Every day, from Monday to Friday, Malhar Mazumdar, 13, a Class 9 student at the Mother’s International School in New Delhi, is ready to go to school at 9 am sharp. Except that he doesn’t step out of his room. He gets dressed in his school uniform, puts on his headphones, switches on the webcam and logs in to a digital classroom. It’s a restless, animated grid of faces, his classmates and a teacher. The classes are 40 minutes each and the school day ends at 1.50 pm, after which he spends a few more hours online to complete assignments. Malhar could make himself invisible in class by switching off the mic and camera, a privilege he never had in a physical classroom. Yet, he longs to return to regular classes. He misses his friends, the activities between classes and the focus a physical classroom provides. “At home, I get distracted often,” he says.
Welcome, Malhar Mazumdar, to the brave new world of online education in India, where necessity has become the mother of innovation. Education experts in India have long recommended replacing the blackboard and chalk with the screen and keyboard, but with little progress. COVID-19, however, has fast-tracked digital education in India. With social distancing becoming the new norm, physical proximity in a brick-and-mortar classroom suddenly poses a mortal danger. School managements and teachers, therefore, are scrambling to board the online bandwagon, and computers and connectivity are fast replacing desks, chairs and pencils in the education lexicon.
The coronavirus pandemic has created an unprecedented situation for education not just in India but across the world. Unesco estimates that more than 1.2 billion children in 186 countries find themselves outside the classroom, compromising learning outcomes and the academic calendar. In India, as elsewhere, it has precipitated the shift to online education. To avoid a complete breakdown of the learning process, schools, colleges, technical institutes, universities and even coaching centres have launched online classes to ensure continuity in curriculum and seamless resumption at the end of the lockdown.
And it isn’t just well-to-do private schools in urban centres that have moved online during the lockdown. The central government-run Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas (JNV), for instance, are exploring the possibility of providing one pre-loaded tablet to all students. “We are building an application that can not only deliver content but also make interactive assessment,” says Bishwajit Kumar Singh, commissioner, JNV. The central government and many states are seeing the pandemic as an opportunity to expand the scope of online education exponentially. ‘The country, which is struggling with schools, teachers and lack of good education, should take advantage of this opportunity and rise from the physical classroom and promote the digital classroom instantaneously,’ reads a March 26 CBSE notification to schools.
THE BIG DRIVE
Colleges and universities, too, are following suit. The Delhi University has decided to switch to open-book online examinations from July 1 for final-year students. Pune’s Symbiosis International University (SIU) not only completed semester courses but also conducted exams online. The entire teaching model for coaching institutes in Kota, Rajasthan, too, saw a shift within a week.
Illustration by Siddhanth Jumde
Meanwhile, edutech companies have seen a massive jump in enrolment in the past two months. When BYJU’S, the Bengaluru-based unicorn, announced free live classes during the lockdown, it saw a 200 per cent increase in the number of new students. “There has been a big behavioural shift in the parents’ mindset toward online learning as they have seen their kids benefit from it and find EdTech to be an enabler in their growth,” says Divya Gokulnath, co-founder of BYJU’S.
As it extended the lockdown for a third time, the central government trained its focus on promoting online education extensively. While giving out the details of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on May 17 announced the launch of PMeVidya, a multimode digital online learning education platform, including the already existing DIKSHA (Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing) initiative. Each class will have one channel earmarked on TV. PMeVidya will include extensive use of community radio and podcasts. This would be in addition to Manodarpan, a programme for emotional and mental support to children and families. The government will allow top 100 universities to start online courses from May 30.
These decisions arose from a meeting the prime minister had with HRD ministry officials on May 1 to deliberate on reforms required in the education sector with special emphasis on enhancing learning through use of technology, such as online classes, education portals and broadcast on dedicated education channels. The Union government already runs several Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), recorded video classes, for students and teachers. “The ministry has formed taskforces for online education. We recently started the Bharat Padhe Online Campaign, where we sought suggestions from students, parents and teachers on online education,” says Union HRD minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’. The state governments of Delhi, Rajasthan, Odisha and Bihar had also taken measures to promote digital learning during lockdown, from developing apps and sending content through WhatsApp groups to broadcasting content on radio and Doordarshan.
