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Online Education: The Dark Cloud And The Silver Lining

Online classes, zoom meetings, Google classroom, MS Teams, have become indispensable parts of the ‘new normal’ parlance. All students, teachers, and parents are undergoing a process of transformation while adapting to the claims of the situation. 

The ceaseless waves of COVID 19 and the ever-emerging new variants give an impression that online education is here to stay. What is interesting to account for is whether online learning is the dark cloud or the silver lining during these exigent times.


An immediate response to unprecedented times 

In March 2020, over 250 million students in India, suddenly found themselves confined within the four walls of their houses. All academic activities came to a dead halt. Concerns regarding the continuation of the teaching-learning process perplexed the top decision-makers and heads of educational institutions.

That is when online education came to the rescue. Students stepped into virtual classrooms. Lessons were transmitted via the internet, or in the form of pre-recorded lectures. Smartphone and laptop sales shot up. Enthusiasm among students was quite high during the initial days of resumed classes.

However, owing to lack of time, this transition was unplanned. A considerable number of students, especially from rural and tribal backgrounds, were left out of the purview of the changed system. The inadequate infrastructure in the backward areas along with the digital divide further hindered access of this demographic to education. This adversely affected the continuation of learning in rural areas as compared to the urban.

An ICRIER and LIRNEasia report highlighted that only half of the 20% of students having access to remote education participated in online classes. Other reports highlight that dropout rates too increased during this period. 

While remote education is not a drastically new concept, its application on such a wide scale had never been witnessed before. An academic survey report highlights that 52.77% of students admitted to never having attended online classes before, while 67.1% of them accepted the need for the same during the pandemic.


The dark cloud around online education

Several problems ranging from infrastructural difficulties to lack of technical training abound online education. E-learning necessitates fast-speed internet, adequate availability of electronic devices, unhindered power supply among other things. This is far from easily available in rural areas. Alongside, poor teacher-student ratio and ill-familiarity with technology further exacerbate the problem.

A National Statistics Office report highlights only 4% of the rural population has access to computers as compared to the 23% of the urban population. This glaring digital divide is one of the prime challenges facing the online education regime of the country. Alongside, a gender divide is also visible, with more boys having access to smartphones than girls.

UNESCO highlights chances of learning loss, variations in students’ academic attainment, and increased educational inequality among other things, under this changed regime. Scholars also highlight that online learning negatively impacts a pupil’s course and grade persistence. Other studies have additionally highlighted that, students generally show signs of difficulty in adapting to e-learning.

That is not all. Nearly two years of online education has also negatively impacted both the physical and mental health of students. With the lack of playtime, the stress and anxiety levels of students are seen to be increasing while their interest and attention spans are decreasing. Further, the over-involvement of parents in online classes and increased screen-time resulting in the ‘zoom fatigue’ are affecting the overall development of students.

Alongside physical ailments including headache, vision problems, back pain, and posture problems have increased.


The silver lining

Just as every coin has two sides, an online learning tool is not just an unmixed curse. UNESCO Synthesis report enumerates some of its short and long-term positive effects. These include increased attention to remote learning and increasing partnerships for the same. Further, it also provides an increased scope of education for all sections and aids the development of innovative models for higher education and jobs.

Every problem comes with a solution. The ones listed above are not an exception. The government has ramped up its e-learning initiatives and drives. Various government-sponsored remote learning schemes have and are being popularized. Some of these include the Gali-Gali Sim Sim project, Tili Mili program, e-Kaksha, SMILE, CBSE Podcasts, and the like.

The Pradhan Mantri Grameen Digital Saksharta Abhiyaan (PMGDISHA) aiming to reduce the Digital Divide by digitally educating the rural population is being continued in full swing. Official data reveals that it has completed training of over 4 crores rural Indians.

The National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology (NMEICT), promises access, equity, quality, and connectivity thus working towards bridging the digital divide. It also empowers teachers with e-learning training. 

Alongside, various low bandwidth e-learning solutions are coming to the forefront. Statistics point out that India today has the 2nd largest internet market. Estimates highlight that by February 2021, there were nearly 624 million active internet users across the country. Such estimates indicate the capacity of the Indian society to overcome the aforementioned challenges, with proper planning.

The National Education Policy of 2020 emphasizes on digital education, digital infrastructure, online exams alongside a thrust on 'experiential learning and critical thinking', points to a promising future for online education.


The way forward

UNESCO underlines that the pandemic has presented opportunities to address the longstanding disparities in education while providing for a scope to reframe and rethink learning methods and content.

Various government-sponsored online resources including DIKSHA, SWAYAM, National Digital Library, Nishtha, and the like are instances of how India too is rethinking its teaching-learning process.

We have sure come a long way but have further to travel. Online education, if planned and systematized properly can solve longstanding problems related to spaces and access. What is required is to keep the process of learning from and adapting to the problems alive and agile.

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