Outclassed: Online classes remain out of bounds for most students in rural India

Smita Gupta | Updated on May 29, 2020


Online education may have its takers in urban schools, but has pushed students and teachers in rural India deeper into the margins

* Not everybody has access to smartphones

* The offspring of the poor are likely to find themselves left even further behind when schools finally reopen

It’s not easy to turn a phone into a classroom. Ankita, a student of Std IV of a government school in rural Deoria in Uttar Pradesh (UP), can’t find the words to describe how difficult she finds her online lessons. Her father, Jainath Yadav, a daily wage labourer, tries to sound optimistic. “It’s okay. They will understand everything gradually,” he says.

And then he pauses. “No, it’s not okay, but what can be done?” he bursts out. There is a great difference between regular classes and mobile lessons, he stresses.

Across rural India, students who had already been struggling to cope with a far-from-perfect education system, more so in government schools, are now looking at their phones — if they are lucky enough to have access to a smart device — with dismay. Teachers are taking lessons on smartphones.

“It’s very difficult — I can’t follow the lessons on the phone,” says Sahiba, a Std V student in rural Deoria.

With schools and colleges shut since March, academics have been teaching online — a process that has raised serious questions. In parts of urban India, parents were happy when online lessons began after the March 25 nationwide lockdown was imposed by the government in view of the Covid-19 pandemic. But for most of rural India, it poses a host of problems.

First, not everybody has access to smartphones, which are needed for online lessons facilitated by platforms such as Zoom that connect users in large numbers. If they do have phones, they do not always have access to internet connection or data, again essential for the online classes. And to top it, the lessons are often incomprehensible because there is almost no interaction in such classes.

Virtual lessons, the students complain, are far more cumbersome than physical ones. Take the case of Prakash and Piyush, who study in government schools in rural UP. They are among the fortunate few to have access to smartphones, which enables them to participate in the 30-minute-long online classes on weekdays. They complete the exercises given to them in their notebooks, and photograph and WhatsApp the work to their teachers.

“It’s tough. Some can manage, others cannot,” says Piyush, a Std V student in Deoria.

Both stress that they prefer the old classroom, where they could ask the teacher questions. Prakash, who is a Std X student in Muzaffarnagar in western UP, says that if he has a problem understanding an issue, he now has to call his teachers up.

The big gap

Apart from the difficulties in online learning, those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder have the least access to smart devices and the internet. In 2019, government figures showed that 1,18,000-plus gram panchayats across India had internet access. Of these, Uttar Pradesh had the maximum connectivity in its rural areas, with 28,000 of its 52,000 gram panchayats internet-equipped. However, while there was access in slightly more than half its villages, the number of families with internet access was considerably lower.

According to the latest report of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and Nielsen (November 2019), rural India had 227 million active internet users — or approximately one fourth of the rural population of 889 million. However, active internet users are defined in India as those who use the internet at least once a month. Across UP, the report says, internet penetration in November 2019 was just 34 per cent.

As for electricity, newspaper reports in 2018 suggest that 44 per cent of rural households in UP were not electrified, and while the government has claimed that its Saubhagya scheme has brought electricity to virtually every household, according to the current definition, a village is declared electrified if 10 per cent of the total inhabited households have an official electricity connection, apart from public places such as schools and health centres. A few months ago, nearly 10,000 people in rural Agra received electricity bills when they had no connections.

Though there are no reliable figures on how many children in rural government schools have access to a smartphone, BLink’s conversations with 12-odd teachers, spread across the state, would suggest anecdotally that the figure would be under 15 per cent. Additionally, in times of stress — such as in the lockdown aftermath, when joblessness is rife — a phone is largely seen as an added expense. The parents, many of whom are daily wagers with no work now, have to also pay for mobile and data recharge.

India’s education system has always been divisive — with deep schisms between private and government schools, rural and urban institutes, English and regional languages, and, always, the rich and the poor. Online classes have now created another divide. The offspring of the poor, despite the government’s efforts, are likely to find themselves left even further behind when schools finally reopen.

As Anita Rampal, a Delhi University professor of education, puts it, “Education is constitutionally meant to bridge inequalities, but making online technological interventions mandatory will only widen and deepen the disadvantage divide. The economic fallout of the pandemic is, in any case, going to push many disadvantaged children out of school.”

