was carried out for transmission of programmes to 2,400 villages in six states of India. Under the scheme villages were provided with TV sets at Community places. Specially designed informal educational programmes were beamed for a couple of hours every day.

TV channels can do wonders in reaching out to learners in an easy way. Recently, Padashaala, an exam-based programme telecast by Doordarshan, Thiruvananthapuram was a great success. Unlike satellite channels, Doordarshan has a footprint over 80 per cent of India. The programme of DD in collaboration with the government of Bihar, Mera Doordarshan, Mera Vidhyalay, also had a great popularity.

Digital learning and teaching framework were introduced in India in 1985 with the setting up of IGNOU. Since then the digital learning platforms have been set up like Diksha, National Repository of Open Educational Resources (NROER), Swayam, National Initiative for School Heads and Teachers Holistic Advancement (NESTA), Swayam Prabha etc.

Today India has one of the largest radio, television and satellite or cable system networks in the world. As per the TAM Annual Universe Update 2015, India had over 167 million households with TV sets, of which over 161 million have access to cable TV or satellite TV.

Beyond the top band of educational excellence, Indian academia is set to need transformation. Let new challenges make way for novel solutions that can give pace to the stagnating education system.

The writer is a former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata and is presently with Rabindra Bharati University