Why is it difficult for children from underprivileged sections of the society to get their lessons online? Read this new report.

Why is it difficult for children from underprivileged sections of the society to get their lessons online? Read this new report.

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published Published on Sep 10, 2021   modified Modified on Sep 10, 2021


Remote teaching and learning promoted by Edtech companies as an alternative to physical classrooms, especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, may have a sizeable consumer base in our country. However, at the bottom of the pyramid, there are only a few takers of online education. In reality, class and caste-divide, which is more prominent in rural areas, affects access to digital learning. The majority of the school going children and their parents who belong to the underprivileged sections of the society have more faith in physical classes (which were shut down since the beginning of the pandemic) for learning lessons instead of the online ones, shows a recent survey.

The survey covering 1,362 school children (enrolled in Classes 1-8) from 1,362 households, which was carried out in 15 states/ UTs in the month of August 2021 (first round), reveals the “catastrophic consequences” of extended school closures during the last year and a half. It should be noted that the primary and upper-primary schools in the country have been closed for a full 17 months – more than 500 days. The pandemic induced school closures have taken a huge toll on the right to education and the learning levels of the school children who belong to the marginalised sections of the society. The newly released report says that "[t]he fig leaf of online education masked the elephant of school exclusion for the best of 17 months", particularly of the younger children. 

It should be clarified here that the School Children’s Online and Offline Learning (SCHOOL) survey focused on relatively deprived hamlets and bastis, where children generally attend government schools. The report titled Locked Out: Emergency Report on School Education, which was prepared by the coordination team (comprising Nirali Bakhla, Jean Drèze, Vipul Paikra, Reetika Khera) with generous help from nearly 100 volunteers, has cautioned its readers that the SCHOOL survey purposely focuses on underprivileged households, and the findings should be read in that light. The newly released report informs us that roughly 60 percent of the sample households resided in rural areas, and about 60 percent belonged to the Scheduled Caste (dalit) or Scheduled Tribe (adivasi) communities. Besides, four states accounted for nearly 50 percent of the sample: Delhi, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. The sample children were more or less evenly distributed by gender and grade. In the report, the unweighted figures for all the 15 states/ UTs together, separately for rural and urban areas, are presented.

Online learning

In rural areas, only 8 percent of sample school children were found to be studying online regularly, while 37 percent were not studying at all, and 48 percent were unable to read more than a few words. In such areas, only 28 percent of school children were studying regularly and 35 percent were studying in an intermittent manner.

The lack of access to smartphones in rural households (only 51 percent rural households with school children had it) was a major hurdle for online learning. Among rural households with a smartphone, the proportion of children who were studying online regularly was just 15 percent. The report observes that the schools were not sending online material for studying, or if they did, then parents were not aware of it. Some school children, particularly the younger ones, did not understand the online classes, or found it difficult to concentrate. This factor affected digital learning in rural areas, shows the study.  

When rural parents were asked to give two main reasons for children not studying online regularly (in households that were having a smartphone), a majority of them answered that: a. Children did not have their own smartphone (36 percent); b. No online materials were being sent by the school (43 percent); c. Online study was beyond children’s understanding (10 percent); d. Poor connectivity (9 percent); e. No money for buying “data” (6 percent); and f. Other (10 percent)

As opposed to the situation in rural areas, in urban areas, only 24 percent of sample children were studying online regularly, 19 percent were not studying at all, and 42 percent were unable to read more than a few words. In urban areas, about 47 percent of school children were studying on a regular basis and 34 percent were studying from time to time. 

In urban areas, the proportion of sample children who lived in a family with smartphones was 77 percent. Among urban households with a smartphone, the proportion of children who were studying online regularly was 31 percent.  

In both rural and urban areas, smartphones, to a large extent, were used by the working adults, and their availability among the school children was uncertain, particularly the younger siblings. Merely 9 percent of all children covered in the survey had their own smartphones. 

When urban parents were asked to provide two main reasons for children not studying online regularly (in households that were having a smartphone), a majority of them said that: a. Children did not have their own smartphone (30 percent); b. No online material was being sent by the school (14 percent); c. Online study was beyond children’s understanding (12 percent); d. Poor connectivity (9 percent); e. No money for purchasing “data” (9 percent); and f. Other (15 percent)

The survey of rural school children who were studying online (regularly or occasionally) at the time when the study was conducted reveals that 12 percent had their own smartphones, 12 percent watched live classes and not just videos, 65 percent had connectivity problems (often/ sometimes) and 43 percent found online classes/ videos difficult to follow. 

