THE Coronavirus pandemic has created an unprecedented situation around the world with states struggling to curb the spread of infection and treat the already infected people. The impact of this pandemic is even higher in the South-East Asian Region where spending per capita on health is very low. The same is true for India, with an additional attribute of being the top Asian Country in terms of the spread of Coronavirus infection. Just like every crisis, the marginalized communities are suffering aggravated hardships. This is not just in terms of risk of infection, but also in their inability to cope with preventive measures that have been implemented by the government.
On 24 March 2020, the Government of India declared a nationwide lockdown, which has been estimated to be the largest and most stringent lockdown in the world, as per the reports from Oxford Covid-19 Government Response Tracker. To curb the spread of Covid-19 most educational institutions were the first ones to be shut down in mid of March. It’s still difficult to predict when schools, colleges, and universities will reopen and function normally. Administrations have shifted themselves to digital platforms for classroom learning and, as per directions of UGC, the system has to row forward with virtual lectures and digital libraries. However, owing to the hasty nature of such decisions and the lack of proper digital infrastructure, both teachers and students are facing a plethora of difficulties.
The Issue of Digital Access: Major Hurdle in eLearning
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to light the deep-rooted that society’s structural imbalances exist even in the digital world. The major issue with remote learning that students have univocally raised is the problem of access to internet, electricity, and proper devices like a laptop, computer, or smartphone to access the content being made available. The government has clearly ignored the economic status of students and has taken up an over-optimistic view on the availability of proper infrastructure with students.
Electricity is one of the major essentials for running computers and laptops to access the remote learning platforms. Although the Central Government boasts of 99.9% rural electrification, the ground reality fails to bear consonance with their claims. Mission Antyodaya, a nationwide survey of villages conducted by the Ministry of Rural Development in 2017-’18, showed that 16% of India’s households received one to eight hours of electricity daily, 33% received 9-12 hours, and only 47% received more than 12 hours a day. While solar chargeable smartphones can indeed be used for watching educational videos, they cannot be used by students for writing lengthy assignments. As per a peer study, 24% of Indians own a smartphone, but only 11% of households possess any type of computer.
The Digital India program gave India the required push towards digitalization, but has not had much success. As per National Statistical Office reports, only 24% of Indian households have an internet facility. Almost 66% of India’s population lives in rural areas and only a little over 15% among them have access to internet connections. In cities, only 8% households with members between 4-24 years age have computers with functional internet. The digital divide that exists in India is seen among class, gender, region, or place of residence. The figures don’t stop here, there exist even inter-state gaps from 4.6% of people with computer and internet access in Bihar to 23.5% in Kerala and 35% in Delhi.
Learning v. Covering Syllabus: Why mere accessibility does not mean Education?
The major problem this revamping to make education go online is the fact that teachers and administrations have equated this with effective imparting of education. If we address the issue of the digital divide, will that mean that this system of education would be perfected? The answer is a simple no. This is because in online education how students learn and communicate is totally dependent on their readiness. Many justify it by quoting the open schooling system. However, they fail to take note of the very essential fact that the onus of learning shifts to the student in this form. This needs a lot of discipline, the presence of which again is a very ideal assumption.
The problem also lies on part of teachers who are not used to the e-education platform and often find it difficult to express themselves. This coupled with their technical inaptness leads to delivery of sub-par level lectures. Also, in a country where 37% of people dwell in one-roomed houses, it would be nothing less than a luxury for students to afford a peaceful environment to study. In the absence of government-funded infrastructure and of any plans to reimburse data costs, the cost implications will fall on financially weaker students. All this has come at a time when people are losing jobs and family incomes are tumbling, which leads us to fear a rise in drop-out rates as a consequence.
Education as a Human Right
Education is an essential right recognised under Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Further, it is a part of Articles 13 and 14 under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which India is not only a signatory but also a ratifier. The Committee on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights vide it General Comment No. 13 on the right to education, talked about Article 13 ICESCR and States parties’ obligations that arise out of it. Though they are soft laws in nature, Comments are considered to be authoritative interpretations of the provisions contained in the Covenants and Treaties. Four essential components were defined for the right to receive an education: (i) availability; (ii) accessibility; (iii) acceptability; and (iv) adaptability.
In COVID-19, accessibility and adaptability are in question, in the Indian scenario. Accessibility, it can be stated to be non-discriminatory, physically accessible, and economically accessible. Hence, education should be available to all without discrimination, affordability, and if necessary accessible via ‘modern technology’. Besides, adaptability entails the flexibility to adapt to changing societal needs of students, such as doing away with lengthy assignments. As with all economic, social, and cultural (ESC) rights; the right to education is subject to progressive realization and the availability of State. However, looking at its dismal state in India, it seems that the government is sidelining these principles. While it has issued guidelines, it has vehemently ignored the prospect of taking proper steps to enable students to access data that it boasts of having curated for online teaching.
Lessons Learnt: Addressing the Issues
While closure of educational institutions was a necessary measure to halt the spread of COVID-19, it must be understood that since education is a human right the nation should employ all necessary measures to ensure its continuity in times of crisis. With the existing digital divide, expanding online education will push the digital have-nots to the periphery of the education system. This would again shower all the benefits on the haves only, which is contrary to our spirit of democracy. Technology has the potential to achieve universal quality education and improve learning outcomes. However, this can only be done when there exists a proper digital infrastructure. Thus, the first step should be towards creating a better structured digital infrastructure free from any digital divide, and one that is no longer seen as a luxury.
Now academic learning has finally been decontextualized and the focus on facts has been reduced. This can mark a new beginning of moving towards an education system that has curricula grounded in students’ realities. It can not only make them literate but rather educated by helping them culminate within themselves creativity, empathy, and resilience. The most important lesson, however, has been that of the role of community. If it takes a household to raise a child, we must empower the household to teach the child. The education system can be improved by adopting a more decentralized and democratic community-based approach. Thus, this crisis can act as a Launchpad for liberating learning from shackles of outdated curricula and the unreasonable emphasis on information transfer.
[Ujjwal Singh is a student of Chanakya National Law University, Patna & Raj Shekhar is a student of National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi]
Image courtesy: The Indian Express