(The writer can be reached at [email protected])
COVID-19 pandemic has put education on the spot. A UNESCO report says that 73.5% of students globally are out of school. With educational institutions in 182 countries shut an estimated 1.29 billion learners are impacted. India accounts for 321 million.The damage on this key sector will continue to be felt.
The north-eastern states are almost a green zone. But the situation could turn quickly for the worst at any time. Tripura is an example. The total count has risen to 156 in a matter of days. Till very recently Guwahati was free of COVID-19 but now many locations are containment zones. In such a scenario governments will be extremely cautious to reopen educational institutions. Safety norms will be hard to be implemented in a school setting.
So, the already felt impact will be lengthened. Discussions on the impact on education are on and alternative means of teaching and reaching out to students are being suggested. The most common suggestion is online classes. Many schools have already initiated this new technology even before COVID-19. Some institutions have begun instruction through Whatsapp.
In a limited extend education has shifted from physical classrooms to online classrooms and e-learning. E-learning does enable students to access required study materials through the internet. Here teacher-student interaction and instant feedback is possible. Online assignments and evaluations and personalized learning is done.
However, this mode of learning is very limited. My personal example might be convincing. My present work place is Umswai, the home of the Tiwa or Lalung tribe in West Karbi Anglong. Here poor mobile connectivity is a perpetual handicap. Lately a teacher attempted to create a class X Whatsapp group to engage with them in some ways. To our utter shock out of 39 mobile numbers available only 10 of them have Whatsapp.
In the last 15/20 days there was hardly any mobile service in the area. Network is available for 30 minutes and hibernates again for the rest of the day. Even if network signal is displayed on your set data service is cut off. In such a scenario how is online class possible? Any modern means involving new information and technology is out of the question.
The other huge challenge is that students are in their villages with no mobile connection and electricity. Five days back a one-hour bike ride took us to a village where students were found working in jhum fields. How do you connect with these hard-working children, technologically? They might have befriended the social media while in the vicinity of their schools, but their villages are a different world all together. A few might drop out of school post COVID-19. Some might return late further aggravating their academic loss. The best option to evaluate them is on their farming, handicraft, cooking skills and livelihood skills.
Here electricity is a luxury. Electricity is given three to four hours a day. In rainy season for weeks and even months electricity is dead. With a history dated back to 1951 under the defunct United Mikir Hills and North Cachar Hills and then under the downsized Karbi Anglong in 1976, the district is one of the oldest and biggest but remains one of the most backward districts in Assam. The extremely poor infrastructure in education, healthcare, road connectivity, communication, etc are too evident in this naturally charming region. The situation is worst in the 2015 bifurcated West Karbi Anglong district. A prominent educationist and social worker noted, "Kabi Anglong follows a similar pattern of all border districts. They are nobody's babies. They are neglected, ignored and voiceless."
An estimated 80% of students in Karbi Anlong are presently left with no learning whatsoever. Save a small percentage of urban dwellers, the picture is pretty the same throughout the State and the whole Northeast. To understand the impact of COVID-19 on the student community in the Northeast this writer conducted a tiny survey. The indicative results say that students who receive some sort of online classes comprise only about 10 % in Arunachal Pradesh, 10-20 % in Manipur, 40 % in Nagaland, 20 % in Meghalaya and 15-20 % in Tripura.
A study by an institute in 2019 reveals that 'India is one of the largest and fastest-growing markets for digital consumers, with 560 million internet subscribers in 2018, second only to China'. As in January 2020, the country's digital population amounts to 688 million but the internet spread is only 50% only in 2019. Internet connectivity is much lower in the Northeast than the 'mainland' India. So the percentage of students with zero digital learning due to the lockdown could be anywhere between 70% and 80 %.
On inquiring a college teacher stated, "I have only a notepad phone. I am not on Whatsapp. I don't know what Facebook is. I have no idea about online classes…" Probably there are noted number of teachers at all levels like the frankold timer. What do you do with them? Replace them? The digital challenge in education is further compounded.
COVID-19 has no doubt forced all stakeholders to rethink about the Education System, the implications and new opportunities that could turn out to be blessings in disguise. A massive digital revolution might evolve post lockdown. Education has no escape but to go the digital route. A paradigm has to take place. However, it will take time. Prior to it, social spending has to increase manifold. A push in the social infrastructure and poverty eradication has to be accorded top priority.
DELL Technology Report in 2017 predicts that 85% of the jobs up for grab in 2030 don't exist today. The World Economic Forum Report too foresees that 65% of the present primary school children will work in job types that do not exist today. These future potential jobs will be certainly digitally related.Thus the digitally and technologically educated students will have a clear edge on employment opportunities. What will happen to digitally deprived students? What will happen to the poorer sections? Will they be out of the job market? Will we see large-scale dropouts, unemployment and un-employability in abundance?
COVID-19 has laid bare the existence of two worlds - the world of the poor and the rich. The infection has also exposed the digital gap. Education is by no means inclusive, let alone universal.