We must admit that face-to-face interactions between teachers and students along with vibrant and healthy debates amongst peers within the classroom and outside are integral to quality teaching, as envisioned by the SDGs.
This article is part of the series — Post-Pandemic Development Priorities.
Education provides us knowledge of our society and environment and hones our skills to change them for the better. Education also helps us to develop our own perspective of looking at our lives, prepares us to have our own points of view and form our own opinions on different facets of life. Education today is not the process of gaining information. Any willing person can have access to immense data and information nowadays through different websites and e-based platforms. But, can information be transformed into knowledge without education? Only education can train us to interpret different issues and events in our lives. We can learn not only through the lessons in our textbooks, but from our teachers, gurus, and mentors who guide us on how to read those books and how to identify the Vishalyakarani from Gandhamadan mountains. We also learn from our own lives through our practical experiences and hands-on trainings. In short, education helps us to acquire knowledge, skills, values and attitudes to make informed decisions, lead meaningful lives, and undertake active roles in contemporary society.
Since the beginning of 2020, we have been facing a crisis of enormous proportions. The COVID-19 pandemic has been wreaking havoc across the globe — including India — upsetting our lives and livelihoods. Therefore, all the enrolled students in schools, colleges and universities of India have been unable to go to their institutions for almost a year due to the restrictions imposed to check the spread of the novel coronavirus since the middle of March 2020. This has hurt students immensely.
When millions of young people have been urged to stay at home like the other members of their families, and when the educational institutions have remained closed, online education appears to be the only alternative to ensure the continuity of education of these students. But the question remains as to whether we were prepared to utilise these substitute means of providing education in our country without diluting the quality of education to be imparted to our students. The short answer to this question is — we were not. The standard online education is still out of the reach of many students in our schools, colleges and universities, who have limited or no access to computers and internet connectivity at home. We still do not have any data on how many students have access to broadband internet, 4G smartphones, tablets, laptops or desktop computers and other technologies absolutely necessary for online classes. It has also been noticed that, in many cases, there is only one 4G smartphone at home for many families, which would have to be shared by the earning members of the family struggling to continue with their shrinking livelihood opportunities and to ‘work from home,’ if possible. The children at home, of various ages, are left jostling for that only device in the family. After all, the pressure on the families is intense. Jobs are being lost and incomes cut.
Therefore, most of the young people in our country have been just staying at home for months without any form of formal education, let alone quality education, necessary for understanding crises and achieving a more sustainable future, as emphasised in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) adopted by the United Nations on 25 September 2015, for a just and sustainable planet. Under such circumstances, there is a strong likelihood that there would be a high dropout rate from schools, colleges and universities in 2020-21 and a few years subsequent. Given our patriarchal family structure, where boys are still prioritised over girls in terms of imparting better and higher education, dropout rates of girl-students during and after this pandemic could be much higher than boys. If this happens in view of the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent slowdown and recession in economy, the target of vigorously increasing the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) envisaged by the New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 could be seriously jeopardised. Education is one of the areas in India, where the uneven impact of COVID-19 is more evident than most. The indefinite closure of schools, colleges and universities may reverse years of progress in access to education in our country.
Under the circumstances, let us divert our attention from these bleak probabilities to what needs to be done at the earliest. First, we must admit that face-to-face interactions between teachers and students along with vibrant and healthy debates amongst peers within the classroom and outside are integral to quality teaching, as envisioned by the SDGs. Online education may complement this method of learning but cannot substitute it. Social and emotional learning — like empathy, attention, collaboration and negotiation, critical and creative thinking, growing awareness of multiple perspectives and developing respect for others who are different — are difficult to inculcate among students without face-to-face classroom teaching. Second, having said this, we have to understand that, when, for any reason — be it a pandemic or any other unforeseeable reason, classroom learning is not possible — online education may be a viable alternative provided:
i. Adequate public financial resources are allocated for providing access to online educational facilities, in particular, for the students belonging to the economically weaker sections in order to overcome the prevalent digital divide.
ii. Necessary arrangements are made for stable broadband facilities throughout the country for quality online learning along with provision of earlier broadcast technologies like radio and television for delivering the curriculum.
iii. Educational institutions, not only in metropolises, but also in smaller towns and rural and remote areas, are equipped with state-of-the-art ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) facilities for imparting quality online education.
iv. Teachers are sufficiently trained for offering online lessons using different digital platforms.
v. Necessary arrangements are made for offering lessons in digital platforms in the vernacular languages of India.
vi. Proper methods for assessing the quality of the learners are developed and familiarised among both students and teachers.
vii. Adequate arrangements are made for imparting online education to differently-abled students.
The fulfillment of the above essential conditions would be able to create a sustainable alternative method of imparting quality education to make India one of the major future education hubs in the Global South and to turn the country’s demographic dividend into valuable human resources by imparting advanced skills to compete in the world in the 21st century. The COVID-19 pandemic is a test for India. But it also gives us an opportunity to turn this crisis into a driving force for achieving India’s aim to provide quality education to all.