Gurugram, India – In the weeks since March 25, when the coronavirus lockdown in India came into effect, strains of “Bharat Padhe Online” (India studies online) have been intensifying, with a push for a shift to virtual learning to address the disruption in schooling due to the epidemic.
However, Safeena Bano*, a domestic worker who lives in a rented room in Gurugram, said she is not aware of such a campaign. Her daughters, Firoza*, 13, and Noor*, 11, live with her in-laws in Balihara, a village in West Bengal state’s Dakshin Dinajpur district.
Safeena could not make it home before the lockdown. She rings her mother-in-law’s basic phone to chat with her daughters every evening. The girls have been bored.
“A day before the school shut down and exams got cancelled, their teachers handed over some question papers and told them to work on it at home. There has been no other communication from school,” said Safeena over the phone.
Other than promoting online content on applications such as Diksha and e-Pathshala, India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development has said it is working on dissemination of lessons through radio and television. State education departments are creating their own models based on local needs.
In Delhi state, for example, there is a staggered approach. Interventions until grade 8 are not internet-based.
Since 68 percent of students in higher grades have smartphones, some online classes have begun, said Binay Bhushan of the directorate of education in the Delhi government.
But many Indian educationists are worried over a digital movement in education threatens to cut off a sizeable number of children.
Only about a third of the students will have access to any online content. It could be difficult for parents, especially in rural and marginalised communities, to understand that content, said Maharshi Vaishnav, chief of staff at Educate Girls NGO.
Although about 78 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population has mobile phones, teledensity in rural areas is around 57 percent, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.
“These numbers are not conducive to virtual classrooms for the majority,” said Nishant Baghel, director of technology innovations at Pratham, a learning organisation that has developed digital, radio and SMS-based programmes to be delivered via village administration in 10 Indian states.
Even in homes with a smartphone, usually owned by the father, it may not be available to the children for learning, he adds.
At Kumars’* home in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad city on the outskirts of New Delhi, three teenagers vied for a single smartphone.
The siblings have worked out a schedule. Nidhi, 15, begins the day with an hour of coaching over a WhatsApp video call.
Her younger brother gets the phone next, and then her older brother gets busy with applications to colleges.
“It’s difficult to manage on one phone, but we have to make it work,” said Nidhi.
In a patchy digital landscape, hundreds of thousands of newly created school-run WhatsApp networks to dole out school work are sweeping teachers, parents and children into a tangle.
In the village of Satlewa in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand district, it has posed a worry.
Since only half the parents have a smartphone, the rest wonder about being left out of the network, reported Arjun Singh, a community worker.
As one goes deeper into the interior of the country, the divide widens considerably.
In villages like Kanjapani in Barwani district of Madhya Pradesh, with no internet connectivity, owning a smartphone does not guarantee a ticket to education.
Team Balika group’s volunteer Shivani Choyal tagged along with healthcare officials visiting homes to encourage them to revise lessons and play educational games.
“Many of the girls are busy in the fields or with home chores,” she said.
Even in major urban centres, it is a gap difficult to bridge.
At The Door Step School in Mumbai, director Bina Sheth Lashkari said teachers have been able to connect with 25-30 percent of parents, most of them daily wage earners.
There are fears that once the lockdown is over, many students will drop out, as migrant communities rush back to their villages.
Previously, access to a functioning school was a class marker for millions of children. Since the lockdown, access to the internet may be one, too.
“Casual use of data without a serious understanding of relevant landscape leads to serious exclusion,” noted Baghel, adding that barely 13 percent homes in India have desktops and laptops.
Moreover, without interactive platforms, will there be real “learning”?
Eleven-year-old Haridwar city’s resident Ridhima Pandey does not believe so. Her eyes have turned red and itchy as she strained to read a chapter from a textbook on her mother’s phone.
Before bed, her mother sprinkled a few drops of rose water to soothe her eyes.
“Some of my friends have online classes, while I have to read PDF files of chapters on my own. I feel like I’m working, not learning,” she said.
Many of her neighbours without smartphones have had to rely on others’ phones to finish school assignments, she said.
The digital disparity is becoming starker as more schools begin to adopt virtual tools.
Across the three schools she runs in Tirunelveli in the southern Tamil Nadu state, Pushpalata Pooranan, director of Pushpalata Vidya Mandir Schools, has closely observed the extremities of this divide.
In the international school, everyone has access to technology. In the CBSE (central curriculum) school, it drops to 60-65 percent. In the state board school, none of the students can access online content, she said.
Ameeta Mulla Wattal, principal of New Delhi’s Springdales School, calls the divide “a digital abyss”. The school has distributed phones to the children from economically weaker sections.
“But how much can I teach on a phone?” she asked.
According to the officials, students in the colleges are better off.
Professor Anil Sahasrabudhe, chairman of All India Council for Technical Education said the number of users accessing online courses has swelled to 7.5 – eight million.
For the 20 percent students who may not have access, the AICTE has arranged for 500 colleges to provide access to the internet to any student living nearby, even if she or he is not a student of that institution, he adds.
With uncertainty over when students can go back to the classroom, educationists are thinking about remedial measures.
Bhushan said there is a proposal before the HRD Ministry to reduce the syllabus by 30 percent across all grades this year. The reduced syllabus of grade 12 should be the basis of entrance exams for next year, he adds.
Wattal’s prescription rings with urgency. “All stakeholders have to go into disaster mode and think of something as fast as a vaccine,” she said.
*Names changed to protect privacy