Crossing School Education’s Digital Divide
COVID-19 has wreaked havoc into life as we knew it and, when it comes to livelihoods, thrown an enormous spanner of uncertainty in the works. But is COVID-19 purely a threat and an unrelenting disaster? Or has it brought opportunities in its wake that have quietly sprung up because of the changing paradigm? Can we spot a glimmer of positivism amidst a deluge of bad news?
Education is one of the many areas of our life that has unremittingly faced disruption since the arrival of the Novel Coronavirus. The institutions of education have been shut down, of course, but there is also confusion about the modalities to follow after we can return to them. Since informed assessment is that the virus will not be entirely eradicated for years and intermittent spikes will remain on the cards, how do we deal with social distancing in our already crowded classrooms? Admittedly, teaching only from remote locations cannot be a surrogate for teaching in person.
In the context of the future of school education, the word that is being used with increasing frequency is ‘hybrid’. Many people are beginning to settle down to the idea that schooling will proceed both via the existing brick-and-mortar route and remotely over digital platforms. The latter has had its inaugural run during the lock-down. Students and teachers in many parts of the world were forced to adopt the remote option. It has led to many realizations of its challenges and triggered thoughts on what the solutions might be.
Many infirmities have been cited. The lack of resources particularly among the weaker sections of the society, the deficiencies of bandwidth in the rural areas, the challenge of keeping students engaged as they sit in the comfort of their homes and watch a screen, the absence of emotional integration that a classroom setting offers to students and teachers and the possibility of constant parental interference in the ‘classroom’ are among the apprehensions being voiced.
All of the above appear well-founded.
But there is another perspective that takes counsel of optimism. By forcing us to play catch-up with technology, COVID-19 might have inadvertently dealt us a good hand!
Forced to go digital, many ‘technology innocent’ teachers and students have suddenly found themselves thrown into the deep end. This must have been a fearful experience, at least initially, but a few days of thrashing-about later, most have embraced the new learning. The fact that vast swathes of the population in the education sector have seen its skills being upgraded without government intervention or huge expenditure from the exchequer must be seen as a big plus.
The accelerated arrival of digital education has opened doors for other possibilities in the future. Imagine the gains if technologies like Artificial Intelligence are applied to digitally delivered education, thus opening the doors for perpetual improvement in the content and delivery.
There is also another unintended fallout. It has always been a challenge to keep students engaged in a classroom setting. This problem will undoubtedly be accentuated manifold when the same students are away at their homes. It will become imperative that we produce content that is engaging, rich and entertaining. For too long have our textbooks been created as if good content and exciting presentation cannot co-exist. Here is an opportunity to correct that infirmity.
Remotely delivered education will also give a fillip to digital platforms that produce content for the classrooms.
Of course, this rosy picture does not take away the current reality of the lack of infrastructure in rural areas and small-towns. That, however, should be a good reason to redouble the effort to inject technology into education. As we have already experienced with the telecom revolution and the introduction of digital economy post-demonetization, there is enough ingenuity and will in the country to rise all boats.
In any case, the status quo is no longer available as an option.