June , 2021
11:28 am

Radha Roy Biswas


Lost Learning in the Pandemic


Amidst the devastation that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought since last year, one area that has been severely impacted is education. Close to 90% of the world’s school-aged children have had their education disrupted by the pandemic.


By one estimate, in India, nearly 1.5 million schools were shut for 315 days from the onset of the pandemic, impacting about 250 million children. While some of this was recovered through online and distance schooling, vast numbers of underprivileged rural and urban children received little to no formal education, primarily due to a lack of access to digital infrastructure and services.


The Online Shift


Online schooling has been the most common way in which countries addressed the challenge of providing education through the pandemic. 2020 was the first time that Indian schools had to bring online learning on board for millions of children in record time. Over the last 15 months, many Indian schools and students - mostly in urban areas - supported by internet connections, smartphones and home computers made the shift to online schooling.


Unfortunately, this was not the experience of most schools or students in rural areas and for the urban poor. These rural schools or schools catering to the urban poor remained closed for most of the pandemic, causing students to bear a disproportionate burden of education loss. Thus, the pandemic exacerbated inequities leaving out students on the wrong side of the digital divide - without recourse to the basics for online learning - electricity, device access and internet connections.


The Digital Divide


As a result, as of October 2020, only one third of India’s school children were pursuing online education using a combination of live classes, videos or recorded lessons. This stark inequity was based on three critical deficits.


1. Electricity supply essential for powering devices and connecting to the internet remained inadequate. More than half of all rural households were not receiving even 12 hours of daily power supply.  


2. Insufficient access to the Internet. In spite of growth in internet usage, about 50% of Indian students in both rural and urban areas still don't have access to the internet. Only about a quarter to 28% of rural households' school children had internet access from home.  


3. Insufficient smartphone penetration. 97% of all internet users in India access the internet via mobile devices. In spite of impressive smartphone penetration there is still a large unmet need with only 227 million internet users in rural areas where 67% of the population lives.


Challenges Beyond the Digital Divide


In addition to the lack of infrastructure, other factors have also played a part. Slow connections or inadequate bandwidth have hampered efficient online education delivery. Large scale digitisation of curriculum is yet to happen. Teacher readiness and pedagogy has also been a challenge. Many teachers have struggled to teach online which calls for different teaching and class management techniques. Disruption of the mid-day meal programme which for decades has been instrumental in raising and maintaining school enrolments for rural and poor urban kids was also a massive fallout.


Education at an Inflection Point


Despite the ordeals, the first wave accelerated changes to education through digitalization. When vaccination coverage is extended to youth, it will enable students to return to schools and colleges.


However, policy makers and education leaders should look at the real lessons of the pandemic and ask: Should we return to the normal or should we see how the pandemic-induced changes can actually help us meet the twin goals of inclusion and quality in education for India's youth even after the crisis passes?


Perhaps the pandemic induced changes can help address some long-term problems of Indian schools and colleges - large overcrowded classes, overburdened teachers, undifferentiated teaching with no room for students' needs. For high density schools, could a hybrid model of offline and online participation work? What if learning becomes a combination of in-class teacher led instruction, combined with online, curated material?


The Role of the Edutech Industry


One of the biggest enabling factors of online education has been the rise of Edutech. Edutech companies provide a range of services from developing and delivering content, to backend services and entire Learning Management Systems (LMS), serving enterprises as well as households and individuals directly.    


The edutech industry is typically divided into three large segments: K-12, Post K-12 and business/corporate training and education. Fuelled by increasing internet reach, growing usage of smartphones, cheap data, and general awareness, the Indian edutech industry has been one of the few success stories of the pandemic. The current market size is about $700-800 million. Indian edutech companies have attracted global private equity financing of $4 billion in the last five years, leading to the emergence of global leaders like Byju’s.


Thus far, most edutech services and products have been directed to slightly affluent urban markets. Increasingly, leading edutech companies, recognizing the vast underserved market, are launching or modifying programmes to cater to rural areas and underserved urban students. But the lack of basic digital infrastructure, relative affordability of data and devices, and other factors like digital literacy and education are impediments in these plans.


Solutions Lie in the Education Ecosystem


Creative solutions are emerging to bridge network connectivity gaps and data costs. Some companies are offering non-streaming options for school education content and promoting on-demand learning platforms to bring down data use and cost. Others are bringing shorter and cheaper learning modules on monthly subscriptions. More content is being developed in regional languages. Some firms are using platforms like WhatsApp to extend reach by leveraging their ease of use and minimal data consumption. And some, to address the shortage of electricity, are using solar power to run devices and systems.


However, solutions lie not only with edutech companies alone, but also with other stakeholders of the education ecosystem -- government, businesses, foundations and NGOs and their partnerships. For example, PPPs can help with creating and maintaining large data centres and content hosting infrastructure, for scaling up education programmes, and also for maintaining student records and assuring data security. Mass digitisation of curriculum, as the MHRD is already doing through an app, is also very helpful.


 There are many more actions that need to be undertaken to incentivize and support online education for underserved student populations. Some of these include:


• Supporting schools and colleges financially for upgrading digital infrastructure.


• Incentivizing infrastructure and telecom companies to provide these upgrades.


• Providing digital literacy classes for families and schools.


• Reskilling teachers for online pedagogy and better content.


• Encouraging more open-source platforms for content and delivery. 


• Employing Common Service Centres in last mile delivery of digitized content in rural areas.


• Encouraging fintech, edutech and telecom companies to collaborate to create financing options for devices and data.


• Encouraging use of blockchain technology for student data and credentialing.


• Incentivizing renewable energy providers to power schools and colleges, creating renewable energy power banks.


• Providing edutech and digital infra companies targeting underserved populations with tax incentives and other benefits. 


• Substituting the mid-day meal programme with direct benefit transfers to families based on enrolment and continued attendance in government run or approved digital learning programmes.


Education can no longer be viewed in a silo. It has to work in tandem with technology and other aspects that lead to effective development and delivery. The government has to acknowledge and facilitate the contributions of the private sector in all aspects of education. None of this will be easy. It will mean a recalibration of many long-standing practices, programmes, contracts and arrangements. But reform usually happens when we arrive at a moment of no choice. Perhaps this Covid-19 pandemic is that transformative moment. 


 The opinion/s expressed in the article are that of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the policy or position of this magazine.

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