The University Grants Commission held a meeting on Monday to consider a tentative academic calendar for the current year, and the need to promote online learning and conduct common admission tests via the internet, but school education is not getting the attention it deserves. When the national lockdown started, schools had scrambled to take their courses online. They had been quite innovative in uncharted waters, using digital resources available in teachers’ homes to conduct classes online. Formidable challenges were faced — limited bandwidth, personal computers and phones unequal to professional work, and teachers and students falling back on the communications grammar of the live classroom, which produces confusion online. Parents have had to bear the burden of keeping electronic classrooms in order — by keeping their wards in check — and have been devoting half their day to their education, while working from home themselves. And everyone involved has discovered that electronic education is not a complete solution. Paper, pens and geometry sets are still essential, even though stationery shops are closed.
The purpose of a lockdown is to delay a crisis while the state and institutions marshal their resources. This is being achieved, though imperfectly, in public health. But much needs to be done in school education, on which the more distant future depends, and which is in urgent need of the support of the state and the IT industry. Back in 2006, the MIT Media Lab’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative came a cropper in India over a question of how just Rs 450 crore should be spent. But today, a similar project to make all students capable of receiving digital education seems essential. Low broadband penetration and the preponderance of prepaid mobile connections suggests that large sections of the population are low on data, and the consequent digital divide calls for subsidies. Besides, both teachers and students need training in how to operate in the electronic classroom, and how to deal with digital workflows.
State-backed television and radio, along with community radio in underserved places, can help to bridge this divide temporarily. In fact, education was part of the original remit of Doordarshan. But eventually, the school system would have to cut the cord and learn to operate online as effectively as it does in the physical classroom. The COVID-19 crisis offers an opportunity to make it possible, with a little help from the state and the industry.