These moves are being seen as significant in boosting the scope and scale of online education in India. A KPMG and Google study, done before the COVID-19 outbreak, estimated that the online education market in India was set to grow to $1.96 billion (Rs 14,836 crore), with 9.6 million users, by 2021, up from $247 million (Rs 1,870 crore) and 1.6 million users in 2016. With the coronavirus-induced lockdown, we seem set to achieve that target in 2020 itself besides heading for exponential expansion. Experts see this as the perfect opportunity to bridge the digital divide. “For the first time, with just a little handholding, the possibilities of bridging the divide can be explored. Outsourcing some functions would be feasible and should be started quickly, with clear deliverables,” says Shailaja Chandra, former Delhi chief secretary and part of the T.S.R. Subramanian Committee to draft the new education policy.
THE SEEDS OF A REVOLUTION
In Gurugram, the administration of Ansal University shifted all classes online soon after the lockdown. It has been business as usual ever since, except that instead of being physically together under one roof, students and teachers are all present online. The platforms can vary from Zoom to Google Meet to Skype and GoToWebinar, and lectures can be delivered from the study rooms of teachers to, at times, the bedrooms of students. Assignments are done, submitted and evaluated online. Even the mid-term exams were conducted online. “The classes have more than 95 per cent attendance, more than it used to be in face-to-face classes,” says Prof. Garima Parkash, Dean, Vatel Hotel and Tourism School, Ansal University.
Screen test: Himdweep Khurana, faculty at Amity University
However, even as our education system rushes to go digital, experts say it is important to rethink the way online education is promoted. Many schools and colleges have done little more than simply taking the physical classroom online. However, to get really serious and expand the scope of online education, what we need are, among other things, customised learning modules using technology and artificial intelligence. “Online learning is not just about changing the delivery model,” says BYJU’S Gokulnath. “Use of technology can make teachers deliver concepts a lot more effectively and make learning more engaging. Technology and data offer them instant feedback. They can analyse what students like, their learning patterns and customise their lessons based on this insight.”
Even in a digital class, it is the teacher who makes all the difference. In addition to tech interventions, teachers need to be massively re-trained and oriented toward online teaching and learning. “The content of online classes rests on the faculty. Even during a Zoom call, it depends on the teacher to draw the students’ attention,” says Jayesh Garg, former country head of the Kota-based coaching institute, Bansal Classes, and now an independent consultant.
The apparent randomness in digital education in India has led to a growing demand for regularisation of the online education sector. “There is a need to create a guideline for the structure and scope of online education,” says Atul Kothari, secretary of the Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas, an RSS-affiliated educational trust that runs several schools across the country. Most educators agree that there is a need to invest in creating standardised online education platforms instead of depending on the available private apps. There is also a need for a monitoring mechanism. “If you legalise and regulate virtual classrooms, we may have quality e-universities, which can not only spread good education but also put an end to fly-by-night educational institutes,” says V.S. Chauhan, former chairman of the UGC (University Grants Commission). Ashish Dhawan, founder of the Central Square Foundation (CSF) and Ashoka University, agrees. “A student may prefer getting an online degree from an IIT or other top-ranked institute to getting admission to some dubious institution.. That will be a good clean-up act,” he says.
The UGC, the governing body for higher education in India, has already asked universities and colleges to develop virtual classroom and video conferencing facilities. The commission has instructed the institutes to train their faculty in using online teaching tools, so that they can complete about 25 per cent of the syllabus through online instruction and 75 per cent through face-to-face teaching. For conducting practical and viva exams, the UGC has suggested the use of video-conferencing portals such as Skype. The universities are now required to prepare e-content/ e-lab experiments and upload the same on their websites. Such moves have received appreciation from experts. “There is a critical need to develop lab automation, virtual screen experiments and virtual labs,” says Pratibha Jolly, academic consultant, NAAC (National Assessment and Accreditation Council) and former principal of Miranda House College for Women, Delhi University.
