Widening Disparities in Educational Access during COVID-19: A Deepening Crisisc

Widening Disparities in Educational Access during COVID-19: A Deepening Crisisc

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Rikisha Bhaumik

IGNOU, New Delhi, India
Impact of COVID – 19 on Education
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Content

ABSTRACTS

Online learning has taken center stage in the times of COVID and is being lauded as a feasible alternative for imparting education to learners. In many developing countries, the school education sector, which had rarely tried or tested the online mode, came at the forefront in rapidly adopting the online means for delivering instructions to learners. However, the question remains: Is all well with this swift adoption of online mode? Is educational access same as pre-COVID times or has it been impacted for worse? Educational access (through online schooling) largely depends on e-readiness of learners. Therefore, two fundamental points, viz. digital access and requisite digital skills among learners must be mooted before arriving at any conclusion vis-à-vis the quality and effectiveness of online schooling. It is feared that the already existing disparities in educational access will further exacerbate with the inability to access online schools. The chapter consists of a two-part study. First part, a cursory analysis of a) how school-closure affects a large learners’ segment, b) technology pre-requisites of online schooling, c) pre-existing status of digital infrastructure and digital access, and d) the governments initiatives to bridge the digital divide  in India to provide a background for the study of e-readiness among learners during the pandemic. Second part, a comparative study for finding out the e-readiness among the learners in three types of schools, viz. Kendriya Vidyalayas (under Ministry of Education, Government of India), the government schools run by respective states governments, and private schools managed by private entities. The study uses a quantitative descriptive survey method on a sample of 250 students from two regions (NCT-Delhi and Bihar). A questionnaire comprising of 8 Likert-type items was administered. The findings were used to extrapolate the extent of disparity in terms of access to online education (impacting the overall educational access during COVID) between the learners of the three types of schools. The study indicates an urgent need for addressing the widening educational disparity due to an indefinitely prolonged pandemic.

Keywords: COVID-19, online schools, digital access, e-readiness, educational disparity

1. INTRODUCTION

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected the education of millions of students across the globe. The pandemic created an unforeseen situation of school closures for an indefinite period in many countries. The sudden disappearance of regular education system attempted to be compensated with the accentuated use of online and distance education. Governments and educational institutions, aided by the participation of various private players, are trying their best to respond to the challenges thrown by the pandemic. However, when it comes to fill a large vacuum created by the regular education system rendered suddenly and virtually non-functional, two questions seem quite imperative and worth asking: To what extent has this emergency, makeshift, remote teaching helped to alleviate the academic loss of the learners? Has such an unprepared online learning approach, on the other hand, accentuated the already existing disparities in the universal access to education?

There is no doubt that e-learning as an upcoming sector got a much-needed shot in the arm during the pandemic. However, to assume that it has replaced or would replace the vast, almost all-pervading regular education system would be erroneous without asking above two questions. Erstwhile online learning (before the pandemic) had a tiny presence and was only a facilitator in nature; it is now being pitted against the gigantic and universally acknowledged conventional education system as an alternative. Several questions pertaining to access, quality, relevance, and educational pragmatism need to be answered before one can safely move towards gradually adopting online-learning as a suitable alternative to the regular education system. Amongst such concerns, e-readiness of learners in terms of required digital access and digital skill ranks above all. The absence of e-readiness is the biggest impediment to the educational access as it impairs all the efforts to disseminate education through online mode. In nutshell, the measurement of e-readiness (digital access and digital skills) is a significant way to determine educational access in the context of online schooling during COVID-19.

In the recent flurry of online learning adoptions across the educational spectrum, many observations came to light raising serious questions over the issue of access and quality. In many developing countries, though the school education sector rapidly adopted the online means of delivering instructions to the learners, the schools, teachers and the students were hardly prepared for online schooling. The transition was so rapid that the pedagogy remained the same old face-to-face with only a change in the medium of transaction, which was online. Moreover, the most significant requirement to be able to avail this online mode of learning was access to digital devices and internet. In a developing country like India, where smartphone penetration is only 36.69% (Statista, 2020) and only half of the population uses the internet, the uneven access to online delivery of learning is quiet apparent. So, pedagogy taking backstage and access being affected due to the lack of digital resources each raise separate yet valid questions over the capabilities of online learning and eventually lead to a visible educational disparity. Those having access to digital resources and online learning facilities will become the ‘haves’ and those deprived will be the ‘have-nots’. The prolonged period of the pandemic have had a burgeoning impact on those who are disadvantaged in terms of digital access.

