Life for most of the people in the country came to stand still when 21 days’ lockdown was imposed to curb the spread of the COVID -19 virus on 25 March 2020. This lockdown is having different ramifications for the marginalized sections of the society including the education of young children. As soon as the lockdown was announced use online learning mode has received unprecedented acceptance at all the levels of the education system from primary to the higher education system in the country. Online mode of teaching and learning is seen helpful in bridging the gap created by the sudden closing of the schools.

Access and affordability of smartphones, broadband, and wireless internet connections in the country is an issue. There is a gap between the use of basic mobile phones and smartphones. It is estimated that only 27 % of the Indian population is using smartphones. For the year 2019 E-market Edu estimated that approximately 35% of the population uses internet services via smartphone in India. Digital exclusion is stark in the country. There is a huge gap between internet users in rural and urban areas. In rural areas, only 21% of the population is having internet connectivity while in urban areas 61 percent of the population is using the internet. According to the World Bank report, 1.063 billion people in India do not have access to online media. An article by Manzar and Chaturvedi, 2018 associated with Digital Empowerment foundation states for the year 2014 the computer-student ratio is just 1:89 across schools in India which reflects that very few students get a chance to gain basic digital skills. A mobile phone with Internet connectivity is a pre-request to enable children to connect with the online class.

The orders issued by the government to conduct the teaching-learning process in online/virtual mode tend to overlook the heterogeneous landscape of the school education system of the country. Indian schooling system drastically varies in terms of institutional capacity, human resources, and infrastructure. Use of Information Communication Technology (ICT) driven solutions such as recorded lessons, testing modules, and online teaching, conducting online examinations are a few to cite.
In this context private schools where children of relatively well-off sections of the society go were quick to arrange for the online classes and parents were equally supportive in this process. While the upper stratum of the society is quick to provide all the necessary equipment and internet connection to ease the process for their children’s online classes the marginalized sections are left to wonder. Besides suffering from the loss of a proper source of income, working-class children also lost the opportunity to learn as their parents have to struggle to provide them with smartphones and laptops which were beyond their reach in ‘normal’ times.

As the teaching-learning process goes on virtual mode most of the responsibility of learning is left on children from the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) category in Metro cities and the marginalized children across the school system. Virtual learning/teaching has its benefits for the privileged but the underprivileged children are further marginalized. According to media reports, sudden loss of livelihood has come as a blow to the working class throwing their lives off the trails. Under such circumstances hoping for the marginalized children to attend online classes regularly appears problematic.

First, most of the low-income settlements/slums in metro cities and across the country lack scope for children to have separate learning space in the house which is further cramped during the lockdown as all the family members have to stay at home only. This gives very little space for young children to concentrate and attend online classes if they can access a smartphone. Unlike the upper and middle-class parents who can devote time, ‘technical’ competence to use different features of a learning app/program used by the school, make proper arrangement in terms of physical setup (comfortable chair and table where children can sit continuously for one or town hours) ample light in the room to make the learning environment comfortable for the child and support them in their academic endeavour. The working-class parents often lack the academic skills to support their children in studies which are further coupled by their lack of ‘technical’ competence to use the electronic device/ app and its various learning features. As most of the poor parents given their low educational background might not have basic digital literacy skills.

Many children are unprepared at the psychological level and face difficulty in switching to the online mode of learning all of sudden. If, there are two-three children in the school-going age in a household. Underclass parents have to allocate the use of a single mobile phone to one child. It could be stressful for others as they are not to be able to join the online classes simultaneously. Poor resolution and camera quality of the mobile/smartphone can also influence the quality of the live streaming video lesson by the teachers. Also, while attending the online classes the teacher is unable to pay individual attention to children who might find it difficult to follow the lesson due to lack of clear visibility and audibility. Hence children have to cope up with the poor physical environment, lack of proper electronic devices, and lack of academic support from the parents. The situation is further complicated by the lack of proper connectivity and slow internet speed which leads to the reception of either half lessons or only bits and pieces of it.

The online learning platform is demanding in terms of time, financial resources, and self-motivation and direction. To make the online classes two-way process children are also expected to write a response to the lesson which is submitted to the teacher as a way to ensure participation. Children are required to store/save and record the lessons on the device available with them which might have limited storage capacity. At the pedagogical level, online teaching is emphasized on ‘teach to test’ as a quiz, multiple-choice questions appear to suit the need for assessment and are cost-effective. This places children under stress they have to make a judicious decision about which lesson to save for future reference and prepare for online testing. For underprivileged children who do not have access to a computer, they have to submit their response in the typewritten form which might be tricky given the small size of mobile screen and storage capacity.

Attending online classes demands a high level of self-motivation on the part of young learners as well as their parents. Poor parents have scarce resources still they are expected to facilitate online classes for their children. It is incurring an extra cost for already stressed poor parents as they have to purchase data pack (cost of data pack are being sustainably increased by various telecom companies). My own experience of online teaching in current times at higher education level suggest that many students lack internet connectivity, laptop and enough financial resources to purchase data to attend online classes and meet the demands of various courses they have taken at post-graduate level.

Under ‘normal’ circumstances emphasis is laid on context-specific learning experience for children from the diverse socio-economic background. However, at present children of migrant workers and the question of their learning needs is not in the picture in this purported online teaching-learning activities during the lockdown. Children of migrant workers were forced to leave towns and cities and take the audacious journey with their parents to reach native places covered by many writers. They lack any kind of medium to continue their education as they are uprooted from the temporary residence in the cities. It seems the ‘alternative’ mode of learning via virtual/online mode is not an option for migrant children.

The lockdown which is extended till May 3, 2020 efforts made by schools in general and private schools, in particular, can be seen as an alternative to provide a temporary learning platform via online classes. It might be to stop the gap arrangement for the time being. At the policy level, a process-centric engagement has to be evolved to address the issues of the learning requirement of children living in a stratified society with rampant inequalities. The effectiveness of the virtual/online mode of teaching comes under question when it comes to children from underprivileged and marginalized backgrounds. Inequitable access to digital platforms the onus of learning is left on the individual children and their parents in the times of lockdown. To what extend online mode of teaching has provided substantial learning experiences for the marginalized children is a worth asking question.


* The article is co-authored by Rajshree Chanchal, Ambedkar University, New Delhi
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Ajit Lenka
PhD from The Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Currently working as a research consultant Change Alliance, New Delhi. Contributor to The Eastern Herald.