/The challenges of digital learning in school during COVID 19 led lockdown in India – Rama Kant Rai

The challenges of digital learning in school during COVID 19 led lockdown in India – Rama Kant Rai

Rama Kant Rai
Convener, National Coalition for Education (NCE) – Lucknow, INDIA

India declared nationwide lockdown on March 24, 2020 and at the time of writing is still continuing in three phases till 31th May 2020, to contain the spread of the virus. As per the latest reports the Covid-19[1] has infected globally 5.8 Million people as confi rmed infected cases and also claimed the lives of over .352 million people as on 27th May 2010. India too is facing the challenge of Covid-19 drastically. By latest reports the confi rmed infected
cases in India has reached to 158 K out of which 67692 cases have recovered and 4531 cases died due to Covid 19 till 28th May 2020[2].

It is assumed that India is not likely to lift its nationwide Covid-19 lockdown on even on 31st May 2020; rather the restriction could be extended further, according to a new study by American consulting fi rm Boston Consulting Group (BCG). As per the BCG report India will start lifting COVID-19 lockdown only between the fourth week of June and the second week of September.

The delay in lifting the restrictions was attributed to challenges faced by India in terms of health system preparedness and record of public policy effectiveness. The report also suggested that India might witness a peak in the number of coronavirus cases by the third week of June.

Although India is helping more than 90 countries by medical supplies and other help and has been honoured the top rank in containing the Covid 19 menace by an American company yet
everything is not out of doubt to cope up the challenge of school education for marginalized children of India[3].

The challenges of digital learning for children of marginalized sector during lockdown
Like many countries in the world started lockdown due to Covid-19, India also has closed all educational institutions, to contain the spread Covid-19 virus as a consequence of which, learners ranging from school going children to postgraduate students, are being adversely affected. The uncertainties surrounding the lockdown situation are likely to affect more than 320 million children in India. (UNESCO estimates that about 320 Million students are affected in India, including those in schools and colleges.)

Govt of India, Ministry of Home Affairs issued a notifi cation on April 15, 2020, with guidelines to be followed during the lockdown period. As a result India started moving towards developing an online mode of education –a stop-gap arrangement. National online education platform SWAYAM and other digital initiatives have been introduced. The education portals of NCERT like Diksha, e-pathshala, NROER and NIOS and other ICT initiatives like online education, Videos like SWAYAM Prabha, DTH TV channels are introduced for online teaching purposes. And this initiative is not out of challenges for marginalized children of India.

India is also considered to be the biggest market for Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs) in the world after the USA. Since the population of India is huge, massive open online course (MOOC) is said to open gateways for lot of private companies to invest in digital education under MOOC in the name of distant education for Indian children. And this is likely to deprive the children from conventional school education programme and Right to Education.

(1) Digital learning a distant dream, for marginalized children in India.
As per the Economic Survey of 2019,93 percent of the total workforce of the country is from the employed in the unorganized sector. However, government think tank NITI Aayog, (replacement of earlier Planning Commission) in a report released in 2018 said that 85 percent of the total workforce was a part of the unorganized sector. The Periodic Labour Force Survey 2017-18 showed that 71 percent of the regular / salaried employees in the informal sector (non-agriculture) do not have a written job contract. 49.6 percent of them do not even apply for social security schemes and 54.2 percent do not get paid leave.

A halted business with no guarantee of a quick revival after the lockdown stares many in the face. Wedding planners, florists, tailors, washer men, fi shermen, coal loaders, security guards, folk artistes, salon owners, among other small business owners and artisans, and those in seasonal employment are bracing themselves for the impact of the pause in their livelihoods.

The 75th report of the National Sample Survey Offi ce (NSSO) for 2017-18 highlights some of the major issues that this new model would have to address. All India percentage of households having internet facilities stands at 23.8% with rural availability at 14.9% and urban at 42%.

In most of these unorganized sector workers the children are accompanied with their parents for some seasonal employment for more than six months. While the parents work in the unorganized units their children take care of new born siblings or do some supporting work.

In case where such children are enrolled in local private schools become drop out, once their parents go back to their native place. There no facility for such children to suit their schooling
requirements as they are migrants. Thus a massive number of such children remain out of schools and are deprived of Right to Education. So the option of digital learning becomes a
distant dream for them.