The survey of urban school children who were studying online (regularly or occasionally) at the time when the study was conducted indicates that 11 percent had their own smartphones, 27 percent watched live classes and not just videos, 57 percent faced connectivity issues (often/ sometimes) and 46 percent found online classes/ videos difficult to follow. 

The survey of parents of rural school children who were studying online (regularly or occasionally) at the time when the study was conducted shows that only one-fourth felt that their children had adequate online access, one-fifth were satisfied with the online study material, and nearly 70 percent felt that their children’s ability to read and write declined during the school closures.  

The survey of parents of school children in urban areas who were studying online (regularly or occasionally) at the time when the study was conducted indicates that only 44 percent felt that their children had adequate online access, 29 percent were satisfied with the online study material, and almost 65 percent felt that their children’s ability to read and write declined during the school lockout.  

Offline learning

The SCHOOL survey found that among those school children who didn't have access to online education, there was little evidence of regular studying. Most of the "offline children" surveyed were found to be either not studying at all, or just studying on their own at home from time to time. While in many states (including Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh) almost no initiatives were undertaken by the State Governments to help offline children to continue studying in one way or another during the school closures, in some states (like Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab and Rajasthan) efforts were made to promote inclusive education among those children who got excluded during the school lockout. The latter group of states gave “worksheets” to offline children by way of homework, or instructed teachers to visit parents’ homes from time to time for advice. However, the report titled Locked Out: Emergency report on School Education says that most of these efforts were far from satisfactory, judging not only from the testimonies of parents and children, but also from the fact that children’s reading and writing abilities declined during the lockout period. The youngest children, especially from Grades 1 and 2, received very little support.

The offline children in urban areas relied on private tutors and such kids from privileged sections were observed to be studying regularly. However, in most cases offline children studied at home with or without the help from family members. Such children were studying “sometimes” rather than “regularly”.  

The proportion of rural children in the SCHOOL survey who were studying 'regularly' through: a. Online classes or videos was 8.0 percent; b. Watching TV was just 0.1 percent; c. Private tuition was 14.0 percent; d. Studying at home (with family help) was 12.0 percent; e. Studying at home (without help) was 15.0 percent; and f. Studying with friends in each other’s houses was 3.0 percent. 

In contrast to that, the proportion of urban SCHOOL children who were studying 'regularly' through: a. Online classes or videos was 25.0 percent; b. Watching TV was 3.0 percent; c. Private tuition was 24.0 percent; d. Studying at home (with family help) was 15.0 percent; e. Studying at home (without help) was 19.0 percent; and f. Studying with friends in each other’s houses was 2.0 percent. 

The proportion of rural children in the SCHOOL survey who were studying 'sometimes' through: a. Online classes or videos was 8.0 percent; b. Watching TV was 1.0 percent; c. Private tuition was 4.0 percent; d. Studying at home (with family help) was 25.0 percent; e. Studying at home (without help) was 31.0 percent; and f. Studying with friends in each other’s houses was 11.0 percent. 

The proportion of urban children in the SCHOOL survey who were studying 'sometimes' through: a. Online classes or videos was 16.0 percent; b. Watching TV was 5.0 percent; c. Private tuition was 6.0 percent; d. Studying at home (with family help) was 29.0 percent; e. Studying at home (without help) was 30.0 percent; and f. Studying with friends in each other’s houses was 13.0 percent.  

Only 1.0 percent of rural children and 8.0 percent of urban children in the sample acknowledged TV programmes as a regular or even occasional mode of study.

School Outreach

In terms of educational support, local schools (i.e. government schools) gave "homework" to offline children. The report says that homework was often beyond the understanding of the offline children, and many such children got no feedback on their homework. Homework was found to be a poor substitute for classroom learning, especially for children who were deprived of any help at home. Occasional tests/ exams conducted among urban offline children (in the preceding 3 months) did not help them, although it helped the teachers to meet the reporting requirements.

The proportion of rural offline school children (i.e. who were not studying online) who got educational support from the local school during the preceding three months in the form of: a. 16 percent - school arranged a test at home or elsewhere; b. 25 percent - teacher gave the child some homework; c. 12 percent - teacher came home to enquire about the child or advise; d. 13 percent - teacher phoned to enquire or advise; d. 2 percent - teacher helped the child at home; and e. 5 percent - any other educational support [like classes were held in the school (e.g. in Punjab); mohalla classes; teacher helps on the phone; teacher lends his/ her phone for online study; teacher gave story books; teacher recharges children’s phones; school provided a tablet; teacher motivates the child to study; teacher gives free tuitions; one-to-one help; parent-teacher meetings].   

