Caught in Digital Divide, Can India Let its Poor Children Suffer?

COVID-19 has hurled us into a tragic consciousness, but our children cannot be allowed to fall behind.

4 min read
COVID-19 has hurled us into a tragic consciousness, but our children cannot be allowed to fall behind.

“No more pencils, no more books… Out for summer/out till fall… School’s out with fever…,” these very lyrics out of Alice Cooper’s song ‘School’s Out’ could be on the lips of every school student today.

With the onset of the pandemic, schools shut their gates to about 1.6 billion students across the globe. While schools have gradually reopened in Europe, Asia and now even in the US, in India, even as 'Unlock 4' unfolds, the question remains when will schools reopen? What is the impact of this protracted shutdown of schools?

In the last six months, much has changed irreversibly to what teaching and learning has been for generations.

The gravest catastrophe of our times has ushered in a path-breaking digital learning experiment, even while COVID-19 has upended lives for a large section of our under-served population.

Learning levels amongst these children caught in this maelstrom have been always been an issue but now there are serious and far reaching repercussions.

But do we really see “left out” children in our narrative of lockdown schooling in our new virtual world? Do we understand their saga, or feign to “hear the whistle blow a hundred miles”?

Yes, probably, we see them but through 'Pygmalion’s Spectacles'. Time has come to awaken our collective conscience to understand the challenges of virtual education, the gravity of the crisis and explore possible solutions.

The bulwark of education made a paradigm switch from the cosy confines of classrooms and chalk-talk methods to online teaching tools, regardless of how ill-prepared teachers and students were to teach and to learn online.

An unprecedented technology invasion has unbundled the school edifice and rebuilt it in a virtual world. Curated digital content gets relayed through a common bedrock of technology, wired and wireless platforms and devices that are used for entertainment and infotainment including TV & radios.

It has been a trying journey but now, lockdown schooling is the new reality.

Uneven Dissemination of Lessons

Lockdown schooling is an oxymoron as schools “unlock” to set children free to fly and scale new heights. Schools are not just about learning Maths and Science, but here children learn to live, think, integrate, and interact. A widening 'Social Distance' and increasing mental health issues are tragic consequences of this shutdown.

Digital education has ensured learning continuity, despite technical glitches. However, dissemination of lessons has been uneven and stressful for teachers.

Student-teacher relationships becomes tenuous when live classes are relayed, with overtly pushy, and protective parents in the audience. In the absence of remote monitoring mechanisms learning asymmetries have grown as many students skip classes while others are overwhelmed and inattentive.

In private schools, children access their classes from the comfort of their air-conditioned, WiFi homes. Unfortunately, while conscientious parents support their children to unlock online learning opportunities, these children, in their predominantly cocooned existence, are indifferent or are oblivious to the sufferings of their counterparts – the “have-nots”.

The Have-Nots

On the other side of our lockdown story – the “have-nots”, struggle with patchy network and faulty devices in a dingy corner in their homes where semblance of a classroom learning is impossible to replicate.

Sadly, benefits of technologically-mediated learning have not percolated evenly to children on the wrong side of the digital divide. Learning barriers have aggravated for “left out” children as the digital world mirrors the inherent socioeconomic disparities.

The economic downturn has exacerbated their sufferings and the nightmare is indeed real.

Children have experienced the trauma of reverse migration with endless travel – homeless and hungry. Others have faced extreme hardship, domestic violence, illness, and death in their families.

Parents struggle for livelihood, leaving their children behind, vulnerable to risks of abuse and delinquency. Education is the first casualty. Prolonged alienation from schools potentially endangers the dreams of these children for a better future.

Comprehensive Outreach Programme Needed

Reopening of schools is certainly the need of the hour, but there is no “zero risk formula” and retreating to a “normal track” is unlikely even after schools reopen.

A roller coaster ride awaits the students and schools. Meanwhile, we cannot remain mute spectators and need to pave pathways for bridging learning gaps for successful re-entry to school for our “left out” children perched at the bottom of the “digital abyss”.

Our country is complex with unique demographic, regional challenges and constraints of infrastructure and resources. Quick fix solutions or “one size fits all” formula, are untenable. 

Collaborative efforts of various stakeholders at the grassroots levels are then critical to evolve pragmatic, and customised solutions for learning continuity for these children.

Struggle for survival continues relentlessly for these families, necessitating a comprehensive outreach program to rehabilitate them and give them the courage and confidence to move ahead. Once the healing process winds down, education cohorts can get the children back to learning.

Remote learning is not about replacing classrooms with digital analogues and uses innovative context specific solutions that blend multiple delivery platforms to beat the digital divide and facilitate, anytime and anywhere, access to self-learning or classroom learning.

Teachers have been our silent warriors and now need to be empowered to harness digital technology not merely as “knowledge delivery systems” but to respond to what children need to learn, and also how, when, and where, while parents must encourage their children to study diligently.

Children Cannot be Allowed to Fall Behind

COVID-19 has hurled us into a tragic consciousness about our education system, but our children cannot be allowed to fall behind, and our collective effort will pave the way for a new tomorrow.

At this juncture, with the announcement of National Education Policy, a unique opportunity lies ahead of us.

In fact, a pledge to our children to implement a re-imagined education blueprint which is holistic, inclusive, leverages technology with appropriate shock absorbents to cushion future disruptions.

It is time to reap India’s demographic dividend. Our children are our future. We must prepare them to navigate the world with confidence and courage to realise their dreams.

As Oprah Winfrey said, “Education is the key to unlocking the world, a passport to freedom.”

(Madhu Kumar Gambhir is a seasoned HR Leader with over 3 decades of diversely rich experience in different sectors including Hospitality, Real Estate, Retail and Entertainment. Until recently, as Sr Executive Director (HR), Madhu has spearheaded the HR function for DLF Group. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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