The school academic session in Kerala started on June 1, and due to COVID-19, the sessions have been online. Unable to attend the sessions as she neither had a television nor a smartphone at home, a Class 9 student in Malappuram district, in Kerala, allegedly committed suicide by setting herself on fire. A similar case was witnessed in Punjab when a 17-year-old hung herself upset over not having a smartphone to use for her online classes.
In the weeks since March 25, with the COVID-19 pandemic necessitating school closures around the country, much has been written about online education and its potential to ‘revolutionise’ Indian education. The education sector has witnessed a dramatic shift during this time with ‘homeschooling’ and ‘virtual tutoring’ becoming buzzwords, and classes on Zoom, WhatsApp and Skype becoming the norm.
The government, too, seems to have woken up to the potential of online learning with the Ministry of Human Resource Development launching ‘Bharat Padhe Online’ (India studies online) in April, in a bid to push for a shift to virtual education. Apart from promoting apps such as Diksha and e-Pathshala, work is also progressing on dissemination of lessons through radio and television.
What has been ignored in this mad rush to ‘go digital’ are the needs of millions of learners from India’s poor and rural backgrounds who, having little or no access to digital technology, are getting deprived of their fundamental right to education.
In itself, using technology to further the cause of education is a great idea, given everyone has access. In this regard, let’s look at a few basics. To access a virtual classroom or lecture, you need at least two things — access to electricity and an Internet connection. In India, this access is patchy and reserved for the privileged few.
Access to 24/7 electricity is important to power devices and to connect to the Internet. According to data collected under the Saubhagya scheme, 99.9 percent of homes in India do have a power connection. However, that doesn’t mean that they receive a constant supply of electricity. The reality of the access is captured better by the national survey of villages conducted under Mission Antyodaya, according to which 16 percent of India’s households receive one to eight hours of electricity daily, 33 percent receive 9-12 hours, and only 47 percent receive more than 12 hours a day.
The data on Internet access doesn’t inspire much confidence either.
According to the National Sample Survey, only 27 percent of households in India have some member with access to the Internet. It has to be pointed out that access to the Internet does not necessarily mean that a household actually has Internet, as less than half of the households that have any access to the Internet own a computing device.
Access to the Internet is further determined by class, gender and location. For example, in rural households (which make up for 66 percent of the population) only 14.9 percent have access to the Internet, and only 8 percent of all households with members aged between five and 24 have both a computer and an Internet connection. Among the poorest 20 percent households, only 2.7 percent have access to a computer and 8.9 percent to Internet facilities.
The access varies across states too. For example, the proportion of households with access to a computer ranges from 4.8 percent in Andhra Pradesh to 14.3 percent in Maharashtra.
This lack of basic infrastructure means the scope of virtual schooling as things stand today, remains non-existent. This then is the sobering reality of our online education dream.
Access to the Internet impacts everyone, but the penalty low-income students bear for it goes beyond just learning. Situations such as a disaster or a crisis usually witness an increase in school dropouts, and there is therefore a real fear among experts that the longer schools remain closed in India, the greater the chances that students, especially girls, will be made to drop out of schools.
Girls are likely to bear a disproportionate cost of this access, since lack of access and forced dropout from schools also increases their chances of an early marriage, violence and loss of reproductive and sexual rights.
Not being in school also means no midday meal, no weekly iron and folic acid supplementation, no sanitary napkin distribution and no immunisation — things that students from poor socio-economic backgrounds depend upon from schools, beyond education.
Real vs Remote School
In the rush to go digital, we have also circumvented discussion on an aspect that affects every school-going child in India: teaching. As we have all come to see in the last few months, schooling may have gone online, but the jury is still out on the quality of teaching. The fanciest bells and whistles can't replace good teaching, and that’s just the unadorned truth.
Students don’t just require an instructor, they require a real, tangible person for mentorship and guidance. They go to school not just to study, but to also learn valuable interpersonal and social skills — things that cannot be taught sitting in front of a screen in isolation.
Virtual tutorials and Skype lectures may be in vogue right now in absence of viable alternatives, but they barely scratch the surface of duplicating the experience of a real classroom environment.
In any country, school isn’t just a physical place, but a place of discovery, socialisation, care and community. Online education may have the scope of becoming an equaliser someday, but as things stand today, it cannot be a replacement for the traditional classroom.
Instead of pushing for virtual classrooms, governments should instead focus on getting all students back to schools - so that learning can continue unabated.Shikha Sharma is a New-Delhi-based independent journalist and photographer. Twitter: @ShikhaSharma304. Views are personal.