THE VIRTUAL REALITY
Namrata Gupta (name changed), 30, teaches English at a leading English-medium school in Delhi. She has been conducting an average of two online classes a day for Classes 7 and 8, a smaller number of classes than she would take during regular school hours, but more exhausting. There are frequent disruptions caused by her toddler or the slow internet speed, thanks to her husband binging on Netflix and elder son attending his own virtual class. But what irritated her the most was seeing several students using just one ear plug. At first, she thought the other had just fallen off, but soon she realised mothers were listening in. Seeing it as an unwanted intrusion into her classroom, she complained to the school management.
The travails of teachers apart, online education, its advocates say, is helping students learn better than in regular classrooms. The Research Institute of America has found that e-learning increased retention rates to 25-60 per cent compared to only 8-10 per cent in face-to-face teaching. Technology motivates students to learn and offer feedback without embarrassment or peer pressure. Unlike in a live class, students need not take notes and can pay closer attention to what the teacher is saying. A momentary loss of attention can be compensated by rewinding/ replaying the lecture. It offers students more time to process and understand the lecture and content, at their own pace. “Many teachers have come and told me online classes work even better than normal classrooms. Students have been more receptive and responsive,” says Professor V. Ramgopal Rao, director, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.
The rollout of online education can also help India scale up its Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) for higher education. India’s current GER in higher education, the percentage of students of the total eligible population in the 18-23 age group, is 26 per cent as against over 85 per cent in the US. The spread of online education also has the ability to dramatically change the teacher-student ratio. It empowers a teacher to teach more students than in a physical class. “If we have to reach even 35 per cent [of GER], we will need to add 25 million students to colleges in the next five years. There is no way brick-and-mortar universities can service so many students. We will have to have a new university every fourth day and a new college every second day if we have to do so,” says S. Vaitheeswaran, CEO, Manipal Education and Medical Group. UGC vice-chairman Dr Bhushan Patwardhan, however, cautions against expanding digital education at the cost of content and quality. “I hope we can deglamorise conventional degrees and give equal respect to agriculture, vocation and skills. The race for higher GER is likely to produce more hollow degrees. Focus on quality, relevance and utility is more important,” he says.
The effectiveness of online learning also varies among age groups. Young children still need the structured environment of a classroom as they are more easily distracted. “Online learning works when we have age-appropriate time tables for teaching and learning,” says Abha Adams, former director of the Shri Ram School.
Many educationists are also questioning the utility of online education, saying that the experience of a classroom cannot be wholly replicated online. “The teacher has no eye contact with 40 or 60 students on the screen and cannot notice their expressions or how attentive the student is,” says Sandeep Bakshi, CEO and director of the Seedling Group of Schools. Online teaching can have only 20 per cent usage in things like giving home assignments and keeping track of student’s response, he says.
Besides, schools and colleges are not only about teachers and classrooms, say most educators. Learning involves other processes such as spending time with peers, getting into discussions, sharing ideas, solving problems together and being in a social environment physically. Iconic educational institutes provide students from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to mingle and share ideas and experiences, which goes a long way in making them better citizens and the society harmonious. “How can focusing on a screen supplant the experience of learning from teachers, peers, real-life lessons in collaboration, questioning, social mixing, participation in games, competitions and co-curricular activities?” asks former Delhi chief secretary Chandra. “Life has shown time and again that education must translate into social dexterity, communication skills, an inquisitive mind and willingness to adapt to become educated. These attributes determine employability and social acceptability more than knowledge, degrees and marks.”
Opinion is also divided on homes as spaces for learning. Both teachers and students can get easily distracted in the home environment. “There have been instances when the parents and students are trying to get online for work and classes at the same time, within the limited space of home. There is distraction and disruption,” says Sanjiv Kumar, pro-vice chairman of Takshila Educational Society, which runs DPS in Patna, Pune, Ludhiana and Coimbatore. That’s the reason educators such as Vikramjit Singh Rooprai have sought interventions from authorities to stipulate “netiquette” for students, teachers and parents. “The real effectiveness of delivery of online content depends on parents or family members. Post the COVID-19 crisis, one of the most urgent tasks that the education system, particularly government schools, will face is how to equip parents to support children’s learning during school closure and uncertainty,” says Rukmini Banerji, CEO, Pratham Education Foundation.
