Digital Learning Widening Education Gap
“The difference between rich and poor is becoming more extreme, and as income inequality widens the wealth gap in major nations, education, health and social mobility are all threatened” -- Helene D Gayle
As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced India’s education system – including schools – to leapfrog to adopt technology to continue academic activities, it is indeed time to evaluate the pros and cons of such a move. Is such an across-the-board shift to virtual education really the need of the hour? It is indeed hard to keep children creatively engaged as that requires constant attention which may not be always possible at home. On the other hand, if we succeed in altering our routines and actions to accommodate them it would greatly reduce their reliance on gadgets and increase their bonding with parents and other family members. However, this may not work for parents and kids of low-income families.
The mode of learning – remote or otherwise – cannot change the fact that substantial disparities exist between families in the extent to which they can teach their children. Studies suggest that long holidays contribute to loss of academic achievement among children of low-income families. Thus, there would be differences in the amount of teaching time, in the resources available to parents as many may not be able to access the most suitable online materials and finally the amount of knowledge as it is difficult to explain to the child something which one herself doesn’t understand. Hence, the children of less affluent, especially ‘digitally poor’ families would be left behind. As classes transition online, these children would lose out due to the cost of devices and data plans. For many parents, multiple devices for themselves and their children are only a dream.
Furthermore, as online classes become a norm, there would be a higher reliance on solutions provided by ed-tech companies which would ultimately turn the initially free online classes into paid ones. There would be a large number of children whose parents would fail to afford those classes. Therefore, excessive dependence on technology at the school level and curtailment of classroom sessions, especially in urban areas, would make school education exclusive and would deter the children from low-income families from accessing even primary education. The low internet penetration and the gender gap among the users would further complicate the school scenario.
There are several other factors which would widen the learning gap between children from lower-income and higher-income families. Very often, children from low-income households live in conditions that make home-schooling difficult. Online learning environments usually require computers and a reliable internet connection. In India, a substantial number of children live in homes in which they have no internet access and have no suitable place to do homework, do not have access to books at the appropriate reading level. Many of them face severe housing instability or are homeless. Children of migrant labourers who work in faraway cities and towns are mostly left with their mothers or grandparents, who are often not literate enough and cannot help with homework even when it involves no online solution. Therefore, children from lower-income households are likely to struggle to complete homework and online courses because of their precarious housing situations or familial settings.
The pandemic in all likelihood would result in an unprecedented economic recession. Increasing unemployment and food insecurity, can potentially make children victims of malnutrition, domestic violence, child abuse and even child marriages. If reports about the number of distress calls at the helpline numbers are to be believed, then instances of such cases are already rising. Hence, it is possible that even if basic gadgets and internet connection are provided, the home environment may not be suitable for virtual education. Moreover, post-pandemic many of them would be forced to join the labour force which would lead to a higher number of school dropouts. Therefore, a long uncertain closure would impact the mental and physical well-being of these children.
Hence, the strategies must come with a caveat that at no point should market forces in the guise of ed-tech solution providers be allowed to take over the education system. The policies have to be framed in a manner which would put premium on creativity, academic freedom, inclusiveness and not profit or political influence.
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