The cover story this week is a subject very close to my heart — education. Thirty years ago, I founded an education trust and started a school because I thought my children, who went to a premium school in Delhi, received an education that laid no emphasis on developing the full potential of a child beyond an outdated syllabus, learnt by rote. The school we set up was focused on learning with understanding. It was a school where learning was fun, a school where children would not be afraid to ask questions, a school community that cared, a school where children could push the boundaries of current understanding and belief and in the process create new knowledge and new benchmarks in education. Our school is considered one of the top schools in the country and my vision was to create many such centres of learning. But due to the stifling education policies of the government, that dream was stillborn. That’s another story for another day. The problem today remains the same.
There is a learning crisis in the country. In a recent Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) by the NGO Pratham, a large number of our schoolchildren were found unable to read textbooks of lower grades or recognise letters and numbers. At the heart of this ‘severe learning crisis,’ as the Draft of the New Education Policy, 2019, puts it, is the issue of quantity versus quality. We may be producing some world-class software engineers, rocket scientists and business managers who run Fortune 500 companies, but I believe this is in spite of our education system, not because of it. It is hard work and the ambition to succeed that propels some of these unique individuals.
India Today June 1, 2020 cover, The Online Revolution.
The decade-old Right to Education Act that made primary education free and compulsory for children has been wrecked by abysmal teacher-to-student ratios and low learning levels. As ASER 2019 discovered in a survey of 26 rural districts, only 16 per cent of Class 1 students could read while nearly 40 per cent could not identify the alphabet. Our Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) for higher education is an abysmal 26 per cent as against 85 per cent in the US. These alarming findings have serious implications for a country where over half the population is under the age of 25.
The Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. As we enter the third month of an unprecedented nationwide lockdown, schools and colleges remain shut, examinations have been postponed and millions are locked out of classrooms. This has precipitated the shift to online education. Schools, colleges, technical institutes, universities and even coaching centres have launched online classes to ensure continuity in curriculum and seamless resumption at the end of the lockdown. Millions of students across the country are logging into virtual classrooms every day, using a variety of platforms, from Zoom to Google Meet. Assignments are done, submitted and evaluated online while even examinations have gone online. The online education market, which was projected to grow exponentially to $1.96 billion (Rs 14,836 crore) and 9.6 million users by 2021, will now achieve the target this year itself.
The Union government is also pushing online education. It has launched the PMeVidya programme, a multi-mode digital online learning education platform, using TV channels, community radio and podcasts. The government will allow the top 100 universities to start online courses from May 30 for a simple reason — online education can help India shore up its creaky education infrastructure. It has the ability to dramatically change the teacher-student ratio and empower a teacher to teach more students than in a physical classroom. It is expected to figure in the New Education Policy which is likely to be made public soon.
Our cover story, ‘The Online Revolution’, written by Senior Editor Kaushik Deka, examines this trend to find out whether the digital classroom can afford India an opportunity beyond the immediate crisis. Could this be the chance to leapfrog India’s acute shortfall of schools, quality teachers and the lack of a good education? Most of the experts we spoke to believe this is the time to make that leap. Brick-and-mortar institutions, they feel, will be unable to meet the challenge of bridging shortfalls. If we are to reach a GER of even 35 per cent, as one educationist told us, “we would need to have a new university every fourth day and a new college every second day”.
Yet, online learning is held hostage by the digital divide. Surveys have shown that unreliable connectivity and power supply to students’ homes can be an impediment to learning. An online survey conducted by a Delhi University campus media platform among 12,214 students from more than 35 colleges found that 85 per cent opposed online examinations, 75.6 per cent did not have a laptop to use for classes or examinations, while 79.5 per cent did not have a broadband connection. Nearly 65 per cent said they did not have a stable mobile internet connection while almost 70 per cent claimed their households were not conducive to taking exams online. Reaching rural India with its issues of broadband connectivity is going to be a bigger problem. The government’s Bharat Net project to connect 250,000 gram panchayats throughout the country on a fibreoptic cable network is still a year away from completion.
On a personal note, in isolation during the lockdown with my two teenage grandchildren, I witnessed first-hand the pleasure and pain of online learning. It’s not going to be easy, but it's the future, and it is here to stay and grow. Like in other fields, the potential for a quantum change in education in India, with all the new technologies, is immense. But it all boils down to planning, execution and the will to allocate funds. This might well be one of the few gains from the pains of the pandemic. Let us not miss this chance.
As a rough ready reckoner, I’ve always judged the progress of a nation on three major criteria: the health of its children, its literacy levels and the status of its women. No country in the world has developed without improvement in all three.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, The Online Revolution, for June 1, 2020)