(2) Access of power supply and Internet connection:
The NSSO survey, quoted highlighted that 26.1% of the population above 15 years of age are ‘not literate’, moreover 18.9% have attended formal education up till primary school, 16.2% each have attended middle (Class V) and secondary (until Class VIII). This constitutes a whopping 77.4% of total India’s population – who may not have the adequate level of education needed to teach children in the house. The situation at the rural level is even direr, with 69.6 % of the population being in the spectrum of ‘not-literate’ to ‘middle school’.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology in its 2019 report suggested that the much-acclaimed digital literacy drive had touched only 1.67 per cent of the population even though at least three major fl agship programmes were being run together.

Simply having smart phone or laptop doesn’t mean that children have access to internet. The percentage of people who were able to use the internet (all-India) stood at 20.1% with rural at 13% and urban at 37.1%. Additionally, only 10.8% of people in India had used the internet in the last 30 days. It is important to note that these statistics vary vastly among different states across the country.

(3) Lack of digital infrastructure in schools:
The digital divide is evident across class, gender, region or place of residence. Among the poorest 20% households, only 2.7% have access to a computer and 8.9% to internet facilities. In case of the top 20% households, the proportions are 27.6% and 50.5%. Despite
initiatives from the Central and state governments, there has not been enough expenditure on improving the digital infrastructure for remote learning. In fact, in 2020-’21, the Ministry of Human Resource Development budget for digital e-learning was reduced to Rs 4690 Million from Rs 6040 Million in 2019-’20[4].

(4) Preparedness of teachers:
The teachers training and orientation in most of the public schools is for conventional teaching. The schools have hardly suffi cient infrastructure to extent the digital teaching and learning by teachers. All of sudden the instructions were executed among teaches to follow the digital classes. The teachers without proper training and orientation fi nd it diffi cult to teach in digital mode.

The much awaited the government’s Saubhagya scheme to provide electricity to every households shows that almost 99.9% of homes India have a power connection, the picture is less luminous if we look at the quality of electricity and the number of hours for which it is available every day.

Mission Antyodaya, a nationwide survey of villages conducted by the Ministry of Rural Development in 2017-’18, showed that 16% of India’s households received one to eight hours of electricity daily, 33% received 9-12 hours, and only 47% received more than 12 hours a day.

While a computer would be preferable for online classes, a smart phone could also serve the purpose. However, the phone might be convenient for apps, but not for carrying out lengthy assignments or research. While 24% Indians own a smart phone, only 11% of households possess any type of computer, which could include desktop computers, laptops, notebooks,
netbooks, palmtops or tablets.

Even the penetration of digital technologies in India has been haphazard and exclusionary. In fact, only 8% of all households with members aged between fi ve and 24 have both a computer and an internet connection. It is also useful to note that as per the National Sample Survey defi nition, a household with a device or internet facility does not necessarily imply that the connection and devices are owned by the household.

(5) Digital learning mars the very basic purpose of social values
The National Education Policy talks; (4.23.) students must have a large amount of fl exibility in choosing their individual curricula, certain subjects and skills should be learned by all students to become good, successful, innovative, adaptable, and productive human beings in today’s rapidly-changing world. …. skills include…. physical education, wellness, fitness and sports; collaboration and teamwork; problem solving and logical reasoning; vocational exposure and skills; digital literacy, coding and computational thinking; ethical and moral reasoning; including knowledge and practice of human and Constitutional values gender sensitization; etc.
It also talks to avoid rote learning of students.

These objectives are mostly activity based and peer group learning with socialization and interaction with other children from different class and social background. The digital learning in present context is nothing but rote learning.

Simply initiating the digital education from class room education would mar the social value based learning of collective togetherness among students. One-to-one interactions among peers and teachers are very important for learning. On a digital platform, how students learn and communicate with others is largely dependent on the readiness of both teachers and students to accept digital learning. In the case of distance education, the onus of learning is more on students, which requires discipline.

(6) Extreme poverty compels marginalized children to go for bread earning:
The poverty is one of the detrimental factors affecting the school education in marginalized and unorganized sector families. Here is a case which is self explanatory. In one of the govt
aided schools in Allahabad district children were supposed to attend digital learning classes. While I asked the teacher as to how the digital learning:

Ashok Bind Mohan, Ramesh, Rahul (names changed) and 10 others from Daraganj (Baxi Khurd), Prayag Raj (Allahabad),UP are all between 10 to 15 years age group and are enrolled in elementary education(Grade5 to 8). Their school got closed due to lockdown from 13th March 2020. They were asked to attend digital learning from home with smart phones. They are extremely poor and parents have no job during lockdown. They don’t have smart phones and those who have cannot afford net pack (internet connectivity).

