Online learning in times of coronavirus: Net-based learning can't be temporary measure, must be part of education policy
As the lockdown initiated due to the coronavirus pandemic has been extended, one of the biggest concerns has been the disruption to education
As the lockdown initiated due to the coronavirus pandemic has been extended, one of the biggest concerns has been the disruption to education. Schools and colleges at all levels have been shut. Entrance and recruitment exams have been postponed. The latest UNESCO report on the impact of COVID-19 on education has noted that around 32 crore students in India have been affected by this.
The government, in its directions, has recognised this and encouraged educational institutions to engage with students and provide counselling support during this time. The other aspect that has been seen is the push for online education and e-learning during this time.
In the Ministry of Home Affairs' notification issued on 15 April — which contains the guidelines issued for the lockdown period till 3 May, it is mentioned that online learning is to be encouraged and institutions must adhere to the academic calendar through online education. This could have worked if India had the infrastructure or the digital literacy levels to support this. Regrettably, the country is lacking in both.
First, let's look at the issue of infrastructure. As per the latest data from TRAI in February 2020, India has around 115 crore wireless subscribers, of which around 66 crore have access to broadband-quality internet. Broadband in India is defined as equal to/or above 512 kbps in terms of download speed. So in a country of around 130 crore, around half currently has access to a decent standard of internet.
If we look specifically at the feasibility of conducting online classes, we have to look at the question of infrastructure from two perspectives — that of the school and of the student. Now, some select private schools may have the infrastructure to move all their classroom processes online, but the same cannot be presumed of most private and government schools across the country. Our education system is already besieged with various infrastructure issues such as the lack of classrooms and toilets, open spaces and recreational facilities etc. To expect all schools to be able to deliver online education is problematic.
According to an Annual Status of Education (ASER) study conducted in 2018, in 596 government schools belonging to 619 districts, only 21.3 percent of students had access to computers in their schools. Now let's look at this from the perspective of students. Again, only some students from privileged families may have access to computers and personal smartphones or tablets. The 2011 Census reveals just 9.4 percent of households in the country had either a laptop or a computer, and only three percent of these homes had an internet connection.
While 20 percent of urban households and five percent of rural households owned a computer or laptop, a mere one percent of rural Indian households owned a computer with internet access. Even if we assume that these numbers have doubled or tripled over the past decade, that still leaves out a large number of people. Even with the increase in smartphone ownership, not many students in low-income households and rural areas may have access to computers, personal smartphones or reliable internet connections, which would allow them to participate in online learning initiatives.
Second, there is the question of digital literacy, where the situation gets bleaker. The National Digital Literacy Mission (NDLM) was approved in March 2014 and had a target to train 10 lakh citizens in select districts. Subsequently, the Digital Saksharta Abhiyan (DISHA) was approved in December 2014 with an additional target of 42.5 lakh candidates across the country. The only difference between the two schemes is that in DISHA, besides common citizens, ASHA workers, government functionaries and Fair Price shop workers were also trained.
The coverage targets have been increased under the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan (PMGDISHA), which seeks to make six crore persons in rural India digitally literate. However, Till October 2018, around two crore individuals have been covered, which is just 1.67 percent of India's population. These schemes are mostly focused on rural areas, leaving us with no reliable indicators about the number of people in India who can be called digitally literate.
Onto the topic of school students. and in response to an RTI filed in November 2019, asking for details of digital literacy numbers amongst school students, this writer was directed to the ICT syllabus created under the national policy on ICT in school education. There are some positive aspects to this course design, specifically how the structure for students from Classes 1 to 5 focuses on using games to familiarise children with different tasks.
One flaw here is the focus on computers as the unit of training, rather than smartphones. This ignores how technology penetration is happening in India, with many first-time users coming online directly on smartphones and skipping computers entirely. This means there is a requirement for expensive IT infrastructure, as well as broadband connectivity, to make these courses possible — again ignoring the realities of school infrastructure in India, creating a digital divide among students and favouring the more privileged ones.
This can be seen in how the syllabus mentions that since ICT infrastructure may not be available in all schools, state boards can come up with a different method of assessment, leading to a lack of standardisation in the assessment of digital literacy levels among students of different states, and affecting the quality of skills learnt by students from poorer states.
It is important to point out that none of what we have discussed currently applies to students in the Kashmir Valley, where the government has restricted access to high speed internet, thus denying them the ability to access any online learning resources. It would be unfair to blame the government for being underprepared for enabling online education during this time, because no government has been prepared for the extraordinary situation created by COVID-19 . However, there are long-term benefits to be achieved if the State attempts to mainstream digital literacy and enable online education in its efforts.
Digital literacy cannot be defined in a limited way as just the ability to use computers. It must comprise of a range of skills, such as the use of digital tools, ability to process information, create and share knowledge on social networks and other skills that are increasingly becoming vital to progress in a professional environment. Digital literacy must be seen as a life skill since technology is penetrating all aspects of our life now. It is important that education in India keep up with this.
There must be a specific component in the education budget that looks at enabling online learning in the education system. This must focus on infrastructure creation, skill development initiatives and teacher training. Teachers must be motivated and trained in order to have optimum utilisation of this infrastructure. It is the State's responsibility to ensure that children from less privileged communities do not suffer by being placed on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Digital literacy must be prioritised from the primary school level onwards, especially in the case of girl students in rural India, who are often forced to discontinue their education after the primary or secondary level due to a lack of opportunities and/or social and familial pressure. We are living in an information society and the State is obligated to ensure that our children are fully prepared for it. Promoting online learning cannot be seen as a temporary measure, but must be integrated into the overall education policy of the country.
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