Education’s new normal | The Financial Express

Education’s new normal

While classrooms continue to play a seminal role, digital learning is becoming indispensable

Education’s new normal
While classrooms play a seminal role in overall educational attainment, pandemic-related disruptions have made digitally-delivered education increasingly indispensable. (IE)

The findings of the 2022 Annual Status of Education Report (Aser) confirm a key concern about the pandemic’s impact on school education—the shuttering of schools for a large part of the first two years of the Covid-19 has led to significant learning losses. Basic reading abilities have plummeted to pre-2012 levels, signalling a drastic erosion of the gains made over the last 15 years. While the decline has been noticed across states, it is, quite worryingly, sharper for some states that had recorded high levels of reading ability in 2018. This could mean that the robustness of school education in these states has a high dependency on classroom learning. Arithmetic skills have dropped across classes, but less steeply than the decline in reading skills. This makes the path to achieving the goals of the National Initiative for Proficiency in Reading with Understanding and Numeracy that much more challenging.

The findings underscore the new normal of hybrid home-schooling. While classrooms play a seminal role in overall educational attainment, pandemic-related disruptions have made digitally-delivered education increasingly indispensable. The turn to digital did reveal wide inequality in the initial months of the pandemic, with many low-income and poor households having reported a lack of digital infrastructure and savvy at the time. But Aser 2022 shows some of the gap may have been bridged, at least in terms of infrastructure. Households with smartphones have doubled from the pre-pandemic level of 36% to over 74% in 2022, and almost nine in ten households that reported having smartphones in Aser 2022, had internet access on the day of the visit of Aser surveyors. Access, of course, could still be a big question. That said, digital delivery, along with many other factors, has ensured that the early years of the pandemic were not a complete washout.

As Pratham founder Madhav Chavan points out, if we were to assume that learning happens only in the brick&mortar classroom scenario, then students in Grade 3 today would have no learning to report at all. Schools remained largely shut over the first two years of their education—2020 and 2021. But 30% of Grade 3 students could read a Grade I text, which means learning happened for some despite schools remaining shut. A confluence of factors has worked for some households in some of the states—whether it was digitally-delivered teaching and educational material, or educated parents and siblings teaching children at home, or home visits by teachers, or even private tuitions. The need now is to identify what worked, and in what context, and see if there is scope for replication in geographies that didn’t do too well.

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The Aser 2022 findings debunk a different apprehension from the initial days of the pandemic—that the disruptions will cause school enrolment to fall. To the contrary, enrolment has risen marginally from the 2018 levels. The bulk of this seems to have been driven by government schools. Their share in the overall enrolled pool had been falling steadily before the pandemic, but has now shot up to 73% from 66% in 2018. While the overall enrolment data is encouraging, rising government-school admissions reflect the pain at the bottom of the pyramid. The disruptions could have made low-cost government-school education a fait accompli for poorer households, more so with the shrinking of the low-cost private school pool—UDISE+. Data shows between 2020-2021 and 2021-2022, over 20,000 schools shut down permanently, of which 8,500 were privately managed. This doesn’t augur well in the long run for school education in the country.

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First published on: 21-01-2023 at 04:30 IST