CRACKING THE EXAM CONUNDRUM
In Kolkata, South Point High School held its first virtual exam for Class 9 and 11 students, who were required to take the retest as per the CBSE notification last month. About 13 students on day one and another 18 on day two entered a virtual examination hall by logging onto their home computers. Camera and audio were switched on and two invigilators oversaw the entire process from their homes. Question papers were shot off online. Once the exam was over, students were given five minutes to scan their papers and send them on. The camera was adjusted so that the invigilator could even keep a watch on what was being written.
Holding examinations online will be one of the big challenges for online education. While there has been discussion on assessing students based on year-long performance for internal class examinations for some time, now there is also deliberation on whether some big-ticket tests such as the CBSE 10th and 12th board examinations and entrance examinations such as NEET and JEE can be conducted online. HRD ministry sources say the country is not ready for an ‘adventure’ just yet. The board has reiterated that it will physically conduct pending Class 10 and 12 board exams in 29 subjects between July 1 and 15. The UGC guideline issued to colleges and universities states quite plainly that the uniform implementation of online examinations is not feasible yet as some universities lack the necessary IT infrastructure.
Several educationists also see the crisis as an opportunity to examine the very indispensability of examinations. According to some, end-of-term examinations, often three-hour-long, are not the right way to evaluate learning outcomes. “This is an opportunity for us to make education hands-on and research-oriented instead of making students learn by rote for examinations,” says Dinesh Singh, the former vice-chancellor of Delhi University. Others advocate the urgent need to rethink the objectives of education and assessments, shifting focus toward measurement of conceptual learning and problem-solving skills, and online examinations can facilitate such a transition. “These goals are amenable to open-book examinations. Online formats also permit personalising tests and providing quick feedback,” says Jolly.
Already, a number of service providers are offering platforms for online examinations with AI-driven proctoring models embedded in them. IIT Delhi is exploring options to conduct online examinations through the TCS iOn Digital Assessment Solution. “Auto proctoring using artificial intelligence is a credible and reliable approach for conducting cheat-proof online examinations. India has the technical competence and dynamism to develop such online examination tools,” says JNU vice-chancellor Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar.
These debates over digital pedagogy apart, most agree that the way forward is a blend of online and in-person education. Most institutes have started practising some variation of this principle. “Online education can be a support but not an alternative. A blended approach is the best,” says Vidya Yeravdekar, pro-chancellor, Symbiosis International University and chairperson of the FICCI Committee of Higher Education.
WIRING FOR CHANGE
On an early May morning, Jyoti Soni, a 23-year-old student in the fourth semester of her MSc course at Kurukshetra University, was struggling to download on her mobile handset some critical content needed for a seminar paper she was supposed to submit later in the day. The mobile network was patchy in her village Badanpur in Haryana, where she had been stuck since the lockdown. There were other distractions too, her mother needed her help with household chores. She eventually was able to download the information and also submit her paper to her professor, Vinod Kumar Bhardwaj, through the Zoom app on her mobile, but not without some anxious moments first.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has made online education a buzzword, a recent report by the global education network Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) says that Indian internet infrastructure is still far from ready to support the shift to online learning. With 451 million monthly active internet users at the end of financial 2019, India is second only to China in terms of internet users, according to a report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI). But that amounts to only 36 per cent internet penetration in the country. According to the 2017-2018 National Sample Survey report on education, only 8 per cent of all households with members aged between five and 24 have both a computer and an internet connection. A 2018 NITI Aayog report revealed that 55,000 villages in India did not have mobile network coverage.
