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Online education 'driving' digital divide: $1.97 bn industry's paid users grow at 6x rate

Counterview Desk
The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Maharashtra, in a new report in the series on Lockdown on Civil Liberties focusing on education has said that there is a huge “push-out” children due during the pandemic, with deepening digital-divide playing a major role. 
Titled “Broken Slates and Blank Screens: Education Under Lockdown”, the third in the series report, authored by Simantini Dhuru, says that already online enrolment for current academic year is reduced by half.
Out of about 2.14 lakh students in elementary schools in Maharashtra, only about 47.78% students have access to smart phones and 46.74% have remained connected to studies through various online learning initiatives of the department and the state government, it says.

Excerpts:

In the name of technology, the issue that is much discussed and debated from varied perspectives ranging from equity in access, affordability, to pedagogy and quality in information and communication technology (ICT) based or online/ remote learning is access. Here the issue is of lack of accurate information about access to ICT.
There are contrary figures from the state authorities themselves. For example, the Honorary Education Minister in a web seminar claimed that 59% children studying in Mumbai Municipal Corporation schools have access to smartphones (65% children in private schools have access). But a survey by Education Department, Mumbai Municipal Corporation puts this figure at 47.78%.
As per this study, out of about 2.14 lakh students in elementary schools only about 47.78% students have access to smart phones and 46.74% have remained connected to studies through various online learning initiatives of the department and the state government.
As per a survey by the Maharashtra State Council of Educational Research and Training (MSCERT) 66.4% families in the state do not have access to smartphones, while accessibility to personal desktop and laptop is only 0.8%. Then there are issues related with access to electricity, internet connectivity and economic power to purchase the devices and data packs for purpose of children’s education.
To speak of the entire state of Maharashtra, out of the 1,04,971 state schools about 3,400 Zilla Parishad schools do not have electricity. Of the total 1,060 Ashram schools (of the Tribal Development Department) while they do have electricity, are in remote areas where access to electricity is erratic but since these residential schools also are not yet functioning children in most Adivasi areas are without access to ‘online’ learning.
The Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India (MHRD) in its advisory to states has suggested four ‘distance education modes’ depending on categories of families with access to resources: 
  • Fully synchronous online classes – that mimic the classroom with live instructions, student response/participation (interactive audio-visual experience).
  • Partially online – a combination of synchronous and a-synchronous - with live instruction by teacher and off-line work submitted by students and graded by teachers (non-interactive, passive audio-visual experience). 
  • Instruction through TV (completely passive intake of audio-visual content). 
  • Instruction by radio (completely passive intake of only auditory content). 
These are options suggested keeping in mind access to technology which mirror the existing socio-economic status of families. This is where we need to consider the larger politics of ‘distance learning’ with serious pedagogic implications related with each of these options that are essentially discriminatory. 
Since it is incumbent on the parent to provide access it is irrefutably solidifying and deepening the technological/digital divide. There are Adivasis in remote areas, street children and pavement dwellers without access to any of the above but the government seems to have discounted them. 
Out of Maharashtra's 2.14 lakh students in elementary schools, 46.74% have remained connected to studies through online learning initiatives
The pandemic has been a boon to IT giants like Google. Currently, it has offered its services free-of-cost to Maharashtra state to ‘train’ teachers and parents to develop technical knowhow. Its information hub ‘Teach from Home’ is meant to support this exercise.
The vision of the state is indicative in a statement by the Chief Minister while announcing this initiative: “It has led us from the present to the future. All of us had questions regarding the future of education. We have come to a step closer to answering these questions due to the pandemic," said Thackeray. This leads us to the next phase of developments.

Private-public partnership goes online?

The state besides using some of the public channels (Sahyadri) has partnered with private players – in several places, none other than Jio platforms. Students of class X and XII are to receive their instruction on Jio TV, Jio Sawan radio and follow the given timetable.
However, only those with Jio smartphone can access this programming. In this context, we see a shift in the ‘cheapest plans’ offered by Jio. The two cheap options offered in February this year (Rs. 45 and 65) are now withdrawn and now the lowest on offer is for Rs 75.
Need we speak more about the idea of corporate philanthropy and the state’s understanding of PPP? There is also a case of programming by an NGO, Maharashtra Knowledge Corporation Limited, MKCL (incorporated under the Companies Act with governmental coordination by the Department of IT under GAD, GoM) that launched a ‘free-to-air’ content on the public channel Sahyadri but used the ‘classes’ mainly as a teaser to promote its app that has detailed content, activities, assignments.
This is merely a beginning, but every time one runs Google searches about content on ‘online education’ a barrage of advertisements for apps/packages crowds the screen – signalling the booming business that online learning is!
Another major development and example of pushing the agenda of privatization by taking advantage of the lockdown is the Strengthening Teaching-Learning and Results for States Program (STARS) project in partnership with the World Bank that was approved on June 27-28 without public consultations.
This project is to be piloted in six states including Maharashtra. It is an ‘Output based project’ claiming to improve learning quality adequate for participation in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rather than the inputs -committing public resources on sustainable basis.
The project will have participation of non-state actors, NGOs, private schools, management firms like Ernst and Young, Boston consultancy. 85 % of the project’s cost would be borne by the Indian government, the rest would be financed through a World Bank loan.
A report titled ‘Online Education in India: 2021’ brought out by KPMG and Google in 2017 highlighted the growing influence of the Internet on the education industry in India. It predicted that by 2021 online education industry will be a $1.97 billion industry with a paid userbase growing at the rate of 6x.
“The online education segment is set to become a multi-billion dollar opportunity in India. There are many factors driving this growth including the perceived convenience, increased reach and personalisation offered by online channels,” said Nitin Bawankule, Industry Director, Google India.” The Covid-19 pandemic is for the ICT sector an added boon!

Online education and gender

When we look through the lens of gender, the option of ‘online’ education seems even more challenging. Prior to lockdown, a report brought out in January 2020 by UNICEF and Centre for Budget Policy Studies revealed that 40% girls in the age group of 15-18 are out of school, 30% of these have never been to school!
With the economic impact of the lockdown poorer families will be compelled to make hard decisions and education of girls will be the first casualty. This issue is linked to the study mentioned above as well as the overall available schools for secondary education as highlighted earlier. Large percentage of girls in the age group of 15-18 remaining out of school is due to absence of government high schools after 14 years, and parents opt to fund boy’s education in private schools thereafter.
This percentage now is likely to increase many-fold. Mobility and the relative freedom that girls had, to step-outside the domestic confines and experience childhood/adolescence with friends, is also being affected – now girls will need ‘purpose’ to step-out! This situation also mirrors itself in use of smart-phones – with boys being given priority while girls’ use of phones is viewed with suspicion.
With the loss of access to schools there is clear increase in incidence of child marriage. For example in Beed district (which is perennially drought prone) 80 cases of child marriage were reported and with intervention of activists, 16 FIRs were filed. 
But in the absence of active rights groups this trend can be said to go unchecked. Similarly there is no information on those who have migrated out of the state.

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