Educational inequality already exists in many forms in the country. The recent push for online learning in schools raises other questions. If out of nearly 320 million students, only fifteen and twenty percent benefit from online courses, then what should be done? Access to technology to only a privileged few creates a new power relationship in the learning community. Inequality has its policy, and the structure of education and the distribution of resources are no exception.
In a pandemic situation like this, the safety of students is more important before the world tries a vaccine. But EduTech companies were quick to prepare their vision papers, seeing vast potential in school education. In his book Distrusting Educational Technology, Neil Selwyn estimates that the global digital market could grow to $ 5,000 billion a year. Suddenly, online learning has become the mantra, dismissing complex issues such as vacant teaching positions and the financial resources needed to improve the quality of learning in public schools. But does education through an online mode lead to the goals of education? Or does it create a hierarchy among the learners?
Global tech companies have offered partnerships with schools in many countries. For example, in the UK, under the terms of the partnership, the company will provide free training and technical assistance to teachers in conducting online courses and managing student work. Several other companies have collaborated with educational foundations working in the education sector. Some EduTech companies even offer free tablets and Wi-Fi connectivity to vulnerable students. Their eyes are on the consumers of tomorrow and, of course, the multi-billion market.
In India, Smart Class has already started in several schools, with EduTech companies offering grants to merge education with technology. A large tech company recently released a vision paper called Re-imagining Education: The Future of Learning. They are calling for a paradigm shift due to Covid-19. This document tells us the level of preparation for the end of EduTech companies. Where is the vision document for academic institutions?
EduTech groups promote their ideas in association with organizations working in the social sector. You may have noticed that the sudden influx of statements and advertisements advocating the importance of online education has intensified. The products of several companies have entered the school education market. Some celebrities have joined the troops to promote these businesses. Is online school education a solution or does it create a new challenge for a country like India?
Schools are physically closed at this time. Yet, many teachers employed in public schools have tried to teach their students through WhatsApp, YouTube, speakers, etc. Some teachers have tried to maintain the learning cycle of children in villages by carrying whiteboards, books on their scooters and motorcycles. These teachers deserve praise for their efforts, but it should also be seen whether these efforts reduce the new educational gap created by technology.
In the educational discourse, there are discussions that technology will change the traditional form of the education system. The National Education Policy 2020 also promotes the use of technology in education. According to one estimate, out of around thirty-two crore students in India, less than four crore students can resume their studies on online platforms. Generally, we find that new technologies save time and manpower. Technology in the form of a product undoubtedly offers a solution to a particular problem. But at the same time create new ones.
As soon as schools closed in March 2020, students across the country were divided into two categories. For schools and students who have the opportunity to take an online education, their new academic session started this month, that is, in June. They learn at home. But there is another group of students who depend on government textbooks, uniforms and lunches. They are waiting for the schools to open for the second year in a row. Having access to their full set of textbooks by the end of the school year is a remarkable achievement for students in this category.
One can consider flying high while attending school. This is why sociologists trust the usefulness of schooling to promote social mobility. Schools and students with economic means for gadgets and the Internet have continuity in their formal learning process. But how to overcome the academic drought of students without a tablet or internet access?
The talk about the technology, its impact and the constraints of the learning process could not go beyond the necessary gadgets and internet speed. In pedagogy, the content, the quality of interactions and the construction of knowledge are more important issues than the gadget. Shouldn’t we be discussing the effectiveness of technology in achieving educational goals? Models of educational technology have been exposed, but scaling them up on a larger scale has always been a challenge. Head-Start, a computer-based learning intervention by Rajya Shiksha Kendra from Madhya Pradesh, is one example.
Research on this topic does not confirm that online media can become an alternative to school. Technology can play a supportive and effective role in children’s learning. But for that to happen, technology must be used with an instructional design. Is there an instructional design strategy for the online model?
Due to increasing economic shocks and ambiguity over the opening of schools, thousands of small schools have closed forever. Thousands of children have removed their names from private schools since March 2020. Millions of students enrolled in public schools may not be attending schools. Many girls and children with disabilities would not return to school after two years. Sitting at home for girls is a more difficult option. Some of them may be trapped in child marriage. Large numbers of young children have entered the labor market.
Over the past two decades, India has made significant progress in the education sector thanks to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the Right to Education Act of 2009, the Millennium Development Goals and d ‘other affirmative action programs for girls and special groups. In 2021, the country is on the verge of losing the mileage gained with the participation of children and parents from disadvantaged neighborhoods. Dropping out of education has a direct link with social mobility, hampering other aspects of life.
The big question at this point is: who benefits from educational technology? EduTech companies or children dependent on the State?
(Sanjeev Rai, PhD, is an educator and author of the book Conflict, Education and the People’s War in Nepal)