Another survey conducted by the teachers of the University of Hyderabad also highlighted the digital divide among students. Of the nearly 2,500 students surveyed, close to 90 per cent said they had a mobile phone but only about 37 per cent said they could access classes online. Others could not do so because of unreliable connectivity, cost of data connection or unreliable power supply.
Even Delhi University’s decision to hold open-book examinations online received massive resistance from students and teachers. An online survey conducted by a campus media platform among 12,214 students from more than 35 colleges found that 85 per cent were against online examinations, 75.6 per cent did not have a laptop to attend classes or sit for examinations while 79.5 per cent did not have a broadband connection. .
School education in the national capital is beset with the same issues. When the Delhi state education department started online classes during the lockdown, it found that the attendance hovered between “25 and 30 per cent”. Most of the children studying in Delhi government schools are from economically weak families. When the West Bengal education department launched a portal, Banglashiksha.gov.in, it had to seek the help of two popular regional TV channels to reach out to 150 million students, studying in roughly over 70,000 government and government-aided schools. “We cannot have a digital divide. We took the help of TV so that those without internet could access the content,” says West Bengal education minister Partha Chatterjee.
ABC of online learning Leela Kumari, a teacher at a government primary school in Jaipur, in the middle of taking an online class.
The Union government has also made its 32 Swayamprabha channels available on DTH platforms for free. It made provisions for the telecast of live interactive sessions on the content shown on these channels with experts from home through Skype. States were also allowed to telecast their content every day for four hours. “The online mode helps students even in remote areas or in a less reputed institute get access to the best teachers and superior class content. That’s why, for the past five years, we have relaxed many norms in terms of infrastructure requirement,” says Anil D. Sahasrabudhe, chairman, AICTE (the All-India Council for Technical Education). Connectivity, though, he admits, remains an issue. “We have insisted on increasing the requirement for data bandwidth every year,” he says.
Experts claim that only higher and focused expenditure on the education sector can bridge this digital divide. Despite repeated demands by educationists, the Union and state governments have made no effort to raise expenditure on the sector. At present, central and state allocations to the sector remain close to 3 per cent of GDP. The HRD ministry’s budget for digital e-learning was slashed from Rs 604 crore in 2019-2020 to Rs 469 crore in 2020-21. “We should be spending more than 6 per cent of our GDP on education. Now, post-COVID-19, when there will be a massive demand for resources from other sectors, education will fall even lower in the list of priorities,” says Shobhit Mahajan, professor in the department of physics and astrophysics, Delhi University. Vaitheeswaran sees no reason why the government cannot create digital infrastructure in educational institutes. “The way the government went about building toilets under the Swachh Bharat Mission, it must make every school and college technology-enabled,” he says.
The government is banking hugely on the Bharat Net project, which aims to provide broadband to 250,000 gram panchayats in the country through optical fibre to improve connectivity. Broadband connectivity in gram panchayats is expected to help rural schools provide online education to students who do not have internet access at home. Initiated in 2011 by the UPA government, this mission has missed several deadlines and is now expected to achieve its target by August 2021. Till February 2020, cables had been laid in 146,717 (59 per cent) gram panchayats, of which 134,248 or 53 per cent are service-ready. The central government has already disbursed Rs 19,595.03 crore to the states for implementation of the project, which has shown uneven growth. On February 5, Union IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad admitted in the Lok Sabha that three factors had slowed down the mission’s progress, delay in initial commencement of the project, issues related to right of way (RoW) and slow implementation by some states.
Despite these preparations, critics believe the transition of Indian education to the digital sphere, across the country, will depend on the government’s willingness to prioritise the education sector. “Education never got the priority it deserves, so the transition to digital mode will also be prolonged and painful,” says J.S. Rajput, former chairman of NCERT (the National Council of Educational Research and Training). Rajput’s resentment stems from the fact that successive governments have remained indifferent to the demand from educators to reform the way education is imparted. The launch of the new education policy, long overdue, may be the first step toward changing that perception. And the coronavirus crisis could perhaps be the catalyst to fast-track its implementation.
—with Shelly Anand, Mrini Devnani, Romita Datta and Rohit Parihar