When it comes to remote learning, Indian students are at a great disadvanatge to their Western counterparts.

In India, the second most populous country in the world, the lockdown has been eased and is easing partially and in phases.

Still, most educational institutions remain fully closed, for fear of the transmission that might occur if they opened. In fact, there is no set date for reopening. Like many other countries, education is being received and provided remotely.

But is learning really taking place?

Unreliable and unavailable tech

Technology can now definitively be added to the list of education barriers for Indian students — a list already comprising caste, gender, class, language, and regional development. The attempt to provide remote learning has highlighted the dire technological divide among students across the subcontinent.

In majority poor-urban, or rural, or marginalised groups’ households, at least one of the key prerequisites of remote learning — fixed internet connection, an appropriate device for each child, uninterrupted electricity supply — is entirely absent. A report on social consumption expenditure revealed that, as of 2017-18, only 12.5 per cent of Indian households with students have internet access. Whether a household has fixed internet or 4G, about 50 per cent have reported poor connectivity. A university survey found that only 50 per cent of their students have personal laptops.

One might only have internet as cellular 4G but connectivity is so erratic that lessons cannot be streamed smoothly and / or downloaded. Thus, students miss out on content. One might have a laptop to stream lessons more easily than possible on a smartphone, but this option is only available during the limited time when electricity is provided. Again, the learning process is halting and severely disrupted. Many only have one device to share between the entire family. Thus, someone has to sacrifice their needs. Essentially, education is made inaccessible on one or the other (sometimes multiple) front(s), for far too many.

Remedial measures

The various states’ education departments are taking initiatives to increase remote access to learning, such as by airing education programmes on television and radio. Universities have been instructed to extend their Internet connection to include students in their locality. Schools are doling out tasks and assignments on WhatsApp group chats. However, each measure is only as effective as its weakest link. Even as varied tactics are employed, educators remain concerned that there are students slipping through the net which is not tight enough to catch them.

Remedial measures arguably have to be more innovative and cater specifically to those who need them. Ultimately, the diversity in students’ barriers mean that overemphasis on any one method of information dissemination will likely result in a particular group of students being left out.

Despite the knowledge of dire structural inequality in education access, the education sector ‘has remained absent’ in the central government’s stimulus package. The focus on recovery has largely left learning institutions to deal with the challenge of virtual attendance themselves. The expectation that ingenuity of teachers, schools’ knowledge of their students’ situations and that state government’s resources will combine and quickly bridge the gap, is an unfair one.

Poverty and cut opportunities

Due to the digital divide, education centres are also not able to function as a place of sanctuary for vulnerable pupils. Once a student has dropped off of an educator’s virtual radar, there is the threat of them being moved to extremely harmful paths. Alvi and Gupta found that temporary interruptions to schooling in the past have resulted in permanent dropouts — as children are forced into marriages or retained as extra labour — and increased malnourishment from a lack of access to free school meals. In the case of this pandemic, there is greater economic proclivity for the above consequences to occur since scores of poor and migrant families have had their source of income completely cut off, without adequate replacement.

In the UK, certain schools remained open in acknowledgement of their vulnerable pupils. Unfortunately, in India, the volume of those falling into this category is so vast that it would defeat the primary purpose of school closures: containing the spread of Covid-19.

Higher up the education ladder, universities face similar issues but with higher stakes. After all, disruption at university-level education can have dire consequences in the labour market. Whilst some students are fighting for exams to be cancelled and their final grades to be calculated differently, others are sitting postponed exams on portals that are malfunctioning.

What does the future hold?

Unless one is extremely privileged, multiple groups have deemed online education in India as effectively useless and argue that pushing for it despite the hurdles is a misguided decision.

It seems that when it comes to education during the pandemic the Indian government has been quite oblivious in their approach. They have expected that quick-fix solutions will readily emerge from various stakeholders and that the digital divide will not be as deep and widespread as it has been. In reality, the issues faced today — unreliable internet, intermittent electricity and technological backwardness — have been decades in the making; treated with acceptance and indifference.

It remains to be seen whether the root causes of the digital divide are tackled for the long-term instead of only being given attention during Covid-affected times. One hopes it will be the former.

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