As schools and colleges in India switched to the digital platform in the wake of the global pandemic last year, a stark reality that came to the fore was the alarming levels of digital inequality among India’s population — which has now come to be known as the ‘digital divide.’
Although most schools and colleges in the country have adopted the digital learning method for almost a year now, there have been glaring disparities in the quality of education experienced by different sections of the same generation of students. While private schools and better-equipped higher education institutes have been holding online regular classes, the less fortunate government schools and colleges, as well as low-profile private institutions imparting specific categories of training programs (ITCs, paramedical institutes, coaching centers, learning centers for the differently-abled, etc.) have been struggling to match their efforts with the training requirements. More importantly, even within students of the same classroom, there are differences in the way students from diverse social and economic backgrounds access knowledge.
Yet another problem has been the inability of teachers to use the digital platform optimally. Lack of adequate training, insufficient financial support from the school management, general apathy to teaching due to delayed/reduced salaries, dissatisfaction with the e-teaching system, etc. are some of the reasons teachers fail to meet expectations. Parents often attend online classes along with their kids, leading to unpleasant interferences and instances which further demoralize the teachers. When teachers fail to deliver, the affluent students turn to private online tuitions which further widens the learning gap within the classroom.
States like Kerala made an earnest effort to solve the issue of the lack of digital devices and internet access among the majority households by conducting daily live lessons through government-owned educational satellite channel, only to discover in due course that the number of households without TV was far greater than they had originally estimated. Moreover, the frequent power failures further compounded to the state’s woes. Even today, the state’s efforts to ensure seamless learning remains an unfinished task, besides its best efforts.
Seeking a permanent solution
The disparity created by digital learning in India has had multifarious consequences ranging from cases of suicides to massive numbers of dropouts as well as the physical and mental hardships caused by excessive screen-time. As a country that has enshrined the right to education as one of the fundamental rights in its constitution, and as a signatory to the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, India has yet to make a serious effort to bridge the educational divide among its people, especially the growing divide created by the pandemic. With the ‘second wave’ of COVID-19 ruling out the possibility of schools and colleges resuming regular learning in the immediate future, the learning divide is sure to widen further, seriously hampering the quality of our future manpower and diminishing their prospects in the global market. However, attempting to close the digital divide in a vast country like India — where only 10% of households have digital devices and less than 24% have internet access[i] — is not a practical approach to address the present crisis.
Now is the golden chance to attempt something more fundamental with far-reaching benefits — the long-awaited restructuring of India’s curriculum and learning process which has been recommended several times by multiple expert groups who delved deep into the issues that ail the Indian educational system. Despite the fact that India continues to produce some of the best professionals, researchers and academicians in the world, we are still far away from reaching anywhere near our full potential, considering the country’s human potential and our growing importance on the global scene. Our education does not conform to the 21st-century realities and lacks the ability to arm our young graduates with world-class skills and competencies. Furthermore, unlike Europe or America, we still lack an educational system that provides flexibility to students and teachers.
India needs to make that huge shift to establishing an educational system based on skills and competencies to not only prepare its workforce for current and future challenges, but to also ensure the equitable distribution of knowledge. Students must be freed from the strict confines of the present-day textbooks and be encouraged to not only seek knowledge from the world and experiences around them but to also think independently and discover. Screen time should be reduced to the bare minimum and students must be encouraged to turn to gadgets only for advanced level of learning or for reference. The creativity of students must be fostered through thought-stimulating activity books and opportunities for hands-on learning. Moreover, teachers must play the role of facilitators or enablers and should be allowed a great deal of freedom and flexibility to come up with innovative and effective ways of imparting knowledge. Most importantly, the new educational system must have the provision for customized learning which takes individual needs and interests into consideration rather than sticking to the one-size-fits-all educational model and the rank-based system of evaluation which merely checks how well a student is able to memorize facts and later recall them under exam conditions — two basic flaws that have continued to prevent our educational outlook from maturing.
[i] (source: NSO report 2018)