Amalgamation of e-learning platforms and mainstream education can then lead the nation towards education for all.
Mr. Rustom Kerawalla
In the initial months of the COVID-19 lockdown, the primary focus of the government and educators was to ensure learning continuity. As per estimates by the United Nations, approximately 32 crore learners across pre-primary, primary, secondary and tertiary schools were affected by the pandemic-induced lockdown since March 2020.
The urgency to ensure undisrupted education delivery for such a vast number of learners triggered a rapid phase of transition for education in India with schools scrambling to migrate to online medium.
Prepare for the New Normal
The need to embrace alternate mediums of education after the lockdown necessitated schools to invest in technology infrastructure, training and upskilling of teachers. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) tools were adopted to facilitate remote learning. Schools also embraced online teaching methods and classes were conducted via Zoom, Moodle or proprietary school software. New-technologies such as IR/VR, video conferencing channels, robotics, machine learning and data analytics were used for teaching and assessments.
While it was far easier for government-aided public schools and private schools in urban areas to embrace the change, schools in rural areas and unaided private schools suffered a setback due to paucity of funds, lack of infrastructure and skilled teachers and inability of the parents belonging to poor and underprivileged sections to afford computer or mobile devices and internet connectivity for their children.
Owing to these challenges, there have been demands from many quarters to reopen schools quickly to ensure every child gets equitable opportunity of learning. Currently, India is implementing plans for coming out of the lockdown in a phased manner. Some states have also started reopening their schools and colleges outside the containment zones.
However, restarting full-fledged physical schooling won’t be possible till parents find it absolutely safe for their children to return to classrooms. This could take months and years, depending on the vaccine availability and its efficacy. Till then, the education system must prepare for the New Normal and work on plans to ensure democratisation of education through alternate and remote learning mediums.
Encourage private investments
Democratisation of education would require massive improvements in technology infrastructure, connectivity, improving teachers’ skills in digital and new technologies, and many other related investments. A report by Inc42 Plus ascertains that online learning requires high-bandwidth Internet and digital devices such as laptops, desktops, tablets and smartphones. But technology has not yet penetrated many remote and rural areas, thus creating a digital divide, especially between rural and urban areas, the report says.
As per a UDISE (Unified District Information System for Education) data, in 2017-18, only 28.7 per cent of schools in rural India and 41.9 per cent in Urban India had functional computer facilities. Moreover, as per the report of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), only 27.57 per cent of rural India had internet as of September 2019. The numbers are even more dismal as per the 75th round survey on education by the National Statistical Organisation (NSO), which puts the percentage of households having internet in rural India at only 14.9 per cent and those having computers at 4.4 per cent (excluding smartphones).
Greater levels of investments will better prepare the education system to ensure learning continuity and equitable learning during school closures and can accelerate learning during the new normal. Hence, it’s a pressing need for India to find ways to fund education and continue the learning process for every student. Private funding will be essential to support infrastructure development, creating skillsets and training teachers, increasing digital intensity in education in rural areas needs as the current proposed spending of 6% of GDP too less compared to developed economies which spend as much as 20% of GDP.
Blended learning approach
Blended or integrated learning will be the new normal of education even if the students go back to classrooms in the near future. With the government realising the benefits of technology for delivery of quality education to a wider learner base, teachers in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities will need to be trained in embedding new technology advancements in their classroom teaching.
Using multimedia channels such as television, community radio and mobile phones, besides computers, is imperative for teachers not only for reaching a wider student base in rural areas but also for improving the quality education delivery.
By establishing a HUB-and-SPOKE model with preschools and schools at the district or taluka levels acting as the hub and connecting with nearby villages, education delivery to students at the last mile can be possible through multimedia channels.
The collaboration between government, school management service providers, Ed-tech companies and public and private enablers is the urgent need of the hour for creating the requisite education infrastructure and inclusivity of education delivery.
Preparing for this New Normal for education in India will also require a training a large base of teachers in the 21st-century learning pedagogies and evaluation methodologies. The government will need to make private participation more conducive and initiate greater public-private collaborations for faster pace of infrastructure development. Amalgamation of e-learning platforms and mainstream education can then lead the nation towards education for all.
(The author of the article is the Chairman of Ampersand Group. Views expressed are personal.)