Access to schooling: Will 2021 further deepen the divide?

COVID-19 has made education technology-centric and the trend seems to be here to stay. But this will only widen the divide between different groups in terms of access to education.

Around noon of December 9th, 13-year-old Sangram Singh was playing cricket with other boys at the Central Park in Kaushambi, in the National Capital Region location of Ghaziabad. A student of class 7 of the Delhi government’s Ghazipur Boys’ Senior Secondary School, not far from the infamous garbage-dump, Sangram does not have to stay home attending a Zoom class.

His teacher sends the lessons and home work on Facebook or WhatsApp, and he attends to them at night because he shares a cheap smart phone with his elder brother, who studies in class 9 of the same school and uses the phone during the day.

Sangram clicks photos of his homework and sends them to his teacher Sumit Sir, who teaches Hindi and sends all the lessons—Hindi, English, Maths, Science, History and other subjects.

“Sir told me he will let us know when the exams will be held, when he gets to know,” says Sangram. “Sumit Sir has also told us that most probably they will call one student a day to take the exam.” There are 50 boys in Sangram’s class who are yet to be told whether classes will continue on the phone or in the class room.

Sangram Singh’s father is a plumber, and mother a home maker. He is the second of four boys, and the younger two go to a small school near their home in Bhawapur locality.

Sangram will soon visit his school and collect his books for Class 8, but beyond that, neither Sangram nor apparently his teacher know what 2021 holds for them –- in terms of classes to complete, the syllabus, mode of studies and the date sheet for exams.

But the boy misses school and playing with other boys, cricket at the park notwithstanding.

Those left out

The rich private schools and their students will inevitably be better able to cope with new, expanding technology-driven schooling, which will only further highlight the inequalities within the student community. Especially for students of government-run and other schools catering to low-income families, many of whom went to school because of the free meals, free books, free uniforms etc that such schools provided. But these schools have no resources to provide free, or subsidised tablets, laptops or smartphones to their students.

This is borne out by the first hand experience of Deepalaya, an NGO whose “focus and sole reason for existence is the child, especially the girl child, street child and disabled child”. Deepalaya runs two schools for extremely poor children who are first generation learners.

One is located in the Kalkaji extension area of Delhi and caters to slum children. The other is located 30 kms away from Gurugram, in village Gusbethi in Haryana’s Nuh district. If Nuh is educationally among the most backward districts in the country, Gusbethi is the most backward part of Nuh. 

Deepalaya’s secretary and chief executive, A J Philip, shares his experience and views on teaching in COVID-19 times. “We started digital classes because we had no other go,” says Philip. “But these students are poor. Their families usually have just one phone. In that area, from every house there are two or three children coming to our school. So how do three students of different classes study using the same mobile phone?”

The NGO found that digital teaching was not possible in that area. So they started sending teachers to the villages and hold mohalla classes – an English teacher, for instance, would go to a village nearby, where 5-10 students came and sat under a tree, keeping safe distance and the teacher held a class. But this has had limited success.

“In a scenario where the parents are very poor and are not educated, digital education is almost impossible. This would be true of all schools in remote, rural areas,” says Philip

Another issue is poor net connectivity. “In our school in Delhi, we tried providing free second-hand phones to very poor children, and almost 90% of these students attend the online classes,” says Philip. “But here too we have the problem of three children from one family having to share a single phone. We then designed classes in such a way that teachers are available from 7 am to 6 pm. But this has increased the workload of our teachers.”

That still leaves other problems. “When we talk of internet-based education, we think only about rich urban children,” says Philip. “We also have Learning Centres, like tuition centres, in slums which sees about 3000 children attend. There it is not possible to conduct online classes. How do we teach a student of class 1 using a phone? There is a huge digital divide in our country and if this continues, children living in poorer areas and villages will suffer. Only elite students will manage”.

Philip believes schools should reopen in 2021, as soon as possible. “This virus is going to stay with us for quite some time, that does not mean that our children should not study in proper schools that pack in much more than online classes,” argues Philip. “At least for the senior classes, schools should start from January”.

A new “aspirer” demographic

While students ponder what 2021 holds for them, EdTech companies are having a field run, firm in the belief that smartphones and laptops is where the future of school education lies. A June 2020 report, jointly by consulting firm RedSeer and Omidyar Network India, states: “By 2022, online education offerings across grades 1 to 12 are projected to increase 6.3 times compared to 2019, while offline coaching is expected to grow by about 8% by 2022.”

Interestingly, the study refers to a demographic it calls “the Next Half Billion (NHB)” which would be “characterized by a mobile-first approach to the internet and will consist primarily of the aspirer segment”. The study believes that the “NHB is expected to be a 100-million strong EdTech user base by 2022”.

In a chapter it titled “India’s Education Landscape”, the Redseer-Omidyar study says that India has an enrolled student population of 271 million across grades 1 to 12, half of whom are the aspirer or NHB group. Of the enrolled students, approximately 90 million use supplementary education in the form of offline private coaching, on which the total spend is 16 billion dollars.

The “NHB” category account for 55% of those going for offline private coaching, and their spend on it is 5.8 billion dollars, second only to the middle-income group spending.

Of the 109 million students (40% of the total) in grades 1 to 5, seven percent are rich, 34% come from middle income families, 55% belong to the “aspirers” category while 13% are “deprived. The 78 million in classes 9 to 12 (29% of the total) comprise seven per cent rich, 23% middle income, 39 percent “aspirers” and 9 per cent deprived.

In terms of where they live, the study finds that 6 million of the students in grades 1 to 5 live in metros, 8 million in Tier 1 cities and a whopping 95 million in Tier 2 cities. At the school leaving level, 5 million in grades 9 to 12 live in metros, 6 million in Tier 1 and 67 million in Tier 2 towns.

 According to the study, about 97% of users now access the internet through their phones, and are expected to latch on to the digital revolution characterized by affordable data, low-cost handsets, gradual emergence of vernacular-language apps and low-cost electronic payments infrastructure.

But the report has little to say about how poor “aspirer” students will get adequate and reliable access to this mobile-first approach.

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  1. Ramesh Ganesan says:

    The E classes should only supplement classroom teaching and is NOT the alternative. The improvement of Wi – Fi connectivity , strength uninterrupted service are essential. So is electricity , The cost of lap tops should drop to affordable levels and the initiative to make it free to the Not-do-affordable should be encouraged . It’s a new order will take few years to fully integrate. Nevertheless classroom teaching has no parallels

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