COVID-19 chaos: Forget computers, tablets and high-speed internet, many don’t even have access to a quiet study space

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( August 17, 2020 )

There still seems no end in sight to the COVID crisis. There is the Russian vaccine, Sputnik V, but across the world, scientists have raised a red flag at the rush to hit the market at the expense of trials that test the safety and efficacy of the drug. As nations limp back out of lockdowns, there are new waves of patients, putting additional strain on an already exhausted system. No one seems to know when this will end. When we can all get back to ‘normal’ life.

In all this, the economies of many nations have taken a battering, with high unemployment, low demand, and no easy way out of the crisis. The people most hit are those who were just clawing their way out of poverty. Across the world, low-income workers have borne the brunt of the lockdowns, and a lack of a comprehensive social security net has created acute distress amongst a variety of service professionals, who otherwise kept households, offices, infrastructure, and factories running. And, nowhere is the impact on these households more stark than on the hope that they had for the future – the education of their children, to help them start at a higher level on the socio-economic ladder.

With Covid and the lockdown, educational institutes shut their doors. Students have been passed, classes have moved online, teachers have adapted, and all seems normal, with many asking why this wasn’t possible earlier. But not everyone has access to computers, tablets, and high-speed internet. Most students in India do not have access to these. Many don’t even have access to a space where they can study in relative quiet. And, for these students, school was a place where they got some education, and some food. Right now, neither seems accessible. There are around 250 million students in the school system, and 37.4 million students in the higher education system. And, many of them have been impacted with teaching moving online.

There are stories from across the country about young men and women dying by suicide because of their inability to access online education. Some have no access to the basic equipment needed to attend a class – a basic smartphone; others found it difficult to cope with the transition to online education. In all cases however, the most impacted were from the marginal socio-economic classes.

A survey by the NGO Smile Foundation reveals that over 56% of students in rural India and urban slums do not have access to even a smartphone, let alone a laptop. Over 69% of the respondents said they had no access to a TV set. By all accounts, it seems that this year is a lost one for many. For students who are also first-generation learners, the pressure to drop out and find a job to feed their family will be huge.

A core issue is going to be how to get these students back on the education grid and ensure that the move to online does not end up moving them out of education. A policy initiative to get a tablet into the hands of every student, and steady internet connection is going to be vital. The Prime Minister has promised optic fibre network to every village in the next 1,000 days but this time-frame has to be halved if we want to ensure that large numbers of students aren’t left behind. But we need more than just optic cable, we need a robust approach to online learning, that is easily accessible, usable, and scalable.

For online education to be optimal, you need a screen that is bigger than that of a smartphone, a steady internet connection, and a learning management system that allows the teacher to control the flow of the classroom. Ideally, the system should allow interactivity and the teacher in control, to ensure that the class does not end in chaos. Right now, we are cobbling together lectures using free software – Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft teams – but to be effective, e-learning must be a lot more than an online class. It has to be an integrated ecosystem, where lectures are one part of the overall offerings to the student. If we are to move to more classes online, more thought must go into this.

Finally, this is not just an India-specific problem. The UNESCO estimates that 826 million students worldwide do not have access to a computer, and 706 million have no internet at home. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, 89% of students have no access either to computers or to the internet. Both poverty reduction and the rise in education are part of the Sustainable Development Goals. India would do well to help build a global consensus on rebuilding educational systems for the poorest, ground up. The question is whether the Government can rise up to the challenge.