When the teacher asked as to why they are not attending the digital classes they replied,” Mam, we get up early in the morning around 3 to 4 am and in a group we rush to river for fi shing. By 5pm we collected the fi shes and rush to local market and sell the fish. From the sales proceeds we purchase rice and kitchen provisions. We also bring some unsold fishes to our home. Then our mother cooks the fi sh and rice for entire family. By the time we eat
we are too tired and go to sleep. For us digital learning is a dream which is diffi cult to come true.”

is going one. She said,” Children are not able to attend the digital classes as they either don’t have smart phones or cannot afford the internet data connection.

(7) Out of school children and SDG 4:
The UNESCO published Global Education Monitoring Report, 2014 (GEM) states that 37% of the world’s non-literate individuals are in India. The report also suggests that 280 millions of these are just women. Literacy rates among the marginalized sections of the society are abysmally low. The literacy rate of 15+ years of rural women among Muslim women is 47.25%, 43% for SC women and a mere 37.05% for ST women. These children need special
attention in school education.

Also Stefania Giannini[5], UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Education, told PTI in an interview that shutting down of schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic comes with a warning of „potential for increased drop-out rates which will disproportionately affect adolescent girls,
further entrench gender gaps in education and lead to increased risk of sexual exploitation, early pregnancy and early and forced marriage“.

UNESCO has called for policy-makers and practitioners to look into lessons from the past crises to address the challenges faced by girls as the governments of various counties prepare for „indefi nite“ school closures.

As per Ms Protiva Kundu’s article “The gender divide in internet usage is also stark.” As per the Internet and Mobile Association of India report, in 2019, while 67% men had access to internet, this figure was only at 33% for women. The disparity is more prominent in rural India, where the figures are 72% and 28% for men and women, respectively”[6].

What is the way out?
1. It is a pity the unorganized migrant workers and their children (mostly out of schools) are neither enumerated in their home state nor in the working state. Hence, no one knows as to
how many children of migrant nature are out of school that need education. The policy makers should immediately and strictly adhere to the provision of identifi cation of such children with age wise, sex wise and disability wise data for the enrollment of such children in schools.
2. Management of a local database on children possibly maintained at the Panchayat level and cross-verified with the school would help greatly in tracking children’s school participation.
3. Related to the above, birth registration records need to be strictly maintained. Registering births must be made mandatory and Panchayat officials charged with updating their records.
4. Education as a Human Rights and the right to education should remain at the centre of all COVID19 crisis response and recovery plans.
5. The UN System should promote gender and rights sensitive crisis and post-crisis evaluation plans looking closely at the role that education plays during and after emergencies.
6. The UN System should play its role in organizing a global response to the COVID19 crisis, including supporting mitigation measures, fi nancing, social and economic re-organization, in partnership with governments and civil society.
7. My Education My Right- Even in times of crisis, education must remain free for all and no additional fees should be introduced for school materials, lunch, or transport.
8. No Going Backwards Governments should plan now for the safe reopening of schools and university systems with a focus on groups at higher risks of not returning, including girls and children with disabilities.
9. During the COVID19 crisis, governments should guarantee the continued provision of school services, including meal distribution, and ensure protection from violence and abuse to out-of-school children.

[1] covid19india.org 28 May2020
[2] medicalnewstoday.com, 27 May 2020
[3] https://www.businesstoday.in/current/economy-politics/when-india-lift-coronavirus-lockdown-bcg-report-restriction-extended-sept/story/400111.html
[4] https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/is-e-learning-the-best-bet-during-lockdown/article31426331.ece
[5] https://www.telegraphindia.com/world/over-154-crore-students-aff ected-by-schools-colleges-closuredue-to-covid-19-unesco/cid/1767115
[6] https://scroll.in/article/960939/indian-educationcant-go-online-only-8-of-homes-with-school-children-have-computer-with-net-link

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10. Voluntary National Report (VNR),NCE India reviewfrom ALE (Adult Learning and Education) perspective from India, 2017