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ONLINE EDUCATION FOR THE POOR: STILL A DISTANT REALITY

Introduction

The coronavirus pandemic has been the harbinger of numerous palpable socio-economic and healthcare challenges. However, it has also handicapped another vital sector: education. All schools and educational institutions were shut down as a preventive measure to contain the spread of COVID-19, and uncertainty still prevails regarding when these will reopen. Although with the advent of virtual education, most children of privileged classes have majorly been able to cope up with the challenge thrown at them, the children of low-income families have been most adversely affected. Children of poverty-stricken families had pinned their hopes on the village schools and government educational institutions in their neighbourhood for their education. However, the shift of the entire education system online has shattered these hopes for those who cannot afford electronic devices and do not have access to the internet. The article analyses the challenges faced by such children and the violation of their rights. It also elucidates the measures that must be taken to check this threatening crisis.

Derailing Of The Education Sector Due To COVID-19: Challenges

UNESCO has reported that around 60.5% of the global student population has been affected by school closures during the pandemic. The students affected primarily include the children of illiterate parents or migrant labourers or children who do not have access to electricity or the internet. Some parents are too poor to afford a smartphone for their children, and those stuck in the recent floods have survival as their top priority.

Ideally, the online teaching process requires access to a fast internet connection and a smartphone or laptop, apart from a stable electricity connection. However, many students in remote villages do not have access to all three. Although almost all Indian villages are now claimed to be electrified, only around half of the households receive electricity for more than 12 hours every day. Therefore, the government’s real focus should be on improving the quality and duration of power available to the households. The unequal penetration of digital technologies is another reason for the failure of education to become inclusive. The status of mobile and fixed-line broadband connections in India is also not very assuring. To improve internet connectivity, the government must make a serious attempt to achieve the target of the BharatNet project, which aims to provide high-speed broadband connectivity across all the gram panchayats in India.

Shifting to virtual education has more considerable cost implications in the form of smartphones or laptops and the cost of internet data packs, which many parents cannot afford for their children. This helplessness has only exacerbated in light of the omnipresent financial crunch due to the pandemic. Some children borrow smartphones from their neighbours or distant relatives, but it is inconvenient and only a temporary solution. Another challenge faced by most children is the lack of availability of learning materials in vernacular languages. Majority of the e-learning content available online is in English, understood by only one-tenth of the Indian population.

The recent rainfall and floods in various states across India have added to the woes of the underprivileged that now have to struggle to survive, with their primary focus on food, safe shelter, and clothing. Education is, unsurprisingly, not on their list of things demanding concern. The monsoon floods have wreaked havoc on roads and other existing infrastructure in villages and towns, resulting in lack of access to shops and interrupted electricity connection. Plans of better embankment, drainage networks, inter-linking of rivers, “integrated basin management”, etc. which are still incomplete or stuck in the pipeline must be deployed as soon as possible, to avoid any such eventuality during monsoon in the future.

On the other side of the story, some government schools also suffer from infrastructural defects. Most municipal schools lack a proper database containing the names and contact details of the students and their parents, which has led to the school authorities not contacting them regarding the online assignments and curriculum. Moreover, most teachers have no experience in teaching online and are not accustomed to the use of technology-driven applications. Support from the government in terms of financial incentive and digital training must be given to the teachers for the virtual education regime to materialise fruitfully.

Why These Challenges Are Detrimental To Children: An Analysis

The shift of the teaching-learning process to online platforms will widen the gap between the rich and the poor permanently if sincere measures are not taken to make education inclusive. As a result of the closure of schools and loss of parents’ income, dropout rates have increased as children do not have access to the virtual world of education and have to assist their families in survival. Closure of schools may also lead to social isolation and increased exposure of children to violation and exploitation such as child labour, sexual exploitation, early marriages, etc.

Disruption due to the pandemic will not only dent the realised success of government schemes such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and mid-day meal scheme but will also burden the parents, many of who are unemployed or underpaid currently, with the responsibility of ensuring nutrition for the children, which was earlier taken care of by mid-day meals.

Cases of students committing suicide have also come to light in states like Kerala and West Bengal, owing to lack of access to resources and difficulty coping with the online classes. This indicates that the state authorities’ assurances to make necessary arrangements have failed to mitigate the psychological effect of the digital divide on the minds of underprivileged school children.