Further, the right to education is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed in many countries. So far, the regular education system took care of these educational rights. Now, when online learning is trying to shoulder the responsibility, the State has the onus to see that educational access doesn’t suffer due to the lack of digital access. However, it is conspicuous that many parts of the developing and under-developed world have been unable to ensure that kind of digital access to their deprived sections of school-going masses. Can it be said then that the current crisis has deprived many students with their fundamental right to education?

This leads one to think about the deepening global crisis in education brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. We are faced with the imminent risk to universal aims of education, viz. equity, access, and quality. The decades of progress in availing education to children from economically disadvantaged or marginalized communities may get annulled by the effects of the ongoing pandemic. Hence, it becomes imperative to deliberate upon the means and methods to control such a retrogression.

1.1 Methodology

The participants in the survey were from regions from Delhi and Bihar. The study was conducted in two parts. The first part involved the scanning of the Indian landscape in terms of digital access required for online studies using the method of document analysis. The second part dealt with finding out the perspective of senior secondary school learners towards digital access and digital literacy/skills required for online learning by using quantitative survey method. The data obtained was used to find any significant differences in the e-readiness of learners among the three types of schools.

1.2 Research Design

Mixed method approach was utilized for the study. The technique of document analysis was used to conduct the first part of the study including the existing status of digital infrastructure and digital access. For the second part, a survey questionnaire to check two dimensions, viz. digital access and digital skills (together e-readiness) for online learning was administered on a sample of 250 students of two regions of Delhi and Bihar.

The present study is an expansion of an earlier work of the researcher titled ‘E-readiness of senior secondary school learners to online learning transition amid COVID-19 lockdown’. The original study was conducted on the senior secondary learners of Delhi. Further, to increase the scope of the study, the questionnaire was administered on a different geographical sample. The learners sharing similar group characteristics like age, grade, and type of schools but in a different geographical zone, i.e. urban and semi-urban areas surrounding the capital city of Bihar were selected as the sample. The data obtained was analyzed using SPSS software for quantitative research. For the purpose of this study, two dimensions were taken into consideration – digital access and digital skills. These were used to find out the overall e-readiness of the learners to receive instructions through online mode in all three types of schools separately and to compare the findings.

The participants were selected using convenient sampling method. Out of 250 questionnaires containing Likert-type items sent to the sample, 173 responses were received back from learners. The total response rate was 69.2%. The validity of the items of the questionnaire was adjudged with the help of field experts. The reliability of the two dimensions was found through Cronbach alpha which came out to be more than 0.7 each for finding digital access and digital skill items of the questionnaire.

2. SCHOOL-CLOSURES, ONLINE SCHOOLING REQUISITES, EXISTING DIGITAL ACCESS, AND INITIATIVES FOR REDUCING DIGITAL GAP

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.

Figure 1.
Smartphone users in India

Figure 2.
Internet subscribers in India (TRAI, 2020)

Figure 3.
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.

Figure 4.
Types of schools in India

3. MEASURING E-READINESS AMONG THE LEARNERS IN THREE TYPES OF SCHOOLS

A total sample of 173 students from the regions of Delhi and Bihar in India were taken. The study took into account the school-going learners in the age range of 15-18 years studying in grades 11 and 12. There were 39 responses from grade 11 students and 134 responses from grade 12 students. Also the respondents from KV, state government schools, and private schools were 73, 36, and 64 respectively. Also, the number of male participants were 93 and female participants were 80 in number.

