Online Education: Bridging The Gap Or Creating A Gap?
India is clearly ill-prepared to transition into a digital education system right now
The Coronavirus pandemic has shown many social faultlines, the digital divide being one of them. When the lockdowns were initiated across the country, schools shifted to online learning in no-span of time. This change was initiated by high-fees schools. The schools had ready infrastructure at their end and most of the students from these schools had access to digital infrastructure at home. The low-fee private schools, which constitute 90% of the total private schools in our country, followed suit. However, in their case, neither the schools nor the students had the adequate infrastructure to pull it off. As a result, these schools picked up whatever mediocre tools they could afford and launched 'online classes'. Not much thought was given towards the need to change the pedagogy, be it the extra training needed by the teachers or the selection of suitable content for these “online classes”. The state governments across the nation are struggling to reach students effectively. There has been some commendable work done by a few governments but with limited success.
Truth be told, India is clearly ill-prepared to transition into a digital education system right now. It will take us a substantial amount of time in order to move towards that direction. To push for this change, with the limited time and resources that we have, is highly unjust. We need to take a step back and reevaluate on how to deal with the current situation.
The education system has always been skewed towards the students who perform well academically - the top 5 percentile. No matter where you are - be it a government school classroom in a rural village or the exam centre of the country’s topmost entrance exam. It has little to offer to the remaining 95 percentile. Only the top 5% get due attention. Is it fair? Well, it would have been fair if it was a level playing field, which is never the case. Students come from diverse backgrounds and circumstances. Every child does not have access to quality education. Not every child who enters the school is already well versed or confident in one or two languages. Similarly, not every student, today, have access to technology. One student might have a smartphone but not have internet access. The others may not even have a smartphone. Will, once again, the underprivileged students be left behind? If we are unable to come up with a long-term strategy and framework to deal with the situation, the answer to the above question is a Yes. This is the time to create a vision and work efficiently towards a bigger goal. If we don’t act now, it will be too late. Marketing-heavy edtech companies will establish a big market and will only widen the uneven playing field among the students. This will further complicate this matter for our country.
Dr Abhijeet Banerjee, A Nobel prize winner in Economics, spoke about the concept of differentiated learning, in his book, 'Poor Economics'. He pointed out that teaching at the right level was one of the effective strategies to ensure quality education for all. The strategy is based on the fact that every child is unique and needs different forms of support, ranging from content to instruction. Similarly, now, with the entry of technology, another dimension has been introduced in the education system. We need to keep this into account as we develop a long term strategy.
First of all, our focus should be on making digital infrastructure more accessible to the students. Various countries and companies provide discounted plans to students. Can we do that for students in India? Particularly for those coming from rural areas, as it would lead to higher demand. It will also act as an incentive for providers to service in geographical pockets that were, earlier, considered non- profitable. We should also focus our attention on creating digital libraries where students can get access to the internet and other resources.
Building a digital infrastructure would take a lot of time, maybe years. Till then, we need to focus on the current situation. For that, let’s divide the population into three major categories. One set with access to good infrastructure and data. Here, we can test with any number of existing tools and also innovate with new ones. The second, where there is limited accessibility i.e. the phone might be available but not for more than 1 hour a day with low bandwidth. Here, the teachers can focus on a low-instruction, high practice pedagogical model. The third, where there is no access at all. In such cases, we will have to focus on home delivery of resources, IVR channels for sending instructions and reminders, community radio for longer sessions coupled with doubt clearing slots.
The need of the hour is to ensure that while no child is left behind, they are also not pressured to subscribe to one type of learning. It is the responsibility of everyone in the education system to innovate and reach every student at their learning level in the mode most viable to them. This will help us create an equitable ecosystem where every child learns and education becomes a true fundamental right.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house
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