The chaos of online education in India’s pandemic times

Among the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the one which needs far more attention than it is receiving is the state of education in post-pandemic India.

COVID-19 induced school closures have adversely affected about 320 million children from pre-primary to tertiary levels, the Ministry of Education reported to the Parliamentary Committee of Women’s Empowerment, in its first official admission of the effect of the pandemic. Out of the millions of children affected due to school closures, 49.37 per cent were girls. There are numerous causes and factors contributing to this situation.

Deepening Digital Divide:

The challenges faced by the Indian education system were amplified during the pandemic with government schools especially struggling to transition from traditional in-person learning to online education. With amenities like even electricity being scarce in many parts of the country, it is no surprise that a significant chunk did not have access to the internet, laptops and smartphones.

According to the School Children’s Online and Offline Learning, or SCHOOL, survey overseen by a group of economists including Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera, 77% of families in urban areas and 51% in villages have access to smartphones – thanks to the ongoing digital revolution in India and feasible data prices. However, only 31% of children in cities and 15% in villages are able to make use of smartphones for academic purposes. The wage earner’s claim on the phone clearly outweighs its utility as an educational device.

Young children in primary school are especially hit hard as they often have the least access to technology which raises some very disturbing possibilities. A year-and-a-half of pandemic-related school closures have created a four-year learning deficit according to a survey of nearly 1,400 underprivileged school children across 15 Indian states. A student who was in Grade 3 before COVID-19 is now in Grade 5, and will soon enter middle school, but with the reading abilities of a Grade 1 pupil.

Some students are much worse off than others

Students experienced varying impacts on their education depending on their socioeconomic strata, gender and whether they resided in urban or rural areas. Students in private schools and those from households with high socioeconomic status (SES) have more access to digital devices and are more engaged in regular educational activities than their peers in government schools and from low-SES households.

Reduced economic activity due to the pandemic led to families being pushed into poverty who were then unable to pay school fees for their children. Several children had to drop out of school and take up jobs to assist their families that were struggling due to income loss or pandemic-related death of a family member. Nearly 1.2 lakh children have been orphaned in India since the start of COVID-19.

While high SES families can resort to Edtech market companies like Byjus, Eruditus and even get private tuitions for their children, low SES families are falling behind with some who don’t have this academic year’s textbooks and learning materials.

The potential increase of learning poverty might have a devastating impact on future productivity and earnings for this entire generation of children and youth, their families and the world’s economies said Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Global Director for Education to the Indian Express.

Gender comes into play

Post the school closures, girls are expected to help in household chores and assist parents in caring for their younger siblings. Worsening economic distress also means malnutrition and early marriages, especially for adolescent girls.

Out of the 320 million children affected due to school closures, 49.37 per cent were girls, the Ministry of Education reported to the Parliamentary Committee of Women’s Empowerment. “Post pandemic, this can lead to a higher risk of girls permanently dropping out of school and reversing the gains made over recent years. One cannot also ignore the fact that there is a gender dimension in digital access to learning. In families which possess a single smartphone, it is likely that sons will be given the preference to access online classes, followed by girls, if time permits,” the ministry told the panel.

Teachers – a crucial part of the equation

Delivery of education was lopsided even before the pandemic but has exacerbated due to teaching being shifting to the online ecosystem. Children are lacking the guidance of teachers, now even more so as parents are unable to assist with their homework every day. Homework without regular feedback from teachers has questionable pedagogic value.

Teachers too are struggling to adapt to the digital space, especially government school teachers, many of whom are not well versed in English and are not tech-savvy. In a survey published by the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights’ first journal, it was found that 43% of 220 teachers were unhappy with the online mode of education as they felt that it hindered their ability.

UNESCO calls for India to recognise teachers as “front line workers” in the battle against the pandemic and it is indeed up to the teachers to help get children back to progress.

Teachers need to use targeted instruction and align instruction to the learning level of students, rather than an assumed starting point or curricular expectation to help the cause.

Why physical classrooms are key for students

The pandemic has not only disrupted the learning but also the socioemotional well-being of students. Studying in home environments and a lack of designated study space can impact children’s learning.

Students are also disadvantaged by the lack of physical activity and the exposure given by a social environment like the school. The balance in their lives has gone for a toss and consequent alone time, lack of activities and friendships has resulted in depression and even loneliness in some children.

Most of all, the midday meal provision, a great blessing to many students in India has come to a halt leading to the malnourishment of many children.

A rusty silver lining amidst the chaos

There has however been a positive impact amidst the devastating effects COVID-19 had on global education. The pandemic has opened gates to innovative methods of transmission of knowledge across the globe. Schools are now employing blended learning and encouraging teachers and students to become technology savvy. Soft technology, online, webinars, virtual classrooms, teleconferencing, digital exams and assessments became a common phenomenon now. The expenditures on travel and the purchase of study materials have gone down, which has resulted in some savings in these hard times.

Ultimately, vaccinating children and teachers is our way out of this predicament. Although, some schools have reopened for senior classes with strict COVID-19 protocols, the possibility of a third wave and the vaccinations for children aged 12-17 still not being approved shows that it could take a while before the state of education can improve in India.