Table 1

Demographic details of the sample under study

Demographic Type Demographic Characteristic Delhi Bihar
No. % No. %
Grade 11 04 5.40 35 35.33
12 70 94.6 64 64.64
Total (173) 74   99  
School Kvs (73) 32 43.8 41 56.2
Govt. (36) 18 50 18 50
Pvt. (64) 24 37.5 40 62.5
Total 74   99  
Medium Hindi 6 8.1 8 8.08
English 68 91.9 91 91.91
Total 74   99  
Sex Male (93) 25 34 68 68.68
Female (80) 49 66.2 31 31.31
Total 74   99  
Age 15 2 2.7 3 3.03
16 33 44.6 20 20.20
17 35 47.3 46 46.46
18 4 5.4 30 30.30
Total 74   99  

Table 2

Mean and standard deviation for items in the questionnaire

  Item Item Statement Mean Sample Standard Deviation (S)
DIGITAL ACCESS 1 I have my own smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop computers, etc. at my home so I can study without any problem. 3.63 1.05
2 I have access to a fast Internet connection at my home for continuing my studies uninterrupted through online mode. 3.35 1.19
3 I have my own personal study space in my house so I can attend my online class without distraction from my family during this lockdown. 3.75 0.97
4 I have access to a hardware engineer or a technician who can repair my digital device if it breaks down during the lockdown. 2.84 1.18
DIGITAL SKILLS 5 It is difficult for me to search for relevant and useful quality study material from the vast pool of information on the internet. 3.33 1.13
6 I am facing difficulty in switching from classroom-based face-to-face learning to online learning. 3.30 1.15
7 Studying in a physical classroom is different from studying online as both require a different set of skills. 3.77 1.01
8 I do not possess adequate digital literacy and proficiency in using online learning tools for my online studies. 3.67 1.08

3.1 Comparing E-readiness of Learners from Private School vs Government School vs Kendriya Vidyalayas

A greater disparity was found both in digital access and digital skills of the students from state-run government schools when compared with KV students and private school students. The study included the students from three types of senior secondary 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, government schools are those run by the respective state governments, and the private/public schools are the ones run by private organizations or individuals. Kendriya Vidyalayas usually cater to the children of transferable defense employees and that of central government employees. The state-run government schools provide subsidized education at very nominal fees to the children belonging to lower socio-economic strata. The private schools are run by profit-making private entities and hence charge considerable fees for their facilities from the students.

3.1.1. Digital Access

The findings revealed that private schools students enjoyed better access and availability for online studies as compared to Kendriya Vidyalaya (KV) students followed by the government school students. About 76.5% private school students had access to personal digital devices as compared to 75.3% of KV students and only 58.3% of the government school students. Further, access to a fast internet connection was found in 71.9% of the private school students followed by 62.9% of the KV students, and only 44.3% of the government school students. The data points out towards the disparity in digital access that is present among the students belonging to different types of schools. In the current scenario, when the schools are said to have extended the facility of online schooling, it is important to highlight that such a facility largely depends upon the learner’s affordability and accessibility to digital devices and internet.

Figure 5.
Availability of personal digital devices with learners

Table 6

Digital access for online studies – Comparison of students of Pvt. Vs Govt.’s vs KV

Item Item Statement Sample Strongly 

 

Disagree

Disagree Undecided Agree Strongly 

 

Agree

  Nos. % Nos. % Nos. % Nos. % Nos. %
1 I have my own smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop computers, etc. At my home so I can study without any problem. Pvt. 2 3.1 10 15.6 3 4.7 34 53.1 15 23.4
Govt. 2 5.5 11 30.5 2 5.5 17 47.2 4 11.1
KVS 3 4.1 6 8.2 9 12.3 47 64.4 8 10.9
2 I have access to a fast Internet connection at my home for continuing my studies uninterrupted through online mode. Pvt. 4 6.3 9 14.1 5 7.8 34 53.1 12 18.8
Govt. 4 11.1 16 44.4 0 0 14 38.8 2 5.5
KVS 5 6.8 17 23.3 5 6.8 38 52 8 10.9
3 I have my own personal study space in my house so I can attend my online class without distraction from my family during this lockdown. Pvt. 3 4.7 5 7.8 2 3.1 43 67.2 11 17.2
Govt. 0 0 8 22.2 2 5.5 20 55.5 6 16.6
KVS 2 2.7 10 13.7 5 6.8 45 61.6 11 15.1
4 I have access to a hardware engineer or a technician who can repair my digital device if it breaks down during the lockdown. Pvt. 6 9.4 21 32.8 14 21.8 18 28.1 5 7.8
Govt. 5 13.8 14 38.8 4 11.1 11 30.5 2 5.5
KVS 10 13.7 26 35.6 10 13.7 21 28.7 6 8.2

