The digital pivot in India’s schooling system risks pushing it into deeper inequality, seven months after schools shut down across the country to tackle the pandemic.
A majority of children without access to internet has been thrown into distress a handful to the point of self-harm, as several reports in this newspaper attest by an exclusionary mode of learning.
What reportage has indicated so far is confirmed by the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2020, a phone survey of 60,000-odd students across rural India.
Annual State of Education Report (ASER) survey:
- This is an annual survey (published by education non-profit Pratham ) that aims to provide reliable estimates of children’s enrolment and basic learning levels for each district and state in India.
- ASER has been conducted every year since 2005 in all rural districts of India. It is the largest citizen-led survey in India.
- It is also the only annual source of information on children’s learning outcomes available in India.
- ASER tools and procedures are designed by ASER Centre, the research and assessment arm of Pratham.
- The survey itself is coordinated by ASER Centre and facilitated by the Pratham network. It is conducted by close to 30,000 volunteers from partner organisations in each district.
- All kinds of institutions partner with ASER: colleges, universities, NGOs, youth groups, women’s organisations, self-help groups and others.
- The ASER model has been adapted for use in several countries around the world: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Pakistan, Mali and Senegal.
Impact of COVID- 19 Pandemic:
- About 20% of rural children have no textbooks at home. In Andhra Pradesh, less than 35% of children had textbooks. More than 98% had textbooks in West Bengal, Nagaland and Assam.
- In the week of the survey, about one in three rural children had done no learning activity at all.
- About two in three had no learning material or activity given by their school that week, and only one in 10 had access to live online classes.
- 3% of rural children aged 6-10 years had not yet enrolled in school this year, in comparison to just 1.8% in 2018.
- Enrolment patterns also show a slight shift toward government schools, with private schools seeing a drop in enrolment in all age groups.
- The survey shows that while the proportion of children not currently enrolled for the 2020-21 school years is higher than the equivalent figures for 2018, for most age groups these differences are small.
- Among enrolled children, more than 60% live in families with at least one smartphone. This proportion has increased enormously in the last two years, from 36.5% to 61.8% among enrolled children.
- Whether acquired before or after school closures in March 2020, more than 80% children have textbooks for their current grade.
- Data showed that at 50.6%, teachers who taught between Grades III to V were the best trained. Most teachers were in possession of phone numbers of at least 50% of their students.
Gaps in Learning:
- Only about one-third of the surveyed children had access to online learning; only 11 per cent had access to live online classes.
- That the burden of digital inequality has fallen on children shows up in the data. As many as 3 per cent of the children said they had not received any learning material from the school in the week the survey was held because they had no smartphone almost 75 per cent of interaction with schools was over WhatsApp.
- Parents also appear to be acutely aware that the smartphone is the new English-medium education in the way it overlays and deepens age-old hierarchies.
- The survey reports that 11 per cent of parents bought a phone during the lockdown to prevent an interruption in their child’s learning.
- A surge in the use of smartphones (as compared to 2018) has not been accompanied by greater access, which itself shows that technological solutions on their own cannot be enough to address this unforeseen crisis.
- The ASER report offers a snapshot of the churn in the education system, and also how inherited disadvantages continue to affect quality of learning.
- For instance, children with parents educated till Class X had a markedly better access to learning in these months than the children of parents with fewer years spent in school.
The implications of school closures in the country are not just about education; they are manifold.
An unprecedented social disaster can be avoided if more entities — Government and private pitch into short-term and long-term futures of the children in this digital divide.
The report maps a crisis, but also holds out possibilities.
For the private schools, it is a prod to rethink an online-only mode of learning.
For government schools, the growth in footfall is an opportunity to improve the quality of teaching and retain students it is possible, as has been shown by government schools in Karnataka and Kerala, among others, during lockdown.
The experience of southern states in the past decades proves that investment in a public school system multiplies opportunities manifold.
The AAP government in Delhi has shown that it makes for good politics. Till a vaccine is found, a resumption of classes is still a far way off.
In the interim, all stakeholders have to come together to minimise both loss of learning and the emotional turmoil that comes from being left behind.