Costs of Online Education for Rural India
Thanks to the pandemic, we have all had to realign our ideas of spaces and squeeze them into the four walls of our homes. Our homes are now offices, schools, gyms and play areas. As adults, many of us work with a plethora of screens all day but when it comes to children, school isn’t just about learning. It’s about the experience of attending classes with friends, working on projects together and participating in debates, plays and sports. All of this was brought to a jarring halt and replaced with online classes. Both students and teachers took a little time to adjust to this new ‘normal’ and get on the same page as far as actual learning is concerned. While using new technology was a hurdle for some, limiting distractions within the home, aka the classroom, created difficulties for others.
Tech companies, in turn, have upped the ante by developing virtual classroom softwares to help educators conduct classes, hold quizzes, set and evaluate assignments with relative ease. Programs like Google Classroom have enabled safe remote learning at this difficult time. Meant to supplement, not substitute, actual classrooms, Google Classroom creates a personalised experience towards learning, giving teachers and students a platform to interact while integrating the use of Google Docs, Sheets and Slides quite seamlessly, many of which are already being used in schools for assignments and projects.
The Digital India Initiative
The Government of India has also developed portals and websites to help with online learning under the Digital India initiative. Learning platforms like e-Basta, Diksha and SWAYAM (study webs of active learning for young aspiring minds) have become popular and are creating educational opportunities where traditional forms of academic infrastructure may not be available. According to the Human Resource Development Ministry, their SWAYAM portal has seen a surge in subscribers with over 25 lakh people logging in to take advantage of the numerous free courses being offered, within the first week of the national lockdown. These encouraging figures display a certain trust in online education, especially among the youth while its convenience and flexibility cannot be negated.
The Access Inequality
However, we have an issue concerning online learning – the problem of access. Access to a smartphone, access to high-speed internet, even access to continuous electricity. Even though internet penetration and smartphone usage are growing by leaps and bounds, mountainous terrain and dense forests regions remain cut off from the rest of the world, technologically. Children living in such regions are bearing the brunt of having to forgo their education, at least for the time being. With the ongoing struggle to increase literacy levels in the country, a break such as this could undermine years of dedicated work done by governments and NGOs to change uneducated parents’ minds regarding the worth of education.
With limited means, it would be difficult for lower economic groups such as daily wage workers in urban and near-urban sectors to procure a smartphone or a tablet with a data plan just so their children can take online classes. A crude calculation suggests that a basic smartphone in India costs around Rs. 3000. Club that with a data plan of around Rs. 300 for every three months and it works out to be an expensive proposition for a wage earner with a current meager income at best.
Increasing Demands on Parents
With the closure of schools since March 2020, classrooms shifting online, the semblance of a routine has now been established. It is also being speculated that this school year may entirely play out over screens. What this means for parents is that they may have to double up as teachers, at the very least, to young children. In a conversation with Bloomberg, Clinical Psychologist Dr Minna Chau, who specialises in children and adolescent behavior, explains how difficult it is for parents to teach their children, especially for months on end. In turn, children tend to get fidgety from sitting in one place and looking at a screen for hours together.
While this may not be a huge problem for urban, well-educated parents, children attending government schools may not have the help required at home. Initiatives by the Government need to include younger children between ages 5 – 12 since these are foundation-building years for these students, who need to be productively engaged, even at home. Methods of primary school education in Indian government schools have been largely through traditional rote learning and online education may not be as effective for this age group. Even a six-month-long gap in schooling could result in several children dropping out to contribute financially at home, in this time of uncertainty.
While there seems to be no end to this nightmare of a year, there may still be a glimmer of hope as far as online classrooms go, at least in urban centers. Nobel Laureate Abhijit Bannerjee spoke to the Indian Express about the scope and scalability of online education and strongly supported its rise in India. With limited infrastructure and mobility, it would benefit most students to have access to online courses offered by top educational institutes around the world, he said. It remains to be seen how effectively schools in India will adopt e-learning practices, forced upon them during the pandemic, when the compulsion no longer exists.
Written by Vasundhara Sarda