These days, online education is in the air.
The boom in Zoom-based meetings, webinars and virtual classrooms have made us believe that it is ‘possible’ to teach or learn using online resources and modes. The digital space is full of educational videos, doing well in this hour of crisis when all schools and educational institutions are closed.
But is it really the alternative? Do all including the poor and others who are disadvantaged have access to these ‘new’ technologies? Widely available smartphones make many believe that access to technology is no more a barrier and therefore, any voice opposing online education is crying foul.
But it is not. Not only is the reality of the rural, peri-urban and poorer India different from the reality of urban middle-class, structural barriers such as gender that have traditionally kept girls away from schooling further constrain their access to online education.
This is what we found when we tried to reach 700-odd students studying in ten government schools in Patna and Muzaffarpur districts in Bihar. We work with these schools and children through a project that enhances critical skills using mentoring as a pedagogical tool. During the lockdown, we decided to undertake a telephonic survey of these children to understand how they are dealing with the crisis and to understand the feasibility of online education.
We are also considering information we gleaned from earlier face-to-face surveys of these children.
Here is what we found.
In our telephonic survey, out of 733 children (253 boys and 480 girls) in classes VII and VIII, 202 (28%) had no phone and 154 (21%) could not be reached as the number was not operational. So, finally we were only able to reach about half of the intended children.
Of these, 277 (38%) had smartphones and 114 (16%) had other phones. A higher percentage of boys (36%) had access to smart phones as compared to girls (28%). The family with no phones had a greater representation of girls and hence, we could reach only 44 % of intended girls as against 51% of intended boys.
Additionally, in almost 95% of the 277 cases where families had a smartphone, the device belonged to a male member and that meant it was not always accessible to children, this being truer for girls than for boys. A number of girls said that they were not in a position to use it for learning purposes. In any case, about half of the families with smartphones did not always have the access as they could not afford the active internet access based packages.
It was difficult in many cases to convince the person receiving the call to pass it to the girl child despite the fact that the call was being made by mentors who regularly visited schools. We could not talk to 13 students (10 girls and three boys) because the adult relatives receiving the call refused to give the phone to the child.
In several cases, fathers, brothers and other male relatives asked if they could take the survey instead of the girl. Majority of the girls we were able to reach were not forthcoming in their conversation as they had to talk in the presence of a male member of the family. Such findings were insightful in understanding how difficult it could be for girls to use online learning materials.
Girls also have a highly disproportionate burden of household chores especially when they are not in school or the school is closed. In our earlier face-to-face survey of these very children, we had found that a bigger proportion of these girls spent a significantly longer period of time on care work as opposed to boys.
Girls also rarely tend to have any control over their time. This restricts their opportunities to even view TV channels when educational programmes are being telecast. A number of state governments have started transmitting educational programmes through TV in response to schools being closed to curb the spread of coronavirus.
This indeed has greater reach than smartphones, but TV too is a shared device and girls may not be free to watch the programmes when they are being aired. For instance, it is likely that a majority of girls are busy carrying out domestic chores from nine to ten in the morning when the government of Bihar telecasts a one-hour daily programme through a free channel. Even for a good section of boys, this may be the time when they help their families with work.
These findings don’t intend to make the case that there is no merit in any intervention in this crisis or any other similar emergency. However, any intervention has to be responsive to the needs of the intended target groups while also taking cognisance of the structural or other barriers that they could face in accessing the response.
For instance, if most children from low-income households in rural areas are likely to watch TV in the afternoon or early evening, that that should be the time of telecast. Similarly, if the majority cannot be reached through online means, then low-tech options such as text messages and print materials could be explored.
While there are a number of other issues in distance education related with the child’s motivation and lack of interactive opportunities, it is absolutely basic to be mindful of the constraints that restrict access itself. More so, as most of these children are unlikely to find parental support in learning through distance education. Nearly 26% of the fathers and 40% of the mothers that we surveyed have had no education and almost no parent had been to college.
There are also issues of access related to structural poverty. About one-fourth of these 733 students live in a small kutcha or semi pucca one-room houses, with no toilets, and have no space to store even a diary or books safely. The situation is not very different for the rest either. One-third of the families surveyed also had at least one-member migrating outside for work.
On a national scale, we have been witness to the crisis migrant workers are facing during lockdown, with severe implications in terms of reduced income and increased burden for these families. In our telephonic survey, a few parents shared that they had used the cash transferred to the child’s account for books and other schooling related purposes for their survival.
In rural areas, wages have been paid in kind owing to the season of the wheat harvest, and therefore, many families were not facing a major food crisis at the time of survey, but they feared lack of work opportunities later – a dire situation that could be made worse with reverse migration.
What clearly emerged from our survey was that internet-based education is indeed not the solution; a sensitively designed approach that adopts a combination of tools with an emphasis on low-tech means and is responsive to the socio-economic-structural context of children may yield some results.
It is important to develop and try out such approaches as many of these children have no other opportunity and if schools remain closed for long, they may not even come back to school in the absence of any continuity in learning. A number of girls and boys expressed their desire to continue their studies through some means and a response to their needs must be suitably and sensitively delivered.
Jyotsna Jha and Neha Ghatak work with Centre for Budget and Policy Studies in Bangalore which undertook the research for this article.