Picture portrays the reality that words fail to explain. Aged 8 and 10 respectively, these two little souls are out on the roads pulling handcart with their tender arms to sell kitchenware items. A brief interaction with them revealed the trail of crunch time their families are undergoing amidst pandemic lockdown. They leave from home early morning and vendor all day to look out for customers in order to fetch some bucks to support their families. Fearing backlash of breaching lockdown restrictions their fathers have been forced indoors compelling their innocent children to dare the odds to bring some money to survive in the testing tribulation. Studying in grade 4 and 6 respectively, school for them has become a lost memory. Driving their cart tirelessly with unease, conversation with these ‘under-aged men’ had a lot to shake our conscience.
The buzz of e-learning has occupied so much space in discussions and deliberations as an alternative to formal schooling that can swap and compensate for the loss incurred due to lockdown restrictions. For a majority of school children like these ‘little labourers’ who have been forced to pull the cart , the idea of online tutoring seems alien and irrelevant.
A socio-economically stratified society with extremes of odds and exceptions of asset distribution, digital divide is obviously an outcome that further marginalizes the already disadvantaged groups. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who propounded the idea of cultural capital wherein he theorized how possession of different cultural capital helps the learners to negotiate and navigate through the educational system, giving children of dominant groups a fair advantage to benefit from learning opportunities. Though his theory was rooted in the deeply embedded capitalist society of France with distinct social classes, nevertheless the idea of cultural capital has helped scholars to zoom his lens to understand persistent inequalities in educational attainments world over in different contexts.
Bourdieu bluntly argued that educational institutions are more oriented towards nature, needs and aspirations of dominant groups rather than those who are less privileged. The former by virtue of their possession of resources (cultural capital) feel better suited and adapted to meet the institutional standards and requirements duly recognized and rewarded by teachers and school system while evaluating students for academic achievements.
In the present pandemic context, Bourdieu’s ideas are quite realistic as all forms of online/e-learning initiatives demand certain basic eligibility to benefit from naïve accidental experimentations. Smartphones, internet connectivity, uninterrupted electricity, parental literacy and more importantly leisure and space to learn are not free bounties available to every child. For those belonging to the privileged families, the cultural capital becomes embodied and their personality features carry the tastes that satisfy the evaluating benchmarks stipulated by educational institutions.
Ironically, public school system is plagued with student absenteeism as many students fail to maintain continuity of classroom learning due to diverse reasons. In any unusual and unprecedented calamity, the axe usually falls on the weak making them more vulnerable to undergo extremes of hardships and suffer loss at varied fronts.
Do all students avail the opportunities of e-learning being offered by educational institutions? The obvious answer is a big N0. The global slogans of Education for All and Equality of Educational Opportunity face diverse forms of deterrents in achieving the goals in accomplishing the set objectives. Poverty, hunger, disease, gender based discrimination, child labour all conspire in aborting the dream of providing quality education to all the children.
The whole world being ‘globally-gadgeted’ is a mere farce and not a fact. There are children who fail to afford pen and pencil to continue their schooling. Smartphone driven learning luxury is a distant dream for so many children whose feet fluctuate between learning and labour to compromise with circumstances that force them to wear the shoes of men. Economic crisis needs to be addressed in a way that must prevent sacrificing the childhood of innocent children and putting this paradigm practically demands a comprehensive and holistic endeavor to mitigate the sufferings of poor families with adequate financial and psycho-social support.
Simple, affordable and cost effective strategies of leaning can offer a cushion of support to children from less privileged families. Free or low cost learning gadgets need to be made available to poor children and teachers need to be trained and acquainted to update and upgrade their skills to guide and facilitate students to effectively use e-learning.
A post-pandemic academic environment has to revisit and review teacher education both in theory and practice to accommodate ICT enabled teaching learning transactions over defunct and outdated traditional pedagogies that are devoid of any effectiveness.
Education of young generation cannot be compromised. Care and caution must be taken to consider diverse needs, challenges and limitations of learners scattered heterogeneously across the stratified canvass of society. Innovations in education must become a boon not any barrier for children to enjoy learning and should include and attract all children.
We need to be smart, to think beyond smartphones and rescue poor students from being the casualty of corona.
Bilal Kaloo is Assistant Professor, Department of Education (South Campus), University of Kashmir