The proportion of urban offline school children (i.e. who were not studying online) who got educational support from the local school during the preceding three months in the form of: a. 27 percent - school arranged a test at home or elsewhere; b. 39 percent - teacher gave the child some homework; c. 5 percent - teacher came home to enquire about the child or advise; d. 36 percent - teacher phoned to enquire or advise; d. 3 percent - teacher helped the child at home; and e. 6 percent - any other educational support [like classes were held in the school (e.g. in Punjab); mohalla classes; teacher helps on the phone; teacher lends his/ her phone for online study; teacher gave story books; teacher recharges children’s phones; school provided a tablet; teacher motivates the child to study; teacher gives free tuitions; one-to-one help; parent-teacher meetings].

Teachers Out of Touch

Roughly 58 percent of school children in rural areas and 51 percent of urban school children could not meet their teacher(s) in the last 30 days. The teachers were found to be out of touch with their pupils, except for symbolic online interactions like forwarding Youtube links by WhatsApp to some of them (or, more likely, their parents) from time to time.

However, some teachers went out of their way to help offline children i.e. children who were not learning online. Some teachers convened small-group classes in the open, or at someone’s home, or even at their own home. Others recharged the phones of children who were short of money, or lent them their own phones for online study. Some teachers also helped children with their studies on the phone or even by visiting them. Despite being valuable gestures, these efforts did not make up for the locked schools and still classrooms, states the report.

Exodus from Private Schools

Due to depressed earnings or children not learning enough through online classes, most poor parents often become reluctant to pay the fees and other costs (including smartphone and recharge). Some of these parents moved their wards to government schools from the private ones. Almost 26 percent of the sample school children were initially enrolled in private schools. Some parents did not get the "transfer certificate" from private schools to move their children to government schools because they failed to pay the pending fees. 

Midday Meals Discontinued

Due to school closures, mid-day meals were discontinued (MDM). As a substitute for their child’s mid-day meals, about 80 percent reported receiving some foodgrains (mainly rice or wheat) during the preceding 3 months. Some parents complained that they had received less than what they were entitled to (i.e. 100 grams per child per day at the primary level). The distribution of mid-day meal substitutes seemed to be quite sporadic and haphazard, says the report.

The proportion of rural children enrolled in government schools who received food or cash in lieu of mid-day meal in the preceding 3 months was: a. 15 percent - food and cash; b. 63 percent - food only; c. 8 percent - cash only; and d. 14 percent - nothing. 

The proportion of urban children enrolled in government schools who received food or cash in lieu of mid-day meal in the preceding 3 months was: a. 11 percent - food and cash; b. 69 percent - food only; c. 0 percent - cash only; and d. one-fifth received nothing.

Food generally means foodgrain (e.g. rice or wheat).

Reading Test

A significantly large proportion of children in rural and urban areas belonging to grades 3-5 were unable to read more than a few words of the following sentence printed in large font.

 

The proportion of rural school children in Grades 3-5 who could read the sentence: a. 26 percent - able to read fluently; b. 19 percent - able to read with difficulty; c. 13 percent - able to read some words only; and d. 42 percent - unable to read more than a few letters.   

The proportion of urban school children in Grades 3-5 who could read the sentence: a. 31 percent - able to read fluently; b. 22 percent - able to read with difficulty; c. 13 percent - able to read some words only; and d. 35 percent - unable to read more than a few letters.  
    
The proportion of rural school children in Grades 6-8 who could read the sentence: a. 57 percent - able to read fluently; b. 19 percent - able to read with difficulty; c. 8 percent - able to read some words only; and d. 16 percent - unable to read more than a few letters.   

The proportion of urban school children in Grades 6-8 who could read the sentence: a. 58 percent - able to read fluently; b. 23 percent - able to read with difficulty; c. 8 percent - able to read some words only; and d. 12 percent - unable to read more than a few letters.   

The report clarifies that 44 children who were too shy to read. Hence, they were kept out of the survey results. 

The report  states that school children in Grade 2 were not even included because most of them (65 percent in urban areas and 77 percent in rural areas) could not read more than a few letters if any.

Decline of Reading Abilities

About three-fourth of parents residing in rural (75 percent) as well as urban (76 percent) areas felt that their children’s reading abilities declined during the school closures. In the sample as a whole, only 4 percent of parents felt that their children’s reading and writing abilities had improved during the lockout – something that should have been the norm, says the report.

