English tutor robots" will be introduced to elementary and middle schools in Seoul next year to assist in students' one-on-one English conversations, the municipal education office said on Wednesday.
The miserable sight of millions of children of our country being deprived of education for over six months for lack of an alternative to classroom teaching notwithstanding, the lack of scientific thinking, and the conspicuous absence of any entrepreneurialism that might govern a low-cost technological solution to support remote learning for them is surprising. That it was not taken up to the level of policy making betrays criminal tardiness, even though we admit that online classes are hardly any substitute for classroom teaching. Whether it is safe to open schools, with the pandemic still raging, for lack of any epidemiological data on the relative contribution of school closures to transmission control, is also not clear. But epidemics, like natural hazards, are part of the context for educational planning.
There have been sporadic attempts by introducing classes through online media platforms such as Zoom, Google Meet, WhatsApp and YouTube, beneficial only to the entitled households. But without treading the much-discussed trope of digital divide, it’s clear that for the vast majority, there is no academic continuity.
For over six months in a row, our governments could not come up with an easy mode of remote learning for the children in government, government-aided or municipal schools. No low-cost digital platform could be made for millions of children starved of any opportunities for online classes across the nation, and no ‘intelligent’ classroom could be propped up in the fashion of broadcasting/webcasting assembly or parliamentary elections.
Even if poor households do not have a committed data connection, or an internet-enabled device, cable television and FM radio could transmit audio sessions and live videos. There was a time when radio was the main broadcaster that had the penetration to reach people across the social divide. The technological infrastructure, though diluted, can be revived and the bandwidth of the FM channels expanded for it to become a vehicle for imparting education.
Besides, the scope of digital India could have passed its biggest test, had it been able to reach millions of children. It could have birthed even a millennial slogan: technology for all. To continue education, it is important to have a technological breakthrough. It is for the government to sort out the modalities.
One can recall the announcement made by Nita Ambani, Chairperson & Founder of Reliance Foundation, in July this year that the company has assured that as soon as the vaccine for coronavirus is available for masses, Reliance will step forth and volunteer for digital distribution and supply chain of the vaccine. The founder of India’s Reliance Jio Platforms, Mukesh Ambani surely still nurtures his dream to provide every Indian with access to affordable and comprehensive telecommunications services, as Jio has notched up close to 400 million subscribers in just a few years. Our public education might greatly benefit from such patrons with resources and deep pockets, had the spirit of altruism in the form of an affordable digital platform got the better of commercial considerations. With no roadmap for reopening of schools in sight, and many countries apprehending a second/ third wave of the coronavirus sweeping their shores, the pertinent question is: should our students remain outside the pale of school education during the length and breadth of the pandemic? Should parents desist from sending the children to schools until there is a coronavirus vaccine? Vaccination played a decisive role, to draw a recent example, in reducing cases of pertussis, measles, and chicken pox in the United States, but when the government started requiring that children receive a battery of vaccinations before entering school in the 1980s, resistance to vaccines and mistrust of vaccinators mounted. But what will happen to the education of the children until the logistics of mass immunisation are sorted out ~ as it may well take “more than a year” for a coronavirus vaccine to be easily available in the Indian markets, according to the AIIMS Director Dr Randeep Guleria, also a member of the national task force on the coronavirus management in the country?
So far, this apathy has irretrievably burst the bubble of digital India and any pretension to welfarism. Our governments have been seen lacking any will or intent. If the sight of a ninetynine percenter in today’s age and date of inflationary marking as the ICSE, ISC, CBSE and other state boards ~ with or without taking an examination ~ points to a blot on our education system, the bigger distortion, besides the sight of migrant workers walking hundreds of miles, surely is the sight of millions of children deprived of education across the digital divide for lack of a digital platform. This is a serious contravention of the Right to Education Act (RTE) as each one of them has a right to education, to a better future and to a better life irrespective of his or her social class. If poor Internet access seriously disrupts learning of some students for lack of stable digital infrastructure and platforms that enable online course delivery, interaction, and data collection in many countries, India is considered a front-ranking country that, according to government sources, in September 2020, moved four places up to reach the 48th rank and made it to the top 50 countries in the Global Innovation Index (GII) for the first time. India ranks in the top 15 for indicators such as ICT (Information and Communication Technology) services exports, graduates in science and engineering, government online services and R&Dintensive global companies.
Long periods of learning lost during the entire gamut of school closures due to disease outbreak is surely to result in both temporal and permanent damage on the educational system. The temporal damage includes disruption of curriculum which could take a long time to be recovered while the permanent damage includes the fact that some learners may never return to school even when the disease outbreak is ended.
Internationally, almost 24 million children are at risk of not returning to school next year due to the economic fallout of Covid19, according to the United Nation’s policy brief on the pandemic’s impact on education. The World Bank estimated that the extended closure of schools amid the Covid-19 pandemic could dent India’s future earnings by anywhere between $420 billion and $600 billion, as depleted learning levels of students will translate into poorer productivity for days ahead. It warned that as many as 5.5 million students could drop out of schools across South Asia. Just in case one feels cheerful that school dropout rates have actually decreased in some states like West Bengal, many ascribe it to the no-detention policy from class V to class VIII where a student once registered in class V remains in the class register of the next class, even if s/he had dropped out and was not showing up for a considerable time.
Now that the schools are beginning to open in some states, mitigation strategies such as wearing masks, social distancing by having reduced class sizes, spacing out desks, implementing cleaning protocols, and developing a proactive plan for when a student or staff member tests positive for Covid-19 are mandatory. As the difference between learning in-person and online, besides the digital divide, has already become another dividing line between students, a hybrid model of remote and in-classroom learning has to be adopted while schools may open safely when community transmission is low.
Trouble is, not many of those who remain opposed to resumption of schools are dependent on mid-day meals for nutrition. The loss to students dependent on the public education system in terms of nutrition, learning and general well-being is enormous. Without any verifiable critical output (without any class provided or examinations taken) for over six months for most of the schools, and great state-wise variations, the loss of momentum and other socio-economic factors causing reduction of employment facilities of the parents of many wards have to be factored in any future policy formulation. Making 2020 a zero academic year for the ongoing academic session will not only be a good idea but the need of the hour, alongside shoring up the digital infrastructure (in the event of future pandemics) and physical infrastructure (for greater hygiene) for India’s government schools, which educate the poorest and most vulnerable students. Schools must be prepared to develop operational procedures and plans for emergency situations, which would include the issue of infectious diseases epidemics. School safety and educational continuity require a dynamic, continuous process initiated by the government involving teachers, students, parents, and local community. For the damage caused to public education due to the pandemic, we need sustained and well-formulated firefighting.
The writer is a Kolkatabased commentator on politics, development and cultural issues