The Centre proposes to set up a digital university, develop e-content for schools and expand its educational TV channel scheme from 12 to 200 channels, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said during her budget speech on Tuesday. However, education experts say this focus on digital learning is misplaced, given the inequitable access to digital devices and the fact that children now returning to classrooms are facing a two-year learning gap.
“Due to the pandemic-induced closure of schools, our children, particularly in the rural areas, and those from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and other weaker sections, have lost almost 2 years of formal education. Mostly, these are children in government schools,” said the Finance Minister. “We recognise the need to impart supplementary teaching and to build a resilient mechanism for education delivery.”
She announced plans to expand the educational television programme to allow for supplementary education in regional languages, to set up 750 virtual labs for science and mathematics, to develop high-quality e-content in all spoken languages for delivery via internet, mobile phones, TV and radio through digital teachers, and a mechanism to equip teachers with digital tools. The digital university will have programmes in different Indian languages, said Ms Sitharaman, adding that it will be built on a networked hub and spoke model, with collaborations with best institutions in the country.
“The immediate focus now as children come back to physical classrooms has to be on face-to-face teaching. Digital was essential during the lockdown, but we don’t have enough evidence to say what benefits it adds in comparison to in-person teaching,” said Rukmini Banerji, CEO of Pratham, an educational NGO that produces the Annual Status of Education Report. On Monday, the Economic Survey extensively cited the latest ASER to show the devastating impact of the pandemic on school children. Dr. Banerji suggested that the priority in the year ahead must be on foundational literacy and numeracy, even as many Class 3 students step into a physical classroom for the first time this academic year.
“One lesson the pandemic has taught us - online teaching should not be confused with meaningful education. It may provide some engagement when schools are closed, but is pedagogically inferior to in-person learning within the learning community of the classroom and the school, said Gurumurthy Kasinathan of the National Coalition on the Education Emergency, noting that India has had among the highest numbers of days of school closures in the world. “In this context, what is needed is a huge infusion of funds to schools - to repair schools that were kept locked, provide teaching learning materials, student learning resources to address multi-level learning gaps, fill all teacher vacancies and appoint additional teachers to support learning, provide support for community learning centres, and engage parents in the process,” he added.