Why then is the government keen on online education? In the first place, many proponents see it as a useful system now that schools are shut because of the Covid-19 pandemic. But some also believe that it can be put into effect more and more in the coming months. Online education does not require funds for building schools. Further, a teacher can address a great many students at the same time, thus saving on expenses.

But the problems right now in rural India possibly outweigh the benefits. Government school teachers, in villages spread across UP, from the districts of Meerut, Muzaffarnagar and Bulandshahr in the west to Rae Bareli, Jaunpur and Deoria in the east, stress that the government had not factored in some basic requirements for the project’s success: The need for smartphones, money to recharge them and mobile connectivity.

Logged out: Not everyone in rural areas has access to smartphones, a minimum requisite for online lessons   -  REUTERS/MUHAMMAD HAMED


Ground zero

The story in UP is being echoed in other regions, too. “People talk of India and Bharat but Bharat is not monolithic — it is divided, too. The disparity has grown,” says former IAS officer Jhingran Dhir, founder and director, Language and Learning Foundation, which works on education issues in UP and five other states.

A survey conducted by his organisation recently in Haryana and Chhattisgarh underlines this divide. The survey among 40,000 teachers in Chhattisgarh and 3,000 in Haryana discovered that, overall, only 12-15 per cent of children had access to smartphones: 20-25 per cent in urban areas and 6-8 per cent in rural areas.

Lakshman Anuj, a primary school teacher in Deoria, has been grappling for the last few weeks with the state government order that all government schools conduct classes during the lockdown through WhatsApp groups. Of the 103 government schools in Deoria’s Bhagalpur block — where his school is located — Anuj says only six or so have had some “minor success” with online classes.

“The odd student’s father has a smartphone or an uncle in the neighbourhood is willing to lend a device for a few hours. But such cases are few,” he says.

Anuj has been going from door to door to mobilise devices for his students. Even so, only 18 of the 54 students in the school’s pre-primary section have access to a smartphone.

Ajit Singh, who teaches at an inter-college in Meerut district, has a similar story to relate. “My students are at a critical stage of their studies, in Std XI and XII, but they are so poor, they can barely pay the fees. Not one has access to a smartphone. No work is possible.”

Close to 70 per cent of rural students in UP attend government schools. Most institutes lack adequate infrastructure, and even those facilities have been gradually falling apart. Take the Amrit Inter College in Muzaffarnagar district’s Rohana Kalan. An old and respected institution, the school once boasted 10 computers. “But sadly, only one works,” says a teacher, Om Pal.

Only 20-30 per cent of students have access to smartphones, the teacher says. The primary school in Muzaffarnagar district’s Janset block is another exemplary institution because of the quality of its teaching. “But over 50 per cent have no access to smartphones,” says teacher Danish.

The problem, Om Pal adds, has many aspects to it. Apart from the fact that students cannot join online classes without the right devices, even those who can do not always benefit from them. The more reserved students lose out, for they hesitate to ask questions on a digital platform, which they are not familiar with. In a rural context, many such children belong to the lowest castes.

Teachers and administrators, however, have been trying their best to draw students into the programmes. Anand Singh, who teaches senior secondary students in an inter-college in UP’s Jaunpur district, says that his principal worked hard to try and make the project a success. He set timetables, formed groups and divided up the work, and decided on the format in which classes would be conducted.

But then they hit a roadblock: Just a third of their students had access to smartphones.

Local teachers’ unions, he says, had opposed the idea of digital education, voicing the fear that it would deepen the divide between comparatively better off and poor students — those with phones and mobile connectivity, and those without. The unions had instead suggested that schools also work on weekends when they re-open, to make up for lost days.

Something or nothing

But the government felt that “something is better than nothing”, he says. In many cases, the district education officers had been apprised of the difficulties, but had responded that the schools just needed to “complete” the formalities”.

“There is no shortage of talent — only a serious shortage of resources,” says Surya Pratap Singh, a primary school teacher in Rae Bareli district. “What is the point of creating WhatsApp groups when no one has a phone? After working for more than 18 years, I earn ₹60,000 a month. But I feel guilty taking that salary without doing anything. What will I tell my Maker when I reach him?”

