Covid-induced online education hurts poor families

Online classes have become the main mode of learning for millions of school students across India due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with its repeated lockdowns and social distancing measures. The shift however is proving to be extremely painful for families in small towns and rural areas for many reasons, especially high costs of purchasing equipment and connectivity needed.

“Online classes are not a one-time expense. Apart from an hour of online viewing they involve downloading of study material and uploading videos, photos besides text files. All these consume at least 1.5 GB data every day and even the cheapest BSNL plan for 2.5 GB per day at required speed is available is Rs.460 per month. Due to disruptions in the BSNL service we are forced to purchase larger plans from private telecoms, spending Rs.1000 and more per month,” says Ishita, a tenth grade student studying in a reputed private school in Allahabad.

Not only rural households, even a majority of the poor and lower middle-class households in cities and small towns are unable to shell out money for buying expensive computers or smartphones that are essential for taking part in online education. This is especially so when the parents themselves have been deprived of jobs and incomes due to the downturn in the economy.

Often, the cost of the hardware for online learning approaches the annual expenditure on school fees. The recurring costs of maintenance and operation of the hardware is also often more than additional costs incurred earlier, like that for the school bus fee or the cost of paid breakfast or lunch boxes for the children. In most schools all the extra fees that children used to pay during class-room education days, including sports fee, however have continued during online education as well.

Not surprisingly, the Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) 2020 brought out by the NGO Pratham, showed only 11% of the children in school-going age in rural India attended online classes in the peak of the pandemic last year. The report, based on an extensive phone survey among 52,227 students, showed nearly 20% of the children didn’t even have textbooks. Nearly 38% of the children—in both rural areas and among the urban poor—lived in households that did not possess a smartphone. Even among the 61.8% of the households which possessed at least one smartphone, a parent takes it out while going for work and hence many children even in that category are deprived.

Online education of school students has also increased the burden on mothers, who

have had to assist the primary school children to adapt to the new mode of learning. As a result, many mothers have had to leave their jobs.

Recounting her troubles, Dr.Ruchika Verma, a college teacher in Prayagraj, says that as a working woman, she has very little time for her son who is in class 5. “I have to take my own online classes for my students at the college. So, I have put my daughter, who is a graduate, to sit with my son and help with his technical difficulties. But when she doesn’t have time, he misses classes, which I have to compensate for at night with the help of video and text files sent by the school.”

An even more disturbing phenomenon noted by Prof.A. Marx, an educationist based in Chennai, is that due to online education becoming unaffordable, many girls from poor families are being married off early and child marriages are increasing. Many boys too are also compelled to take up some work and child labour of boys below 14 and adolescent labour of boys below 18 are increasing.

The online learning for poor students is mostly through WhatsApp groups while children from higher income families are supposed get access through the Zoom or Google Meet apps. Some of these apps are not free and, after a certain time duration and number of participants, the users are charged. To cut down on costs, each class is mostly for 40 minutes and while the lecture itself goes on for 30 minutes there is hardly 10 minutes left for questions from students. The one-to-one interactive mode of the teacher-taught relationship has gone for a toss under online learning.

Well-known educationist and common schooling rights activist Dr Anil Sadgopal succinctly captures the crisis folding in India’s education sector due to the Covid-19 pandemic. According to him “It is not education during the lockdown but lockdown of education!”.

Speaking to Covid Response Watch he said, “Multinationals have started investing heavily in online education and hence it is going to be a permanent affair. Even in the USA, the teachers are against online teaching because they say that unless they see the students in person they cannot assess whether she/he had grasped what is taught. In sum, online education is no education”.

Very little thought also seems to have gone into framing the curriculum and syllabus for online teaching. The education bureaucracy has imposed a senseless package of huge workload on children with daily assignments with a rigorous deadline. Students are even forced engage in lengthy recitations, perform arts, prepare charts and crafts and film them for uploading online the same day. Children are often forced to spend 10–12 hours a day on their classes and their mothers also toil with them half the time.

The workload of teachers has also almost doubled without any additional pay. They are to prepare online lectures, do online monitoring, and download and check as many assignments as the number of students in a class.

According to many educationists, what has been ushered in under the pressure of the Covid-19 pandemic, is a system that is a deadly combination of the various negatives of online learning and ills of the rote-learning model that has been the bane of Indian education for long.

As per a  report brought out by Pratham in 2018, 11% of Indian school students enrolled in the 14–18 age-group were not able to read anything in their own mother-tongue, and only 19% could do subtraction and 26% division in mathematics. An NCERT survey in 2016 also found that more than half of the class 10 students in the country were not able to answer questions in mathematics and science.

As the reputed theorist on education Dr.Krishna Kumar says, “Online education is at best only a stop-gap arrangement. The schools keep trying to please the higher management and top bureaucrats and they are least bothered about how to make online lessons more innovative. They keep children bogged down in numerous assignments. I am eagerly awaiting the end of this online teaching.”

B.Sivaraman is an independent researcher based in Allahabad (Prayagraj). He can be reached at sivaramanlb@yahoo.com


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