Improve digi-access for students, rethink curriculum.
The larger picture on Covid-19’s impact on school education in India is a grim one. Though many private schools and government schools in some states adopting, and adapting to, online education—through recorded instruction, live classes via video-conferencing, online tests, etc—is a spot of cheer, the fact is online-education uptake at the school level is likely to be largely an urban phenomenon, apart from serving mostly students from the middle- and upper-classes.
More important, there are still gargantuan handicaps of digital literacy and infrastructure that need to be overcome. Not just this, online school education seems to be an ad hoc affair, with schools designing interventions as per their ability and imagination. So, as the government talks of a possible reopening of schools after August 15—it has invited feedback from the public on a reopening strategy that is safe and sustainable—it has to be mindful of this reality.
Even as it considers trimming attendance requirements, a mix of online and classroom instruction and even a trimmer syllabus for the year (a reduction of 30% has been proposed), it has to appreciate the gains of universalising online education at the school level and create an ecosystem that nurtures this for the long run.
One of the critical hurdles is the low digital literacy among the school-going cohort in the country, given just 21.3% of students across 619 districts, as per ASER 2018, had access to a computer. To ensure that students from the economically weaker sections are not left behind, the government must give them access—the states and the Centre must come together to sponsor distribution of good-quality (learning from the Aakash fiasco), low-cost tablets/laptops, equipped for education-only. Tied to this will be the need for ensuring universal penetration of low-cost internet, whether through mobile network or broadband.
To that end, the government will have to allow the telecom space to thrive by correcting some of its policy blunders in the sector and drastically step up its BharatNet performance—optical fibre connectivity has been completed for just 1,40,104 gram panchayats so far against the target of 250,000, with wi-fi services (quality of service unknown) available in just over 23,000 gram panchayats.
Though, with 45% of those who used the National Test Abhyas App for mock JEE/NEET tests from semi-urban, rural and under-served areas, the telecom network in these areas appears robust. The government must also work on other significant challenges, such as designing curriculum and teachers-training to adapt to online education and address issues like limitations to demonstrative teaching, especially in science subjects at the higher levels, classroom interaction, etc.
Adapting to online education for every child in school is going to be a sea-change from the usual classroom education. In the short run, the Centre seems to have the right idea on responding to Covid challenges by reducing the syllabus for the years as well as the hours of instruction; but, once online education at the school level is standardised and universalised, such a response may not be necessary.