Schools started shutting down in China in late January and by the last week of March, all the world’s schools were closed. Almost like sunset and sunrise, as the last schools in central African countries stopped working, the Chinese schools began to reopen. Other countries too are opening the doors of their schools cautiously. But there is a great deal of uncertainty in the air everywhere. In India, there are murmurs that schools could remain closed until September or October. And there is the question: What will happen “after all this is over”?
As schools began to shut down in different countries, the immediate reaction was to shift the classroom to homes using whatever technology was possible since people were locked in. There is a lot of thinking, planning, and execution happening in a hurry in every country, including India. Countries or regions or even schools that have more easy access to Internet-devices and learning resources in the appropriate medium of instruction seem to have made the transition to online learning rather quickly although not without some pain. How effective these transitions were and how good the relatively short experience was will have to be analysed not only educationally, but also socially and psychologically. Early reports from China do not paint a rosy picture. Although there are more mobile connections than people in China, only 59 per cent of the mobile connections are with internet and only 47 per cent households in China seem to have PCs or laptops. So, it must have been relatively easy for the Chinese to move to a home-based online learning system, but only for about half the population. I have not seen reports about what happened to the rest, which I suspect live in rural China or are on peripheries of the glittering Chinese economy.
In comparison to China, India has about a billion mobile phone connections. Available data indicate that of these, 87 per cent are pre-paid, which gives us a hint about the economic background of the people owning these connections. Of the billion mobile phones, 67 per cent are 3G or 4G internet-connected. Some of these owners also have laptops or desktops at home but they are limited to about 13 per cent households. Our ground-level experience matches with these numbers. In rural areas of Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh although 90 per cent families have mobile phones, depending upon the state, about 40 per cent to 60 per cent of these are regular phones without internet access.
So, the Indian population can be divided into several different categories. First, the highly privileged ones with home access to broadband through multiple devices. Second, those with internet access via smart mobile phones. Third, with mobile phones but without internet and finally, those without cell phones. Broadly, this is a problem of 10:40:40:10 division of the population with the ratios varying regionally. In response to this division, various state governments have turned to radio-television technology of the 1980s and ‘90s. They are trying to get teachers and students engaged with educational resources on portals through WhatsApp messages and so on. Most efforts are centred around school subject learning although this is really vacation time. In the best of times, the classroom is not effective as various assessments have shown. How effective these hurriedly put together home-learning efforts will be, especially for the lower 50 per cent, is a big question mark. Will the underprivileged lag further behind? If we are talking about “completing the portion”, almost everyone will. But there are bigger problems to consider.
These are difficult and stressful times for all. Apart from the discomfort of forced lock-in, there is the anxiety about the future among parents. Children can sense these tensions. I would not worry too much about school examination results during this period. Instead, our focus should be on creative learning activities that engage both children and parents and lead to other long-lasting lessons. Relief is needed, not more stress.
Whenever the schools reopen, the sheer relief of going back to schools may also mean there will be the desire to go back to business as usual. But experiences from the shutdown period could be used to modify the education system as we enter a new normal situation.
For example, it is observed that wherever less-educated parents have been invited to facilitate their child’s learning, they have shown enthusiasm. Parents of young children today are mostly schooled if not educated and are eager to learn to help their children. Parents’ role in children’s education has to be enhanced by training them in a “continuing education” mode. This is especially true for the children in anganwadis and early primary age group where strong foundational skills are learned.
Increasing public access to Internet for school-age learning by creating device libraries is a possibility. Investment in the creation of good contextualised content in Indian languages is a need. Integrating technology in education often means creating more attractive audio-visual textbooks that are really one-way carriers of knowledge. There is a need to recognise that the new technology can do much more and create non-linear paths of learning.
It is said our economy and our society will not be the same from here on. The need for learning skills that will help to survive and thrive in the new economy was already being discussed before COVID. It appears now that the economy is going to change even more drastically. There will be more people dependent on agriculture and rural livelihoods. We need more productive land resources and more rural livelihoods. A large number of people have returned to villages. Some will go back to old jobs while others will need new skills to find work. The education system has to be sensitive to the immediate needs of the youth as we contemplate long-term reforms.
As the economy changes, the need for lifelong learning is becoming more urgent than ever. During the lockdown period, people have learned things that they would never have before. They loved the experience, even if grudgingly. There is going to be individual need to learn new work skills. Our experiences during lockdown are pointing us in the direction of necessary and possible changes. We should reflect on those and act.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 30 under the title “Learning in a post-Covid world”. The writer is co-founder and president of Pratham. Views expressed in the article are personal.
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