Due to the prevailing pandemic, all educational institutions had to adopt online education although our education system was not really prepared for it. Even though baby steps were taken in some institutions to adopt smart classes and online videos, they were never a strong presence in the classrooms, especially in rural parts of India. Ever since the beginning of this academic year, there have been several discussions across our country regarding how the learning outcomes have been compromised due to no/less interaction between teachers & students, the ill effects on health of children due to increased screen time. But before we get into any of that, we must realize that the accessibility of this service itself is questionable.

The Digital Barrier

Issues like poor connectivity, weak signal are added burdens to the already grim situation. NSS definition to measure % of households with computer & internet also includes the condition that these devices might not be owned by the household, thus worsening the situation further. Percentage of households with both computer & internet connections would even be lower & it is a very difficult task to learn from mobile phones owing to the small screen size& plenty of other distractions easily possible.

Digital divide across gender affects educational outcomes as men engaged in agriculture, fishing, other labour work would not be home at the time of classes. Although, one could argue that due to COVID situation, they are likely to be home, such a long halt is not feasible for these activities which are also their primary sources of income. The divide can be seen even across caste or area of residence like in case of J&K, where residents cannot access 4G services due to Government restrictions.

The Parents’ Dilemma

Not having a separate room for study also hampers with the listening & thinking abilities of students. Since teachers are very less/not at all familiar with the system, they find it increasingly difficult to impart learning effectively to their students. Although enrollment rates & % of students in schools had observed improvement in the past, we have to keep in mind that this was possible only as no expenses were incurred by the parents in Government schools, in addition to perks like Mid Day Meal. However, spending out of their pockets in an already economically burdened situation for internet recharges to support education in addition to providing for all meals is unfortunately not possible for poor households. Hence, resuming the academic year normally would create very wide gaps in education. Few states found it better to scrap online education, particularly until lower grades like Class 2 or Class 5. But, there have been petitions questioning the order and some of them have revoked the ban too.

Does the dilemma of inequitable access have only one solution that there should not be any learning initiatives at all?

The question should be introspected in the light that we have no definite clue as to when we would be able to bring back things under control. This also means that a proportion of students will drop out and head to be full-time income earners for their families, would be married off or would not have enough food at home thus affecting their health & nutrition levels, if there is a complete ban on all educational initiatives. Therefore, the institutions and teachers might have to reach out to some parents, get them on-board & help them whenever required to enable their children’s learning; pool in its resources to provide delivery of mid-day meals to homes on a regular basis.

Having seen the problems, Let's have a look at various initiatives taken or can be replicated to ease the situation.

Check Out Part 2- Learning in Rural India in the face of COVID: Small Steps towards inclusion

Meanwhile do check out out latest Podcast on Rural Education by Ashutosh Tosaria, Sr Manager at Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives.

Written & Edited by Parvathy G