It is a foregone conclusion that the impact of the first and second waves of Covid 19 on education has been huge even as educational institutions which are yet to reopen face the spectre of a third wave.
The second wave seemed to be more complex. This arises from the fact that students are not able to take proper examinations, and their grades in many cases might not be satisfactory. They would even have to face the negative eventuality of their “Covid impacted testimonials”. Many brilliant pupils would have to put up with being marked down through no fault of theirs.
The focus was on the impact of digitally disadvantaged students of their poor performance. In the long run, what comes to be at stake is the social mobility that education is supposed to address as the leveler of society.
According to Unicef, Covid has affected about 90 per cent of the world’s student population. Over 1.5 million schools across India closed down due to the pandemic affecting 286 million children from pre-primary to secondary level. This adds to 6 million children who were out of school before the pandemic. Only 24 per cent households have access to the internet, according to a 2019 government survey. In rural India, the picture is grimmer – only four per cent households have access.
India, like other countries, embraced the digital mode of education as a solution. The New Education Policy (NEP) also emphasised the importance of online education blended with traditional mode. Sadly, however, the Education Ministry’s budget was slashed to Rs 469 crore in 2020-21 from Rs 604 crore the previous year.
A KPMG and Google study done before the outbreak of Covid estimated that the online education market in India was set to grow to Rs 14,836 crore with 9.6 million users by 2021, from Rs 1,870 crore and 1.6 million users in 2016. India has now emerged as the second biggest market for massive open online courses (MMOC) in the world after the US.
However, a recent report by the global education network, Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) says that Indian internet infrastructure is still far from ready to support the shift. A 2018 Niti Ayog report revealed that 55,000 villages in India did not have mobile network coverage. A 2017-18 survey by the Ministry of Rural Development found that more than 36 per cent of schools in our country operated without electricity.
As e -learning becomes the new normal, digitisation of education is being made accessible and affordable. The Union government is banking hugely on the Bharatnet project, which aims to provide broadband to 250,000 gram panchayats through optic fibre to improve connectivity to help rural schools to impart online education to students who do not have internet access at home.
It is feared that the overall growth and development of an individual that takes place in school is lost and underprivileged learners lose the opportunity beyond school. Students do not get free midday meals which may compromise health. Exposure to screens for a long time, technical difficulties, reduced interaction with teachers etc. are some of the other concerns. There is a strong possibility of increased dropout rates when schools reopen after the second wave. Unesco has estimated that 11 million girls may not return to school, especially those aged between 12 and 17. A Unicef study found that at least 463 million students globally were cut off from learning due to lack of resources at home.
A Parliamentary Committee Report released in December 2020 recommended that a scheme be formulated to provide financial assistance and subsidised smart phones and computers to students to address the digital divide. But it is well known that if the digital divide has to be avoided, the spending on education must be raised from the present less than 3 per cent.
The crisis can be made an opportunity to rethink how digital technology may be used to support the teaching-learning process during and after the second wave. The past one year of emergency remote teaching tells us much about how education can go fully virtual or operate on a hybrid basis. The best lesson to be learnt from the pandemic involves the informal, improvised, scrappy digital practices that have helped teachers, students and parents get through learning at home. Institutional shutdowns have seen them get together to achieve many things with relatively simple technology. This includes the rise of some Apps as a source of informal learning content. Some have been used as platforms for educational organisations, public figures and scientists to produce bespoke learning content as well as allowing teachers to put together material for a wider audience.
In some countries, classes have been run through WhatsApp, a platform most students and families have easy access to. Educators have learned to set up BitMoji classes and cartoon avatars of themselves which act as a friendly online version of their familiar classroom space for students to check in and find out what they should be learning, access resources, and feel as if they were back at their educational institutions.
Teachers have learned to work out creative ways of Zoom based teaching giving live demonstrations, experiments and live music and pottery workshops. Social media, apps and games have proven convenient places for educators to share insights into their classroom practices which can some human contact and extra motivation to connect and learn.
A year of such practices may have developed a framework of how students and teachers can make the most of personal digital media outside the classroom — including allowing students to participate in online fan fiction writing communities, digital journalism, music production and podcasting. The year has also seen a rise in e-mail sports where teams of youngsters compete in video games. Informal digital media can serve a boon for the disadvantaged groups allowing students to find supportive communities of like-minded peers.
With US schools exploring the benefits of setting up official Tik Tok creation clubs to enhance their video making skill, it may encourage our country to exploit the crisis due to the first and second waves of the pandemic as an opportunity to make teachers, students and families work together.
EdTech and digitisation could greatly supplement the learning process. Beyond seeing a more seamless transition to remote learning sceneries, technology could help provide personalised learning solutions as well as novel and engaging avenues for teachers and students to participate in the teaching- learning process.
However, significant barriers may be faced to increased adoption of technology including inability of many educational institutions to make investment in building networks. Regardless, as we look at educational stagnation during the ongoing waves of Covid 19, we are likely to increasingly accept the role of technology.
The writer, a former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata, is presently with Rabindra Bharati University.