By Dhanendra Kumar & Manju Kumar
India has the second largest school system in the world after China. There are 320 million learners in India with a network of 1.5 million schools. During the pandemic, schools had to be suddenly closed to prevent community transmission. However, huge disparities in internet and technology access in schools, especially in rural areas and disadvantaged segments, have exacerbated learning outcomes. Besides infrastructure, the majority of teachers were not trained in online education when the pandemic hit.
World Teachers’ Day is celebrated around the world every year on October 5 (although, in each different country, in India on September 5). The theme for World Teachers’ Day 2021 was “Teachers at the heart of restoring education”. UNESCO today launched the “State of Education Report (SOER) for India”. UNESCO paid tribute to “the rapid progress made in the education sector in India, the role of teachers and the National Education Policy 2020”. However, this report, like another investigative report, paints a worrying picture of the results of online learning in “Bharat”.
As illustrated in an analytical FE editorial, there is an 11 lakh shortage of qualified teachers, with two-thirds of vacancies in rural areas, 89% being one-teacher schools. Shortage of teachers, lack of job security, low salaries, lack of benefits, respect for the profession, is reflected in their low morale. In private schools, teachers are even more poorly paid, without a formal contract, without a retirement pension, without care or gratuity. Lack of motivation, digital illiteracy, poor infrastructure, no internet, all learning has deepened.
During the pandemic and the lockdowns, when online education suddenly had to be used, neither the school infrastructure was ready nor the teachers trained, most rural households and marginalized students did not have computers. nor cell phones. According to the UNESCO report above, only 22% of schools had computer equipment and only 19% Internet access. Of these, only 14% of rural schools had Internet compared to 42% in urban areas.
Some of the report’s recommendations included (i) improving the conditions of employment of teachers in public and private schools (ii) increasing the number of teachers and improving their working conditions, especially in schools. Northeastern states, rural areas and (iii) recognize teachers as frontline workers (iv) provide teachers with meaningful ICT training (v) develop governance of education through consultative processes , based on mutual accountability, etc.
A recent survey of online and offline school learning (SCHOOL), discussed in a report titled ‘Emergency Report Locked on School Education’, paints an even bleaker picture, highlighting the need for governments to revive education in brick and mortar classrooms. This report, analyzed in FE (https://bit.ly/3iZ3bYa) highlights the catastrophic consequences of prolonged school closures during the pandemic. In rural areas, only 8% of children study online, 37% do not study at all, half unable to read more than a few words. They were deprived not only of the right to learn, but also of other benefits associated with participating in school, the playground, school meals and social interaction with other children. Most parents wanted schools to reopen as soon as possible.
The survey which was conducted in 15 states and UTs across the country in August revealed the beginning of a digital divide. Only 51% of rural households had a smartphone, mainly used by working seniors, only 12% of rural children had one. There were other issues like poor connectivity, speed and lack of money for data, only 4% of rural SC / ST children were studying online, compared to 15% of others. The digital divide is clearly real, severely affecting low-income groups.
NEP 2020 specifically addresses those issues (paragraph 24) that “the recent increase in epidemics requires. alternative modes of quality education, leveraging technology, optimizing digital online education. Teachers need training adapted to the new pedagogy. Appropriate existing e-learning platforms such as SWAYAM, DIKSHA, to be provided to teachers. A digital repository of content, learning games and simulations, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) and for fun learning, student-friendly tools like apps, art gamification and of Indian culture to be developed in several languages. ‘
All of the above technology measures are proven technology tools for enhanced digital learning, widely used for profit in electronic technology business ventures, now becoming unicorns with commercialization. While our neighboring country has imposed severe restrictions on the commercial exploitation of education, which is a necessary public good, now is the time for these commercial enterprises to also realize their social responsibility, also launching special programs to disadvantaged children. Another example is that of Haryana where, as part of an ambitious “Super 100” program, a program was launched to help especially poor and bright students in public schools with spectacular results.
It must be recognized that by building a solid foundation for our future, no compromises or shortcuts can be made and every child deserves technical support.
(Dhanendra Kumar is former Executive Director for India at the World Bank; Manju Kumar is an educator and MD, Competition Advisory Services LLP)