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Education

E-learning Divide Places World’s Disadvantaged Children at Risk of Dropping Out

A girl in Bhubaneswar slums, India checks her e-learning assignments on a computer tablet. Courtesy: John Marshall/Aveti Learning

A girl in Bhubaneswar slums, India checks her e-learning assignments on a computer tablet. Courtesy: John Marshall/Aveti Learning

BHUBANESWAR, India, Jun 23 2020 (IPS) - The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a new layer of challenges to inclusive education. As many as 40 percent of low and lower-middle income countries having not supported disadvantaged learners during temporary school shutdowns, finds United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report  released today, Jun. 23.

Social, income and digital divides have put the most disadvantaged at risk of learning losses and dropping out. Lessons from the past have shown that health crises can leave many behind, in particular the poorest girls, many of whom may never return to school, the report says.

While at the infection’s April peak, over 90 percent of the global student population in 194 countries were affected by related school closures, pushing the world into the throes of the most unprecedented disruption in the history of education. As of Jun. 20, 62 percent of total enrolled students still remain impacted.

In India, according to UNESCO, the countrywide school closure has affected 320 million children enrolled from pre-primary to post-high school levels of education. About 158 million are female students.

India as other countries has decided that its schools will remain shut till the end of July and syllabus must be completed through e-learning, even as the COVID-19 infection curves sharply upwards with 440,215 positive cases.

Not all students and teachers have access to adequate internet connection, equipment, skills and working conditions to take advantage of available platforms. Also, not all available internet connections are strong enough to download data or take part in video calls. Most teachers and school administrators had to switch overnight to new tools to deliver lessons, distribute content, correct homework and communicate with students and their parents, the GEMR says. 

“The key to ensuring no one is falling behind during this crisis – and beyond – is to understand and cater for all the various different needs that students may have. Online learning might be a brilliant solution for some; radio broadcasts (and lessons through television) may be a more appropriate solution for others,” Manos Antoninis, Director of UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report (GEMR) 2020, told IPS via email from France.

“But no one single solution is perfect for all and there are some disadvantaged students – those who we are the most concerned about during today’s shut downs – who will not be served well by any current solution on offer. Their learning will suffer. Their attachment to school may weaken. Their families are likely to be plunged into poverty,” he added.

While private schools in India lost no time in providing their students with e-learning from March through Skype, email, power point presentations, YouTube and WhatsApp groups, it helped greatly that these generally better-income families had immediate access to electricity, internet, laptops or smartphones. For them e-learning was just one click away.

G. Lela Reddy, a rag-picker’s eldest daughter got admission and excelled in a mainstream school after she gained access to an e-learning platform. Courtesy: Ratnakar Sahoo/ Aveti Learning.

G. Lela Reddy, a rag-picker’s eldest daughter got admission and excelled in a mainstream school after she gained access to an e-learning platform. Courtesy: Ratnakar Sahoo/Ashayen.


At the other end are millions like 13-year-old’s like G. Lela Reddy, the eldest child of a single mother, who works as a rag-picker, in Bhubaneswar, in India’s eastern State of Odisha. Six years ago, a substance abuse rehab centre Ashayen (meaning Hopes) for children of rag pickers and beggars spotted Reddy and she began the bridging course that helped children join mainstream schools.

While studying she still works, daily segregating the waste her mother collects and minding her young brother at the centre while her mother goes out.

Before COVID-19 struck, Reddy had made it to 8th grade in a government school, making a mark as a good debater, and a singer and dancer to Bollywood songs.

“In 2016, when we introduced a digital learning platform to these street children in our informal centres, we realised to our surprise that the drop-out rate was reducing exponentially,” Ratnakar Sahoo who heads Ashayen told IPS. “The deep disparity they hitherto had felt about not being able to hold and operate a mobile phone which they saw other better-off kids doing, was the motivation to come to school and to study,” he added.

Reddy mastered digital learning, and was soon helping others log in and guiding them with e-learning.

“What we tried to do is help bridge the digital divide in India,” Biswajit Nayak, California-based founder of the digital platform Aveti Learning, told IPS over phone. The social enterprise develops and provides digital learning content for under-served student communities in villages and urban slums of India.

“The real need for e-learning was never before more apparent than during the COVID-19 lockdowns,” he said.

Worst hit by school lockdowns are children of commercial sex workers who study through informal tutorials like these children in Kolkata city. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

Worst hit by school lockdowns are children of commercial sex workers who study through informal tutorials like these children in Kolkata city. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

Since schools in India lockdown from Mar. 27 till Jun. 16, Aveti’s digital channel analytics shows that during the lockdown they had 2.2 million views, 250,000 hours of streaming, 232,000 unique users from all 30 districts of Odisha, according to Nayak, an IT professional.

“Quickly upgrading technology and synchronising our content to government-announced online weekly curriculum for secondary classes, we lost no time. Even when the lockdown was lifted, we retained flexibility pushing online streaming to 5pm onwards, so that working parents in single-phone households would be back home and share their phone for lessons,” Sibabrata Choudhury, director of Aveti Learning, told IPS.

Among several other e-learning mobile phone apps is Odisha government’s own Madhu App.

Choudhury assesses not only is mobile phones with internet penetration low, 1 in 5 villages, particularly tribal villages lack grid connection while a dependable power supply eludes large rural tracts. This makes access to e-learning difficult.

“Two days after lockdown in March when I visited the Ashayen students, none of them had eaten since two days, let alone keep up with studies,” Sahoo told IPS adding, “ neither could we get them to the centre nor had sufficient computer tablets to provide them at home.”

Reddy’s chances of lifting herself out of a life of poverty has been on pause as it has for millions of adolescent girls marginalised by the growing divide during lockdown. A mid-May 2020 rapid assessment by Delhi-based non-profit Praxis India in three Indian states finds 4 in10 girls could not attend e-learning, while over half spent less time on studies compared to before lockdown, owing to economic demands.

“Indeed, India’s 2017-18 National Sample Survey reported only around a quarter of households had internet access, and this is without looking at rates in rural areas. Once schools reopen after these shutdowns, they must take into account the learning hiatus just experienced, which will have affected the poorest most. Cutting syllabuses shorter is likely to be an inevitable but also appropriate solution,” UNESCO’s Antoninis said.

“India has useful (and replicable) lessons though,” he said. “Odisha introduced multilingual education in 21 languages since the mid-2000s, covering 1,500 primary schools for which online dictionaries have been published, with positive learning outcomes. Maharashtra revised many textbook images in 2019 to promote gender equality. But there is still a long way to go. Tribal people are seldom depicted in curricula, and, when they are, the material often provokes a sense of inferiority among tribal students.”

Antoninis said that COVID-19 has given everyone an “opportunity to think afresh about our education systems”.

“India (too) is presented with a chance for re-imagining syllabuses after this crisis to be more inclusive, less formulaic,” the director of the GEMR added.

 
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