Moreover, the pan-India movement to boycott Chinese goods may affect the availability of affordable smartphones. A long-term and effective solution to ease this problem would be encouraging the production of affordable smartphones and laptops in India and ensuring their distribution to the needy, under the aegis of “Atmanirbhar Bharat”.

Right To Education: A Human Right

The right to education is guaranteed as a fundamental right to all people under Article 26 of the UDHR and articles 13 and 14 of the ICESCR, which impose a duty on all states to ensure that quality education is available to all citizens without discrimination, is conveniently accessible and is economically affordable at all levels. The aim of inclusive and quality education for all is also recognised under the SDG 4 of the 2030 Agenda. To help the countries affected by the educational disruption cope up, UNESCO has partnered with various international organisations, NGOs and multinational companies to launch the Global Education Coalition. It aims at providing essential resources and support to the governments to ensure that remote learning is accessible by all, within the existing infrastructure and students are not forced to drop out once schools reopen.

The right to education is a fundamental right as guaranteed by Article 21A of the Indian Constitution. The Supreme Court had held the right to education to be one of the extended dimensions of the right to life and human dignity[1]and a necessary condition for the fulfilment of the right to life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution[2]. The digital divide in India questions the principle of imparting education without discrimination on caste, class, gender or religion as guaranteed under Article 29(1) of the Constitution and the Right to Education Act, 2009. The government must, therefore, take sincere efforts to fulfil its mandate.

The Progress So Far In India

Under its ‘First Bell’ initiative’, the Kerala government has instructed the school authorities to setup ‘neighbourhood study centres’ to facilitate access to virtual classrooms to students who lack access to digital devices, which has witnessed success with the combined efforts of the local government bodies. In Maharashtra, men are being engaged in the learning process of their child and being assisted by Anganwadi workers in person. In Chattisgarh, engagement of the men has been found to have resulted in less aggression in the family. In Bengaluru, NGOs have started drives where people can donate their old or spare phones, which can then be distributed to households in slums to conduct virtual classrooms.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) has created the National Digital Library of India, an online library that contains academic content on different subjects for different levels. The MHRD has also compiled several technology-enabled learning initiatives on its website so that the closure of schools does not result in the halting of education. These open-to-all, free initiatives must be widely publicised to create awareness and extend the benefit to most of the population.

Where the Central Government has launched the PM e-VIDYA platform with 12 DTH channels catering to each class standard, Doordarshan has been broadcasting educational content through its channels Gyan Darshan and Vyas. Telecom operators have also offered additional data to their internet pack subscribers. All these efforts have proved to be advantageous to many children, but gaps remain.

Way Forward

The measures taken in India are temporary solutions that may work well if the educational disruption is short. In case the disruption stretches for too long, then smarter and more innovative ways will be required to facilitate remote learning and student engagement. However, for the current times, schools could divert the funds reserved for sports and other extra-curricular events towards the procurement of e-learning resources.

For students with basic internet access, teachers could record lectures and upload them on YouTube, to be downloaded and viewed by the students offline. For others without internet access, audio lectures via telephone conference calls and loudspeakers could be the medium for imparting education. India could also take inspiration from the Radio Pathshala initiative launched in Nepal, for areas which lack power connection and internet connectivity. Installing diesel-generating sets to produce local electricity and encouraging initiatives such as “Each One, Teach One” would work wonders in connecting more children.

Even when schools and colleges are reopened, the health of students and teachers will be a major concern. School infrastructure may have to be adapted, and the level of hygiene and sanitation will have to be improved.

Conclusion

The coronavirus pandemic has unveiled the glaring deep-rooted divide between the rich and the poor. The onset of the pandemic has changed the status of virtual education from luxury to that of a necessity. The collective efforts of the government, citizens, EdTech companies and educational institutions are required to ensure that education becomes truly inclusive so that the existing disparity does not widen into permanent inequalities between the classes.

[1] Miss Mohini Jain v. State of Karnataka & Ors., AIR 1992 SC 1858. [2]Unni Krishnan, J.P. & Ors. v. State of Andhra Pradesh & Ors., AIR 1993 SC 2178.


Title Image Source: The Logical Indian


This article has been written by Akshat Krishna and Stuti Kaushik. They both are final year law students at Gujarat National Law University. Akshat takes keen interest in policy issues aimed at societal well-being and cultural enrichment leading mankind to develop as a truly evolved civilisation. Stuti takes interest in sociological issues that challenge women and wishes to contribute towards elevating their position in society.

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