(Sample: Pvt.: 64, Govt.: 36, KVS: 73, Total: 173)

The study also found that the government schools were not able to provide online support to their students due to many inherent limitations. Private schools and Kendriya Vidyalayas rapidly transformed themselves into online schools as revealed from the responses of the learners. In terms of infrastructure like availability of personal study space, again private school students were found to be better placed as 84.4% of private school students had their personal study space as compared to 76.7% of the KV students and 72.1% of the government school students. For access to hardware engineer, 52.6% of government school students, 49.3% of KV students, and 42.2% of the private school students denied to such support in the times of lockdown.

Figure 6.
Internet access with learners of different schools

Figure 7.
Availability of study space

Figure 8.
Access to hardware engineer/technician

3.1.2 Digital Skills

The government school students were found to be less digitally skilled when compared with KV students and the private school students. A large percentage of 74.9% of the government school students found it difficult to search for relevant information on the internet in contrast to 53.2% of the private school students and 49.3% of the KV students. Similar results were obtained when asked if they were facing difficulty in switching from physical classroom to online classes. An enormous 72.1% of the government school students agreed as compared to 49.3% of KV students followed by 48.4% of the private school students. About 77.7% of the government school students, 73.4% of the private school students and 69.8% of KV students agreed that online classes were different from physical classes and required different set of skills.

Further, a high level of disparity was noticed when 86% of the government school students admitted to not possessing adequate digital literacy in contrast to 71.2% of the KV students, and 59.4% of the private school students. These findings indicate that the digital skill gap was more than the digital access gap between the students of government schools and private schools. In other words, even though some percentage of government school students had access to digital devices and internet, they lacked the skills to operate adequately the devices for learning purposes when compared to their private school counterparts. This further suggests that only digital access will not determine the ability of students to avail online schooling.

Digital literacy and the basic skills required for learning online like use of search engines, learning management system, video conferencing apps, uploading and downloading abilities, document creation, use of collaborative online platforms, discussion forums, knowledge of cyber safety rules, etc. largely determine a student’s success in online studies. Skills are something which one acquires through exposure, practice, and guidance from a mentor. Hence, teachers’ digital skills are crucial for translation of those skills in their learners. Teacher training thus constitutes one of the most important element for success of online learning. Moreover, the findings that private school students found themselves better equipped with digital skills when compared to KV and government school students can be attributed to better availability of digital devices and their prior experiences or exposure to digital education in some forms.

Table 7

Digital skills for online studies – Comparison of students of Pvt. Vs Govt.’s vs KV

Item Item Statement Sample Strongly 

 

Disagree

Disagree Undecided Agree Strongly 

 

Agree

Nos. % Nos. % Nos. % Nos. % Nos. %
5 It is difficult for me to search for relevant and useful quality study material from the vast pool of information on the internet. Pvt. 3 4.7 19 29.7 8 12.5 30 46.9 4 6.25
Govt. 3 8.3 3 8.3 3 8.3 19 52.7 8 22.2
KVS 3 4.1 23 31.5 10 13.7 31 42.5 5 6.8
6 I am facing difficulty in switching from classroom-based face-to-face learning to online learning. Pvt. 4 6.3 21 32.8 8 12.5 23 35.9 8 12.5
Govt. 0 0 6 16.6 4 11.1 16 44.4 10 27.7
KVS 4 5.5 23 31.5 10 13.7 31 42.5 5 6.8
7 Studying in a physical classroom is different from studying online as both require a different set of skills. Pvt. 2 3.1 8 12.5 7 10.9 32 50 15 23.4
Govt. 0 0 4 11.1 4 11.1 20 55.5 8 22.2
KVS 2 2.7 11 15.1 9 12.3 36 49.3 15 20.5
8 I do not possess adequate digital literacy and proficiency in using online learning tools for my online studies. Pvt. 7 10.9 6 9.4 13 20.3 29 45.3 9 14.1
Govt. 0 0 3 8.3 2 5.5 21 58.3 10 27.7
KVS 3 4.1 11 15.1 7 9.5 37 50.7 15 20.5