While policymakers and educationists may not have an answer to that question, many are divided on how effective digital classes will be.

Former human resource development secretary Anil Swarup admits that it has brought inequities to the surface. “But the issue is: Do we do something or nothing? Should we not try to salvage something?” he asks. “It may not be the perfect solution, but, at the moment, state governments are leveraging whatever is there in the technological domain,” Swarup adds.

While he describes online lessons as a “very good initiative”, Swarup stresses that teachers, too, should try and keep physically in touch with students. “Everyone may not have a smartphone, but everyone has a phone — the teachers could also talk individually to the children, engage them and give them assignments,” he suggests.

Making a start

A former UP cadre bureaucrat, he has little sympathy for the teachers. “In the state 30 per cent of the teachers don’t show up for classes as a matter of course. So even if 15 per cent are being engaged (in digital classes), it’s not a bad start.”

Dhir of the Language and Learning Foundation describes the online experiment as a “limited option for a limited time”. He suggests that, for the short term, books and workbooks be sent to parents through teachers delivering midday meals or conducting surveys. Primary school students, however, require greater interaction, he says.

Learning curve: Experts hold that primary school students require greater personal interactions with teachers   -  AM FARUQUI


For non-smartphone users, he suggests using the text message system for short answers and other technology-based platforms for essays. For the long term, he proposes that the lockdown be utilised to improve teaching methods so that teachers can prepare a curriculum that promotes “real learning” and not learning by rote.

“This can’t happen overnight, but a start can be made in improving face-to-face teaching, so that children can answer a higher order of questions, not just about what happened, but why it happened.”

Rampal, who has long been a part of the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS), which played a critical role in making the Right to Education Act (RTE) a reality, views the online experiment with a different lens.

“There is so much pressure to contend with from the technological lobby. They see school education as a captive space and they want to push for commercial interests in government schools. Attempts are being made to outsource education to private players and this is being seen as an opportune moment,” she says.

Let alone school students, even among college-goers many find online classes difficult to manage. Rampal says that in her own department, postgraduate students who have gone back to their towns or villages are finding it hard to cope with online teaching. Even those who are in Delhi in rented accommodation say that they do not have the money to pay for internet or phone data, essential for the different apps being used for online classes.

The Active Teachers’ Forum in Maharashtra has found through a survey, she adds, that barely 20 per cent of students in the state have the use of smartphones, and that teachers there have opposed it, while in government schools in Delhi, barely 20 per cent students have been attending such classes and most don’t have access to such devices.

“Education is an interactive process of socialisation,” Rampal says. “Children don’t just learn from teachers; they learn from one another. The RTE wasn’t enacted just to provide bare access to education, but to make the process inclusive, participatory and democratic.”

Given how critical the situation is, she feels the focus at the moment should be “on providing food, nutrition and the midday meal”. Kerala, she points out, has leveraged the ICDS effectively in this direction and has been reaching out to children with weekly rations and other essentials.

The educationist holds that collectors of districts in the green zones should be empowered to assess their own situations and gradually open schools, even for alternate sections on alternate days, once they decide it is safe for teachers and children to come.

“The only solution is to gradually open schools, perhaps with staggered timings, in green zones,” agrees Komal Srivastava, who is with the BGVS in Jaipur. She fears that children in government schools are falling even further behind their counterparts in private schools in Rajasthan. “The problem is that the government is only consulting those in the private sector, not those working in the educational field,” she says.

Online schooling can lead to other problems too, points out Subir Shukla, who worked for many years with the educational NGO Eklavya in Madhya Pradesh before setting up his own organisation, IGNUS, which seeks to improve the quality of education and teacher training.

“Screen learning can be counterproductive for very small children,” he says, and suggests, like many others working in the field, that those going to villages to distribute midday meals, or to migrant camps with food and medicine, be asked to distribute worksheets for children, especially in green zones.

These “outreach persons”, he adds, can be chosen from among government health workers or those in the panchayats, so that “a community approach to education is adopted, with technology used to empower such people.”

Online education, the experts stress, should not be seen as a solution to India’s education problem. “It can only be a temporary measure, not a permanent one,” Srivastava emphasises.

(Some names have been changed to protect identity)

Smita Gupta is a senior journalist based in Delhi

Published on May 29, 2020

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