- The big shift to digital education, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, is rapidly opening up India as a big and highly profitable market for the digital capitalist monopolies.
- It is greatly increasing the existing inequalities in the education system and depriving more and more youth of the opportunity of getting education.
- It is leading to many health hazards for the youth and children.
- It is increasing the financial burden on poor working class families, already struggling under job losses and wage cuts.
The Covid-19 induced lockdown has ruined the dreams and aspirations of securing education, nurtured by millions upon millions of children and youth of our country.
With the sudden announcement of the lockdown in March 2020, at one stroke, nearly 50% of school-going children of our country were thrown out of the education system. Over 1.5 million schools across India closed down due to the pandemic. This has affected nearly 286 million children from pre-primary to secondary levels. Although the central government and state governments have been claiming that there has been little or no disruption to education because of online education, the harsh experience of the past year and half has shown that online education, apart from being almost entirely out of reach for children in many parts of the country, is also unaffordable and ineffective for a very large majority of children and youth. Its impact on the physical and mental health of children is another major factor of concern.
Classes were suspended to enforce social distancing. Educational institutions, from schools to universities, have shifted to online methods of teaching and evaluation. As a result, over the past one and half years we are seeing an almost complete shift to online or digital education.
The government has used the disruption to education caused by the Covid-19 lockdowns to justify the big push to digital education in India. This is entirely in keeping with the National Education Policy, released by the Union government in July 2020, which has emphasised online education as the “key to solving the problems of education in India”.
The push for digital education has opened up India as one of the biggest and highly lucrative markets for IT monopoly corporate giants in digital education. Surveys done before the Covid-19 outbreak estimated that the online education market in India was set to grow to $1.96 billion (Rs 14,836 crore), with 9.6 million users by 2021, up from $247 million (Rs 1,870 crore) and 1.6 million users in 2016. The coronavirus-induced lockdown has further opened up the market in India for the big IT monopoly capitalist companies. India has now emerged as the second biggest market for online courses in the world after the US.
The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown are being used by the rulers to completely give up their responsibility of providing good quality schools, equipped with modern infrastructure and technology and adequate number of teachers, in every village and city, no matter how remote. It is being used to cover up and justify the failure of our rulers to put in place a common school system that ensures a uniform standard of education for all. It is greatly increasing the existing inequalities in the education system and depriving more and more youth of the opportunity of getting education. On the other hand, it is creating conditions for the IT monopoly corporates in digital education to make huge profits.
A very large section of our children and youth were already deprived of any kind of quality education, even before the pandemic. Official figures indicate that less than half of India’s children between the age 6 and 14 go to school. A little over one-third of all children who enroll in class 1 reach class 8. At least 35 million children aged 6 – 14 years do not attend school at all.
The Indian state has not ensured uniform education of good quality for all the children and youth, even 75 years after independence. The Indian Constitution, adopted in 1950, had promised free education for all within 10 years! The Kothari Commission recommended in 1966 that a common school system should be established within 20 years. But this has remained merely a policy objective, a distant dream for the majority. The actual level of central and state government spending on education is at present only 3.1% of the GDP, about half of the recommended level and much lower than many other countries.
As a result, the majority of government schools have acute shortage of teachers and of facilities such as toilets, libraries, laboratories, etc. As the standard of education in government schools keeps declining, more and more parents feel the pressure to seek admission for their children in private schools, paying a large share of their income as school fees. The majority of children of the workers and peasants are condemned to a low standard of education in the government schools.
India does not have a common school system, which ensures good uniform quality of education for all children in all parts of the country. This is because the rulers of our country, the owners of capital, the owners of factories and shops, construction companies and other employers want crores of people to remain illiterate or poorly educated, so that they may continue to profit from the availability of unskilled and semi-skilled labour at extremely low wages. The perpetuation of the caste system and the notion that some people are “born” to remain illiterate and perform only certain “unclean” jobs, has served to justify the discrimination in education that children and youth face on account of their caste. This is the real reason why education remains the privilege of a few, even though it has been legally recognised as a universal right.
The sudden and almost wholesale switch over to digital education on a large scale has posed numerous hurdles. It is increasing the proportion of children and youth who are excluded from education.
Access to the internet is extremely poor or non-existent in many regions of the country. As a result, students often have to go outside and sit on the roadside or they have to walk many miles, climb hills and trees to attend online classes on phone. Teachers of government schools in several parts of the country have reported that when online classes began, less than 5% of the students had reliable and consistent internet access. Lessons and homework have had to be sent to a handful of students who have smartphones and internet connections, and they have had to share these with the other students. The much touted on-line education platforms (Swayam Prabha) of the central and state governments are also inaccessible to students in many parts of the country as they are propagated through Youtube, digital and satellite TV.
Higher education has also been adversely affected. For college students who have had to stay away from their campuses, in their rural and small-town homes with poor internet connectivity, continuing their education has been a real challenge, without books, libraries and teachers. Testing and examination patterns have been changed from the traditional mode to online mode, which students have found very difficult to cope with.
According to a 2017-18 all-India NSO survey, only 25 per cent of students in India have access to the internet at home. In rural India, the number is far lower, with only 4 per cent households having access to the internet. A 2018 NITI Aayog report revealed that 55,000 villages in India did not have mobile network coverage. A 2017-18 survey by the ministry of rural development found that more than 36 per cent of schools in India have no supply of electricity.
Of those who have access to the internet, a large number of students have to depend on inconvenient methods such as using mobile phones instead of computers. While mobile phones may suffice for listening to online lectures, they are certainly not the ideal or even convenient medium for writing exams or assignments.
A sudden shift to online education has meant a huge strain on the expenses of the vast majority of working class families. Estimates show that for a household with a monthly per capita expenditure of Rs. 1000 per child, the additional expenses of online education would be Rs. 250 per child. Thus, the shift to digital education over the past one and half years is making education go increasingly out of reach for a large number of children and youth of working class families.
The number of students who can avail of online education is actually much lower, because having a computer or internet facility or a smartphone at home is not a guarantee of uninterrupted access to it. The prolonged periods of lockdown and on-line classes revealed the trauma of children in households where two or three siblings had to share access to only one smartphone, belonging to one of the parents, which was the most the family could afford. All of these households would be recorded officially as having “a device” and “internet access”, but this would have been of little help to the children.
The prolonged confinement of children to their homes, spending long hours online and viewing the electronic screen, is also leading to serious problems of physical health, strain on the eyes, visibility defects and stress triggered due to the prolonged use of electronic devices. Many reports indicate increasing incidences of problems such as backache, headache, fatigue and insomnia, irritability, obesity strain and insomnia. The lack of mentoring by teachers and peer group interaction is adding to the mental trauma.
Education is our right. It cannot be allowed to remain the privilege of a few. Digital education cannot be accepted as a substitute for adequate government spending to ensure classroom education of uniformly good quality, accessible to all. Education cannot be reduced to a saleable object, which can be sold at the most profitable price and which may be purchased only by those who can afford it. We must unite around the demand for a common education system for all, which guarantees as a justiciable right, good quality education to all children and youth in all parts of the country.