(Sample: Pvt.: 64, Govt.: 36, KVS:73, Total:173)

Figure 9.
Difficulty in searching information on Internet

Figure 10.
Finding difficulty in switching to online studies

Figure 11.
Online learning is different from face-to-face learning

Figure 12.
Learners who feel they do not possess adequate digital literacy

4. CONCLUSION

The study concluded that the emergency remote teaching via online mode during pandemic was taking place in private schools and KVs but was hardly present in government schools. Most of the learners from government schools reported to have not received any form of online study support from schools. Lack of online teaching-learning arrangement in government schools can be largely attributed to the absence of e-readiness in terms of digital access and digital skills (as revealed by data) among learners. Both digital access and digital skills were found to be exhibiting significant gaps indicating poor e-readiness of government school students as compared to private schools.

Additionally, the inability of schools to equip with online schooling requirements in such short time and teachers’ inability to teach online could be among several other factors responsible for visibly bumpy transition to universal online learning. The findings of the study pointed out that 27-30% of the school-going, senior-secondary learners did not have their own digital devices. These numbers may further increase if a larger and more representative sample (for instance, the learners from rural hinterland) is taken into consideration. About 37-40% of the learners did not have access to fast internet connectivity required for online studies.This number may further shrink if the new benchmark of broadband data transmission is taken into account. A separate study focussing only on ascertaining the true number of fast broadband connections (both wired and wireless) among learners is necessary to determine the digital access in exactitude. Further, 60% of the learners reported to have no access to technical support and hardware experts in the case of machine breakdown due to overusage in times of COVID pandemic.

Much interesting findings were observed on the dimension of digital skills possessed by the learners for online studies. About 56-60% of the leaners faced difficulty in using search engines on the internet for finding relevant information. Likewise, 53-55% of the learners agreed that they found it difficult to switch to online studies and about 72-80% agreed that online studies were different from face-to-face, classroom learning and hence required different skills. Almost 70% of the overall learners in the sample agreed to not possessing adequate digital skills for the successful and productive online studies. These figures were much higher for the government school students followed by KV and private school students.

Though the overall scenario of e-readiness among the students is not encouraging, the figures for government schools learners point towards disparity in educational opportunity in the times of pandemic. It is imperative to mention here that the learning needs of more than 70% of the students in the country is catered by the state-run government schools. Such huge numbers of learners can’t be put to disadvantage owing to already existing digital divide and their economic backwardness. The COVID pandemic coupled with limited access to online schooling thus has the potential to accentuate the educational disparity between the advantaged and disadvantaged sections of the society.

The digital divide can very well lead to an increased educational divide, and further socio-economic divide, if urgent measures are not taken to make technology accessible to all. For instance, the government’s decision to carry on with various entrance examinations for admission into undergraduate medical and engineering programs may result into significant loss of opportunity in the absence of adequate provision of senior secondary education, especially for weakers sections’ students. Same goes with the other national-level and state-level entrance examinations to various professional and academic courses, for which millions of students aspire each year including the students from socially and educationally backward sections.

With the disparity in digital access and skill, as revealed by the study, educational access of millions of disadvantaged students is at stake taking away their academic and career choices and further deepening the socio-economic chasm.

In the country like India, where the government was still struggling to ensure 100% enrollment and reduction in drop-out rates in schools, the sudden calamity in the form of the pandemic has, on one hand, deprived students from those social measures/incentives and the lack of access to online studies, on the other hand, has further widened the gap of academic achievement. Relying on online education as a predominant remote emergency learning solution does not seem feasible as of now. Hence, alternate solutions like distribution of printed study materials, radio and television broadcasting, one-to-one telephonic teaching facility, resuming regular schools in staggered manner after ensuring hygiene and social distancing measures, community study circles with help of educated youth and teachers, etc. can help in mitigating the learning loss of disadvantaged groups of learners.

According to Zhao (2020), the current disruption to education brought about by COVID has provided an opportunity to reimagine education in terms of today’s context and tomorrow’s needs. On a positive note, online learning can become a viable mode of learning in future as COVID has proved, at least partially, the potential of online studies. The education system can further succeed if e-readiness in terms of digital access and digital skills of the learners is ensured before implementing it as a main mode of education or replacing with it the traditional mode, particularly for future calamities of the present nature. Further, online learning pedagogy needs to be imparted to the teachers for its successful transaction. Increased internet connectivity, free Wi-Fi to students, and affordable digital devices would go a long way in ensuring access to online learning and overcoming the digital divide (Bhaumik & Priyadarshini, 2020).

