As a developing economy, one of the biggest challenges that India faces is that of a skewed education system that only favours the wealthy and privileged. Despite the Right to Education Act 2009 and policies in place, mandating education for all, asserts it to be a fundamental right of every child in the country, there exists a wide gap owing to several socio-economic factors. While many families migrate to cities in hope of providing for their children a chance at better educational facilities, those in rural India are left to bear the burden of a broken system that does not factor into basic infrastructure necessary for nurturing young minds.
If the education system was already struggling to do justice to children in remote areas, the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic has only further exacerbated the pre-existing fault lines in primary education. The shared experience of the pandemic has also had a disproportionate impact on many marginalised communities in rural settings, as many families are unable to afford the technology necessary to access online classes. As a result of this, many children have been forced to drop out due to financial constraints and lack of accessibility and affordability. Additionally, the gendered impact of this has taken us back several steps and undone the developments that have been hard to come by in the first place! Girls have been at a major disadvantage because of the deeply entrenched patriarchal mindset and age-old cultural practices of restricting education and exposure for girls and women.
A major infrastructural drawback in villages is that of unhindered access to electricity thereby affecting the availability of high-speed internet. The costs associated with cellular data and wireless connection further acts as a barrier to online learning. Most rural government school teachers are also not skilled enough to operate devices such as smartphones and laptops, let alone guiding students and teaching long hours so as to facilitate active learning. Although standardized access to audio learning modules help students to effectively learn from home, and can be seen as a potential solution, they need to be linguistically adaptive to be inclusive in order to help students from varied vernacular backgrounds.
In a world where online learning is now the new normal, special considerations must be made when it comes to accessibility of digital pedagogy in low- and middle-income countries, such as India and more specifically rural areas. Rural education must be treated as a social issue of priority by corporate bodies and Ed-tech startups in the domain. Teachers must also be trained to efficiently deliver online classes. In terms of bridging the digital divide, governments and private companies can partner to subsidise the cost of devices and foster learning on low bandwidth to help students overcome barriers to quality education. Even though there have been some useful social schemes by the government under the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology (NMEICT) and Digital India initiative, we have a long way to go to close this gap that has long existed in our social systems.