Impact of COVID -19 on the Education Sector in India

Madhu Bala Nath

Over 1.5 million schools across India had closed down due to the Covid pandemic[1]. While life is slowly limping back to normal for most segments of the population, the trauma continues for students as they miss their schools and colleges. What started as a unique fun experience of no classes and exams because of a Covid-induced crisis, is now making the students edgy and frustrated as the shadows of uncertainty show no signs of shortening. It is important to understand the size and nature of this uneasiness and uncertainty so that it can be addressed as early as possible. Why? Because a large section of the Indian population living under a cloud of discontent can have negative repercussions on the growth of the Indian economy in more ways than one. This discontent has to be noted as an additionality to an already overburdened and ill functioning system of education in the country. The education ecosystem of India has already been weighed down by myriad issues such as school dropouts learning deficiencies, teacher absenteeism, gender disparity and lack of infrastructure. It now faces yet another big challenge - the widening digital divide.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has made online education the buzzword, a recent report by the global education network Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) says that the Indian internet infrastructure is still far from ready to support this shift. In India, [2] 320 million students have been affected by COVID-19 school closures, and though the government quickly recommended shifting to “online teaching,” this recommendation ignored India’s immense digital divide—with embedded gender and class divides. A 2018 NITI Aayog report revealed that 55,000 villages in India did not have mobile network coverage. A 2017-18 survey by the Ministry of Rural Development found that more than 36 per cent of schools in India operated without electricity. The 2017-18 National Sample Survey reported only 23.8 percent of Indian households had internet access. In rural households, which make up 66 percent of the population, only 14.9 percent had access, and in urban households only 42 percent had access. Furthermore, the survey found that males were the primary users as only 16 percent of women had access to mobile internet, compared to 36 percent of men. Young people’s access to digital technology was found to be even less.  A recent news report stated only 12.5 percent of students had access to smartphones.

Delving a bit deeper, this survey conducted over 7600 respondents found that in order to use internet at home for digital learning 72.6% of the students had to use a mobile hotspot. 15% used the broadband 9.7% used a wifi dongle and 1.8% used the internet. Then there were cable cuts, poor connectivity and power cuts that impeded access.

 Furthermore, most teachers were ill-equipped for online teaching.Teachers were not always trained and equipped to transition to online teaching. A shift from the commonly used one way transfer of knowledge using the lecture method and blackboards to technology based interactive tools that need time and effort to be prepared, field tested and internalised requires time and monetary inputs. This has not yet happened in a meaningful manner. As a result attendance of students in classes is shrinking. Even in the national capital, when government schools started online classes during the lockdown, the attendance hovered between 25 and 30 per cent.[3] This data clearly pointed to the fact that  the emphasis on technology-driven education was alienating many children from the underprivileged sections, preventing them from continuing their studies. If this state of affairs continues, increased drop- out rates, reduced test scores through learning losses seems to be an automatic outcome.

According to a study titled, Big Qs Student Survey, 47 per cent students have decided against migrating to another city for higher education and fifty per cent respondents have abandoned plans to pursue higher education abroad. Students stay confined to homes, spending long hours online, leading to concerns over physical health and stress triggered due to the prolonged use of electronic devices. This state of existence does not bode well for their achievement scores. It has long been known that decreases in test scores are associated with future declines in employment. Conversely, increases in student achievement lead to significant increases in future income, as do additional years of schooling, each year of which is associated with an 8–9 percent gain in lifetime earnings. In the absence of any intervention, the learning losses arising from the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to have a long-term compounding negative effect on many children’s future and their well-being as these learning losses could translate into less access to higher education, lower labour market participation, and lower future earnings.

It is therefore very important or rather critically imperative that the government of India starts to implement learning recovery programs. A switch to large-scale digital education is not possible given the digital divide. Most immediately, governments must ensure that students who have fallen behind receive the support that they need to catch up to expected learning targets. The first step must be to carry out just-in-time assessments to identify these students and their support needs. Research has shown that 12-week programs of tutoring can help students make the kind of progress that would be expected from three to five months of normal schooling. Employing young graduates or high school pass students as part time teachers for a structured learning programme using the electronic media of the radio or television is an existing opportunity. The radio and TV network is a much more widespread and reliable possibility because of its access by almost all in India. Ukraine has implemented measures to support remote teaching and learning, starting with broadcasting video lessons via television and using online distance learning platforms. Organizations like Ed Camp Ukraine, organized online professional development and peer-to-peer learning opportunities for teachers to meet remotely and share experiences with online learning during the COVID-19 crisis. It is important to note that Ukraine, a not very resource rich nation like India has conducted information campaigns, such as “Schools, We Are Ready,” together with UNICEF, to inform teachers, administrators, students, and parents about the guidelines for safe and sustained learning under COVID-19 in the 2020–21 school year again using the media of television.

This is one way in which the Indian education system could transit to online learning without creating a digital divide. But, then this will require resources and airtime over public media channels. The scramble for air time by schools will have to compete with the private sector that uses this time for advertising. Funds and support by the government of India is of critical importance and these slots for education over TV and radio could be put under the slot of public utility services which are normally free.

 The trend of availability of resources within the government of India is not too heartening. The education ministry’s budget for digital e-learning was slashed to Rs 469 crore in 2020-21—the year Covid struck—from Rs 604 crore the previous year. [4]The Centre and state governments must raise the spending on education to at least 6 per cent of GDP. At present, central and state allocations to the sector is less than 3 per cent. It is useful to note that, the United Kingdom has announced a £1 billion pupil catch-up fund that contained a portion set aside for tutoring and the National Tutoring Programme with a £76 million budget.

What is important to keep in mind is that this will be an investment with higher returns in the future. It will prepare India for future shocks by building back better. It is imperative that we not only recover from the pandemic but that we use this experience to become better prepared for future crises. To support this aim, we need to build our capacity to provide blended models of education in the future. Schools should be better prepared to switch easily between face-to-face and remote learning as needed. This will protect the education of students not only during future pandemics, but also during other shocks that might cause school closures, such as natural disasters or adverse weather events. It will also create opportunities for more individualized approaches to teaching and learning. With this in mind, it will be necessary to develop flexible curricula that can be taught in person or online remembering of course Marvin Lee Minsky, an American cognitive and computer scientist working on artificial intelligence, who stated that, "You don't understand anything until you learn it more than one way."

And as I conclude, I would like to spread the flavour of hope where we have before us a number of opportunities in this seemingly difficult crisis. The beautiful thing of online classes and studying from home is that Back Bench is passé and all students get a front row seat. The mental stereotype that exists of the back benchers in the minds of the teacher is completely broken. Online mode of teaching and learning has democratized class room setting and removed prejudices in a way that is so constructive for learning. Let us build on this and create a demographic dividend that is ready to nurture India going forward!

[1]India Today – Milan Sharma 5 March 2021

[2]Covid -19 A wake up call for telecom service providers – by QS -1 Gauge

[3]The Indian Express – Sukrita Baruah -3 May 2020

[4]India Today – Kaushik Dutta and Shelly Anand – 3 January 2021


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