Further studies, on a larger scale, covering several geographical locations may provide exact status of digital access and digital skills among the learners. A dedicated research study, as stated earlier, to find out the proportion of learners who actually enjoy uninterrupted, high-speed internet connectivity during online classes will help in ascertaining the effects of online schooling on students. Similar studies on teachers’ digital access and digital skills would be required to get an idea of how effectively teachers are able to transact instructions online.

The post-COVID world is ought to be more challenging as return to pre-COVID times will be almost impossible. Hence, it is important to address the COVID challenges to education; as not being able to do so will be detrimental to the future of the world. According to UNESCO (2020), in a report of International Commission on the Futures of Education, all stakeholders need to come together to face the challenges posed ahead. It is the time for global solidarity for education by considering it a common public good and expanding the definition of Right to education (RTE)  by including the right to digital access for online learning for 21st century digital age (UNESCO, 2020).

Acknowledgement

I express my gratitude to Dr. Anita priyadarshini, Associate Professior, STRIDE, IGNOU for her guidance and valuable inputs in the conduct of this study. I am also thankful to Mr Aakash Kumar for assisting in the process of data collection for Bihar region. Further, I am thankful for the constant support of my family in making the study possible.

Abrreviations:

  • COVID – Corona virus disease
  • KVS – Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan
  • – Government
  • – Private
  • KV – Kendriya Vidyalaya
  • SPSS – Statistical Package for the Social Sciences
  • UNICEF – United Nations Children’s Fund
  • ILO – International Labour Organization
  • TRAI – Telecom Regulatory Authority of India
  • GoI – Government of India
  • DIKSHA – National Digital Infrastructure for Teachers
  • NROER – National Repository of Open Educational Resources
  • ESAG – Educational Statistics at a Glance
  • UNESCO – United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • RTE – Right to Education
References

Armitage, R., & Nellums, L. (2020). Considering inequalities in the school closure response to COVID-19. The Lancet Global Health8(5), e644. doi: 10.1016/s2214-109x(20)301169

Van Lancker, W., & Parolin, Z. (2020). COVID-19, school closures, and child poverty: a social crisis in the making. The Lancet Public Health5(5), e243-e244. doi: 10.1016/s2468-2667(20)30084-0

Vyas, A. (2020). Status Report- Government and private schools during COVID-19. Oxfam India. Available: https://www.oxfamindia.org/sites/default/files/2020-09/Status%20report%20Government%20and%20private%20schools%20during%20COVID%20-%2019.pdf

Vyas, M. (2020). 21 million salaried jobs lost. CMIE. Available: https://cmie.com/kommon/bin/sr.php?kall=warticle&dt=2020-09-07%2017:57:52&msec=996

International Labour Organization & United Nations Children’s Fund. (2020). COVID-19 and Child Labour: A time of crisis, a time to act. Available: https://www.ilo.org/ipec/Informationresources/WCMS_747421/lang–en/index.htm

Statista. (2020). India – mobile phone internet user penetration 2015-2023. Available: https://www.statista.com/statistics/309019/india-mobile-phone-internet-user-penetration/

Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. (2020). Press Release. Available: https://www.trai.gov.in/sites/default/files/PR_No.79of2020.pdf

Zhao, Y. (2020). COVID-19 as a catalyst for educational change. PROSPECTS. doi: 10.1007/s11125-020-09477-y

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. (2020). Education in a post-COVID world: Nine ideas for public action. Available: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000373717/PDF/373717eng.pdf.multi

Bhaumik, R., & Priyadarshini, A. (2020). E-readiness of senior secondary school learners to online learning transition amid COVID-19 lockdown. Asian Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 244-256. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3891822

Government of India. (2018). EDUCATIONAL STATISTICS AT A GLANCE. Department of School Education & Literacy, Ministry of Human Resource Development: New Delhi. Available: https://www.mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/statistics-new/ESAG-2018.pdf

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