Digital divide in education need to reboot our government & public schools

Dr Avantika Tomar

The Education sector in India has evolved massively with the adoption of technology tools. However, there is a digital divide that persists among the student population attending government schools and private schools. Highlighting the disparity and how the digital solutions and the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 is addressing these woes, Dr Avantika Tomar, Executive Director, EY-Parthenon shared at the Elets Education Innovation Summit – Haryana Edition.

Dr Tomar was of the view that the digital learning divide in the country has become more prominent after the COVID pandemic. She gave a presentation highlighting how this digital divide translated on the ground and impacted the public education system in the country, especially the government school students.

She said, “One should first understand the public education system in the country before assessing the impact of the pandemic and digital learning divide in the country.” Presenting a few facts about the public education system, Dr Tomar highlighted that India has over 1.5 million schools, more than 50,000 educational institutions, and nearly 37 million students taking admissions each year. There are about 124 million students attending government schools and nearly 129 million students going to private and other schools.

The statistics: “Before we talk about actions taken by the Centre or the State governments to augment the school education system in the country, we need to consider these mammoth numbers. Any initiative taken needs to address 124 million students attending government schools and 1.08 million government schools where these actions will be implemented,” she pointed out. Though there are remote areas where connectivity is poor, there is a digital divide that exists, there are people who are unaware of the benefits of the government but to reach out to address the sheer numbers and this scale of implementation of any corrective measure is itself a major challenge, she added.

Looking at the statistics for fiscal 2016, 2018, and 2020, the number of admissions in public schools has witnessed a decline when compared with the admissions in private schools. The major reasons reflecting the downward trend spotted by the parents were – the overall quality of education and the quality of pedagogical methods used for delivering pre-primary education at nascent stages. On the contrary, the factors that back the upward trend of admission in private schools are – focus on the quality of education and learning; and focus on a child’s holistic development and the provision of better facilities. Another trend observed was the increasing number of enrollments in secondary and senior secondary grades.

Speaking of the fundamental and digital challenges that the government or public schools face, Dr Tomar mentioned:

• Rote learning methods of teaching create gaps in curriculum expectation and current learning.

• Lack of system or processes to identify and help children who are not making adequate progress in the early grades.

• Lack of properly trained and skilled teachers.

• Lack of accountability of teachers and school authorities.

• Limited internet penetration and poor connectivity.

• Vernacular interface to operate the digital content.

• Limited digital literacy among the teachers.

• Presence of only basic infrastructural support in government schools.

• Co-ordinated planning and implementation supporting digital intervention in the nascent stage

The role of NEP: Calling the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020) a big step towards reshaping the future of school education in the country, she said, “The NEP 2020 has given the impetus to the use of technology in education and named digital tools as key enablers in meeting learning objectives and supporting fundamental challenges.”

In the previous year, the Government of India brought out the NEP 2020 which focuses on the extensive use of technology in teaching and learning, removing language barriers, increasing access for students, and educational planning and management. This clearly highlights that the future of education in India is going to be digital-driven and enabled by technology, she added.

Impact of pandemic: Addressing the impact of the COVID pandemic on schools and students, she highlighted that the pandemic has adversely affected not only the Indian school education system but the lives of students, and their physical, emotional, and social development. In addition, the pandemic also impacted the administration affecting the payroll system, mid-day meal scheme, monitoring and capacity building, shutting down of schools, and more.

However, the silver lining in this crisis situation was that State governments like the Government of Haryana came up with innovative interventions to ensure continuity of education. From initiatives like satellite streaming and digital classrooms to e-content repositories or e-learning portals, the state government has been proactive in taking technology-led initiatives and transforming the education system.

The way forward: A well-thought and structured approach has ignited the possibilities of overcoming the gaps and challenges. However, there is still a long way to go to make it mainstream and impactful. Dr Tomar, while citing the example of Singapore, said that the South Asian country adopted a systematic and systemic approach to the introduction and adoption of technology for teaching and learning to combat gaps and was better positioned to tackle the pandemic crisis.

“Singapore started technology-enabled education and digital learning practices way back in 1997. They’re still developing on the approach and growing better by the day. Taking this in consideration, we need to have a master plan when it comes to the way forward for the digital transformation of education in India. We need to pivot to areas where we are not leveraging technology and develop on those to match the global pace of development and overcome the pandemic crisis,” she concluded.