2.1 How School-closure Affects a Large Learners’ Segment
The spread of COVID-19 led to school closures across the country in the month of March 2020. Under GOI’s Unlock 5.0, as per the latest circular, the schools were expected to open in a graded manner from 15th October with all precautionary and social distancing measures in place. During this period of school closure, the government encouraged the schools, colleges, and other educational institutions to transact learning through distance and online modes. However, such alternate modes of learning were never utilized by the traditional education system for mass learning before the pandemic. It was therefore very difficult to ascertain that all school-going learners in the country received education through underutilized distance/online modes.
Moreover, the access to online or distance education, by virtue of being dependent on technology and digital media, tends to be more costly from learners’ view-point. This assertion may look debatable on the surface and the very strong votaries of online learning might disagree. However, in countries like India, constitutionally a welfare state, where a large section of underprivileged learners receive education only because the State sponsors it, there is not much scope for this debate. The increased cost of such education could adversely impact the education of children from economically weaker sections.
According to Armitage and Nellums (2020), school closures not only impede the learning of disadvantaged children but also deprive them of schools’ social safety network. The summer holiday in most American schools is estimated to contribute to a loss in academic achievement equivalent to one month of education for children with low socioeconomic status (Van Lancker & Parolin, 2020). Going by this figure, six months of no schooling means a significant decline in the level of academic attainment so far.
As per a survey study conducted by Vyas, 2020, more than 80% of parents of children studying in government schools reported non-delivery of education during the lockdown. Such total absence of educational opportunity is not seen much in the case of students belonging to advantaged sections of the society who had digital access. In the wake of the pandemic, their schools shifted to online studies and managed to deliver education. However, even among those who are able to get online education, many students have suffered disruption, for example, those who were to transition from one level of course to another.
Educational disparity has always been present in every society. But the affordance of technology in the 21st century of digital era and the compulsive pandemic situation have further created a scenario of digital educational disparity. The disadvantaged children will disproportionately suffer due to non-availability of digital access and digital skills. According to Vyas, 2020, in a study done for Oxfam India, the education was predominantly being delivered online during the pandemic. As per the report only 15% of the rural households in the country had access to internet, hence almost 85% of rural children were at risk of getting deprived of such online educational intervention.
Further, the access to online education for children belonging to marginalized sections was still lower. The effects of pandemic lockdown has been so harsh that estimated 21 million salaried employees have lost their jobs by the end of August and almost 84% of the households suffered loss in their monthly income (Vyas, 2020). Such a scenario poses an imminent risk to education of millions of children in form of large drop-outs from the school system and an estimated rise in child labor. According to UNICEF & ILO (2020), an estimated increase of 1% in poverty leads to a 0.7% increase in child labor.
2.2 Pre-requisites for Online Schooling
This is true the digital era has made online schooling a possibility, yet the presence of online schooling was either non-existent or was miniscule in most of the developing countries. Just like a physical school requires infrastructure in forms of classrooms, playground, laboratories, etc. along with resources to aid the process of teaching-learning, online schooling too has its own pre-requisites. Unlike a physical school where most of the expenditure for setting up a school is borne by the government, owner or the school management, the success of online schooling largely depends upon the users’ or learners’ ability to avail the paraphernalia required for online education. This means that the cheap option of pen, pencil, paper will get substituted by expensive digital devices, accessories, and internet connectivity. Every child must have a personal digital device like a smartphone, laptop, tablets, or desktops, etc.
At least 10 Mbps download speed and 1 Mbps upload speed per person is recommended for the smooth conduction of online classes. Then, there is the issue of network latency, i.e. sychronization of connections with user on the other end when operating an online video conferencing tool like Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, Webex, etc. High latency can provide poor online learning experience as it may cause lag and frequent call disconnections. Fiber connections are said to provide lower latency when compared to satellite-based internet connection.
Apart from digital devices and internet connectivity, the digital skills or the ability to use those software with ease, for instance, the use of video conferencing tools, cloud-based learning management system, email, chat, discussion forums, and search engines, is also vital to the success of online learning. The survey which was conducted for the purpose of this study further revealed that even though a learner had the access to fast internet connectivity and digital devices along with the requisite digital skills, some socio-psychological factors were found acting as hurdles affecting the learner’s orientation vis-a-vis online schooling. Almost 53% of such senior secondary school learners surveyed expressed their unwillingness or indecisiveness to continue studying online.
2.3 Existing State of Digital Infrastructure and Digital Access
In the context of India, the official governmental documents were analyzed to find out how far the pre-requisites for online schooling as discussed in the earlier section was available for the school students for an emergency transition to online schooling during COVID.
As per the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) report the total number of telecom subscribers (wired and wireless) in the country was 1,195.24 million which amounts to about 87.27% of the total population. However, out of the total telecom subscriber, the population actively using a smartphone is 502.2 million or 36.69% of the total population (Statista, 2020).
About 33.24% of the population use desktops and 0.54% use tablets and 0.02% use laptops according to StatCounter Global Stats (August, 2020).
The total internet subscribers according to the TRAI report is 698.23 million as on 30th June 2020 i.e. 51.1% of the total population of the country. Among the internet subscribers, a huge percentage of 97.07% (677.79 million) have subscribed to mobile wireless internet and only 2.8% (19.82 million) have subscribed to wired internet connection.
Internet subscribers in India (TRAI, 2020)
Type of Internet subscribers
2.4 Bridging the Digital Divide
The Ministry of Education, GOI during the pandemic period took remote learning initiatives in order to compensate for the academic loss of learners. These measures included educational broadcasting, online live classes and asynchronous learning options for multi modal access to learning. Already existing digital educational initiatives got impetus and were strengthened during the pandemic. For instance, Digital learning initiatives in form of DIKSHA (Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Society), eVidyadaan, Swayam Prabha 24X7 educational channel, e-Paathshala for free access to digital textbooks, NROER (National Repository of Open Educational Resources), on-air radio broadcasting of educational lessons, etc. deserves special mention. However, the success of most of these initiative depends upon the learner’s digital access and digital skills.
The school education in India is a vast sector consisting of 1.5 million schools catering to the needs of more than 292 million learners in the age group of 6-17 years (ESAG, 2018). The schools in the country can be classified under one of the three categories, viz. Government schools, government-aided private schools, and unaided private schools. Among the government schools, Kendriya Vidyalayas are a group of 1,228 central government schools in India run by Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan, an autonomous body under the aegis of the Ministry of Education, Government of India. The study included students from three types of schools – Kendriya Vidyalayas (KVs), government (Govt.) schools run by respective states of Delhi and Bihar, and private (Pvt.) schools.