In India, COVID-19 school closure, and related challenges with distance learning have taught us that we must liberate learning from outdated curriculum that emphasise on one-sided information transfer. The quick shift to online teaching forced the reluctant schools and teachers to adapt to e-learning. Unfortunately government ignored the already existing digital divide embedded with gender and class divides as well as plight of ill paid teachers upon whom the impact of school closure is worst. The decision of sudden closure brought along with it the problems of pay cuts, and loss of jobs for teachers; it clearly hints at increasing insecure employment in education.
The pandemic COVID-19 has made all the educational Institutions across the world to close down, disrupting the understood normal. Today confinement is the new world order. In India too not a single institution is safe from the deadly virus, forcing the state governments across the country to close down schools and colleges temporarily as a measure to contain the spread of the deadly virus. This sudden closure disrupted the Board examinations, school admissions, entrance tests and other competitive examinations in the institutions of education across the nation. It's almost four months since then and there is no certainty when will the educational institutions reopen. As per the government's economics watchdog, among all the sectors that are affected by Covid-19 crisis, the most affected is education sector, which is a critical determinant of a country's economic future. This closure will surely affect the continuity of learning for more than 285 million young learners in schools and more than 20 million students in higher education. It will have long term negative consequences for the social and economic sectors. The economists have already warned 1.6 percent fall in India's real GDP growth by FY21 and a rise in unemployment rate to 26.2 per cent in the third week of April 2020 amid lockdown. This pandemic will thus push millions of people to poverty, where it will be difficult for them to meet their basic needs, not to talk of education.
India entered its lockdown with a high unemployment level at 8.7%, while the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy stated that total unemployment was at a record high at 27% in early May. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates the loss of full-time jobs worldwide to be 305 million, in India, the total number of jobs likely to be impacted is 136 million. So this situation very well explains the plight of education sector, which receives only 4.6 percent of GDP, lower than many developing nations. If the lockdown continues for few more months there could be severe job losses. Even though the government made the announcement that it is a precondition that there are no layoffs and all the teaching and non-teaching staff get salary in these difficult times. But to the contrary, employers have removed the temporary staff, as the revenue through fee income is at risk. Those in job, among them more than half of staff are vulnerable in insecure employment. There are great chances of the temporary teacher's vacancies (e.g. Vidyasahayak teachers and temporary assistant professors) in schools and universities might continue to remain unfulfilled. In the lockdown when the Education Minister called upon parents to submit their questions to be addressed in a webinar, several teachers directed their salary woes at the Minister. Some teachers also emphasized that since the lockdown, they have been working harder than before to make sure students do not lose their academic year. They have had to learn the modalities of teaching online and are working tirelessly. They were anxious as how will the Administrators pay their staff, if schools are closed and parents do not pay fees. It is high time that government come out with strategies for this sector, only then these unprecedented challenges would be met.
The present lockdown has brought all education to a complete halt for millions of Indian students, the main reason being the challenge of digital illiteracy. The new demand from the education system is to conduct courses and examinations online, and the assignments submission also through emails. This has raised the demand for technology in education. Not to mention, only a handful of private schools could adopt online teaching methods. Their low-income private and government school counterparts, on the other hand, have completely shut down for not having access to e-learning solutions. According to the 2017-18 National Sample Survey 40 million population do not have power supply, only 23.8 percent of Indian households had internet access. In rural households (66 percent of the population), only 14.9 percent had access, and in urban households only 42 percent had access. Only 12.5 percent of students had access to smartphones. Thus digital learning in rural and urban homes always faced lack of facilities. This disruption in the delivery of education is posing questions to policymakers as how to ensure inclusive e-learning solutions to tackle the challenge of digital divide, otherwise online education would exclude more people than including them in mainstream education. To mitigate the challenges of digital divide, the HRD ministry did take steps to transform India into digitally empowered society, integrating technology in digital learning, with e-basta, mobile apps, broadband and Wi-Fi connectivity in the remote rural areas. To an extent it did pave way for the virtual classrooms. If the policy makers are able to tackle the challenges of digital divide, more student population will be included into mainstream education as the young generation seems to have the readiness to imbibe and learn through digital media, they are technology driven. Therefore teachers are expected to raise the bar and come up with new normal by mitigating the crisis by equipping themselves with technological knowledge and shed the centuries-old, chalk–talk teaching model. The rapidly growing e-learning platforms with different levels of certifications, methodology and assessment parameters may need to set new quality benchmark in online teaching and come out with quality assurance mechanisms that would include quality of teachers, familiarity of teachers with digital teaching technologies and quality of IT infrastructure.
Closure of educational institutions, even if temporary, is problematic. Its impact is seen in reduced instructional time and low learning achievements. If educational need is left unaddressed it has a detrimental impact. The COVID-19 pandemic, interruptions to education can have long term implications. There is a real risk of regression for children whose basic learning is not strong or children who are already deprived of education, particularly girls. To meet these challenges education must be continued, using alternative pathways, with limited interruption. This calls for multi-pronged strategy to manage the present crisis that would help build a resilient Indian education system in the long run. Will it be possible to make collaborative learning possible in the classrooms due to the sudden gap created by physical distancing norms due to the viral outbreak? The answer can bring few more strategies to meet the demand of online education. Bandura's Social Learning Theory illustrated that children learn when they observe and imitate others. So the educators need to create learning opportunities that enable Bandura's four principles of social Learning; attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation, be replicated in an online class. Teachers may adopt certain techniques to adapt to enable to teach online using Bandura's principles.
A few of the government initiatives are; SWAYAM online courses for teachers, Diksha with e-Books for classes I to XII created by CBSE, e-PG Pathshala with a collection audios, videos, e-Books and Flip Books for classes I to XII in different languages. Teachers and students may gain from these initiatives taken by the government. It is not feasible that our teachers become technology dependent, where access to internet connectivity, computers or smartphones, is not possible, prior local learnings can also be a solution. Teachers need to consider all the ideas – high tech, low tech or no tech.
In India the digital technology holds great promise to provide access to high quality learning. It may change the landscape of education forever. But at the same time education systems have to ensure that these efforts do not further increase the existing inequalities in access to learning and equal access to resources for all. Therefore it's time to continue education through alternative learning pathways to deal with the new learn-at-home reality. Though technology is the need of the times but it does not represent quality of learning or creative thinking. Thus, policy makers and educators need to come out with novel ideas of capacity building of youth in skill development. This would increase employability, productivity, health and wellbeing in long run. Also tools and content of online education must be developed in the vernacular languages, to meet the demand of rural population. To realise all these innovative ideas into a reality a drastic change is required in the mind-set of policy makers, authorities, and specially educationists. Only then it will help strengthen the country's digital learning infrastructure in the long run.
Dr. Swaleha is Academic Advisor for schools, Associate Editor & Education Correspondent for Eurasia Review Journal, South Asia.