CHANGING TIMES, CHANGING SYSTEMS: EDUCATION DURING THE PANDEMIC

Malala Yousafzai, the human rights activist once said, “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.” Quality education is one SDG that resonates with me the most because education provides us with the necessary tools required to create a sustainable world. But the education system today had to undergo massive alterations due to this Covid-19 pandemic. The question that arises now is, has the quality of education been compromised to keep up with the current situation? If so, what feasible and sustainable steps can be taken to improve its quality?

As students, the reality of the pandemic dawned on us when online learning began but this was not the reality for all. Many were on the other side of the digital divide. The power and network infrastructure in rural areas, for example, is still not fully developed to be at par with the requirements of online education. High-speed internet and steady flow of electricity are the bare minimum requirement, and they still aren’t available to all the strata of society. Thus, those from vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, those living in remote areas, in extreme poverty, in refugee camps do not have the access to the same online resources as their peers.

This was reflected even in the United Nations’ statistics according to which the rate of children’s school completion is now 79% in rich households but 34% in poor households! Thus this digital divide has further widened the pre-existing gap between the haves and have-nots and reversed years of progress in education. Thus making this goal even more challenging to achieve.

Before the pandemic, government schools used to provide mid-day meals to the students as an incentive to attend school. But in the absence of such incentive during the pandemic, students have thought of the situation to be an extended holiday of sorts! Their faculty isn't well-equipped or trained enough to conduct distance education or even online assessments. And while their private school counterparts are privileged enough to have laptops and PCs, these students from low-income families at most have one smartphone in the family, which has to be shared amongst many.

Yet another problem is the effectiveness of online education. It is quite apparent that learning behind a screen could never substitute the experience gained from learning in classrooms. The lack of actual human interaction has led to a setback on the social and behavioural development of the students, especially the younger ones. Thus online learning is raising a handicapped generation who will always be considered to be at a disadvantage compared to the rest.

We must note that in Budget 2021, the Department of School Education has been allocated Rs 54,873 crore, down from Rs 59,845 crore in the previous budget, the allocation for the Department of Higher Education has gone down to Rs 38,350 crore from Rs 39,466 crore. The slide comes at a time when educational institutions and consequently the student community continues to be deeply impacted by the pandemic.

Solutions to all these problems can come up only with the cooperation of the teachers, the students, and the government. To begin with, we must resolve the problem of availability. State governments have been distributing laptops and tablets to underprivileged students, the Delhi government, for example, distributed tablets to 17,000 students of Rajkiya Pratibha Vikas Vidyalayas, such initiatives should be taken up by the nation as a whole.

Next, we would need to tackle the problem of network connection. Setting up internet facilities all over the country is easier said than done. Besides, such a step would be a long-drawn-out process, so right now we need measures that would be effective immediately. Developing an offline application is a feasible solution for this. The pre-existing Diksha App should be promoted amongst the students not just for practice questions, but to also get interactive videos related to the text as well as e-textbooks. Further, it should be developed to become a platform to hold exams and other assessments, to maintain uniformity between the private and government school students.

The national channel Doordarshan should be used as a method of training teachers all over the country about distance learning and how to teach more effectively. Every weekend modules and sessions should be broadcasted, and teachers can share their unique methods as well as learn from others. Private school teachers can help and bring their fellow teachers to their level by answering queries about which platforms to use or even how to assess students in the online mode.

Other than this some direct solutions include setting up book banks wherein students can drop off textbooks and blank notebooks so that others can use them. A moving library is a very feasible option for students in remote areas. Similar to mobile hospitals, these libraries on wheels can source the material from the book banks and make them available to students. Public Distribution Systems (PDS) shops can act as mediators between schools and students. Other than providing basic amenities they can also provide study material sourced from government schools.

The government on its behalf has helped by introducing National Education Policy 2020 which is emphasizing vocational education, digital learning, promoting bag-less days, etc. This policy will help students to get acclimatized to the changes that will be there in the post-Covid world. Hybrid learning is where we are headed to and this policy is beneficial because it is now shaping education to be more holistic and value-based rather than based on rote learning.

The world around us is changing rapidly, and the only way for us to move forward is to embrace these changes and try to make the best of them. Unprecedented times like these seem frightening but, these changes ensure that there’s a better and more sustainable world waiting for us out there.