The proportion of parents in rural areas who felt that their children’s ability to read and write declined since the lockout began was: a. 70 percent - online children; b. 76 percent - offline children; c. 79 percent - grades 1-5; and d. 70 percent - grades 6-8.    

The proportion of parents in urban areas who felt that their children’s ability to read and write declined since the lockout started was: a. 65 percent - online children; b. 82 percent - offline children; c. 78 percent - grades 1-5; and d. 72 percent - grades 6-8.

Literacy Rates Off the Chart

According to the Census 2011, average literacy rates in the age group of 10-14 years ranged from 88 percent to 98 percent in all the SCHOOL states/ UTs except Bihar (83 percent); the all-India average stood at 91 percent. The SCHOOL survey done 10 years later among school children reveals that the literacy rates in the 10-14 age group were as low as 74 percent in urban areas, 66 percent in rural areas, and 61 percent for rural Scheduled Caste (dalits) and Scheduled Tribes (adivasis)

In the SCHOOL survey, a child is counted as literate if s/he was able to read the test sentence, “fluently” or “with difficulty”. In the Census of India 2011, a person “who can both read and write with understanding in any language” was counted as literate – that seems more restrictive than the definition used for the SCHOOL survey.

The “illiteracy rate” in the 10-14 age group among rural SC/ ST households in the SCHOOL sample (39 percent) was over four times as high as the average for all children aged 10-14 in the SCHOOL states ten years ago (9 percent).

Dalits and Adivasis: Locked Out More

The digital divide was observed to be much more prominent among the SC and ST households in rural areas. Merely 4 percent of rural SC/ ST children were studying online regularly, compared with 15 percent among other rural children. The proportion of SC/ ST children who lived in rural households without a smartphone was 55 percent, whereas the figure for children of other communities (in rural areas) was 38 percent. 

The proportion of rural SC/ ST children who were not studying at all was 43 percent, studying regularly was 22 percent and studying online regularly was just 4 percent. 
 
The proportion of rural children of other communities who were not studying at all was 25 percent, studying regularly was 40 percent and studying online regularly was just 15 percent. 

The proportion of online children (rural SC/ ST) who watched online classes, not just videos was 5 percent, whereas the proportion of online children (from other communities in rural areas) who watched online classes, not just videos was 29 percent. 

The proportion of parents of online children (rural SC/ ST) who were satisfied with the online study material was 13 percent, whereas the proportion of parents of online children (from other communities in rural areas) who were satisfied with the online study material was 26 percent.

The proportion of rural SC/ ST children who were unable to read more than a few letters was 45 percent, whereas the proportion of children (from other communities in rural areas) who were unable to read more than a few letters was 24 percent. 

The literacy rate of 10-14 years old rural SC/ ST children was 61 percent, whereas the literacy rate of 10-14 years old children (from other communities in rural areas) was 77 percent. 

The proportion of parents who felt that their children’s (rural SC/ ST) ability to read and write declined during the lockout was 83 percent. However, the proportion of parents who felt that their children’s (from other communities in rural areas) ability to read and write declined during the lockout was 66 percent. 

The upper-caste background of teachers in some places (like Kutmu village of Latehar district, Jharkhand state) sometimes became a barrier for learning by SC/ ST school children, finds the report.

Promotion Without Progress

The policy of children being promoted to higher classes – two grades above their pre-lockout level despite a mass decline in their reading and writing abilities has not worked out well for children's learning. The report points out that "[a]s schools reopen, children are all set to find themselves “thrice removed” from their grade’s curriculum. This triple gap consists of (1) the pre-lockout gap, (2) the decline of literacy and related abilities during the lockout, and (3) the onward march of the curriculum in that period. For instance, a child who was enrolled in Grade 3 before the lockout, but actually did not master the curriculum beyond Grade 2 because of her disadvantaged position, and now finds herself closer to Grade 1 in that respect, is enrolled in Grade 5 today, and will be promoted to the upper-primary level in a few months’ time!"

Youngsters Adrift and Demand for Reopening of Schools

The SCHOOL survey has noticed that although child labour was unusual among children below the age of 10 years, it was quite common in the age group of 10-14 years. A large majority of girls in that age group were found to be doing unpaid household work during school closures. While some children joined the ranks of labourers, others were struggling with idleness, lack of exercise, phone addiction, family tensions and other side effects of being locked out. Some parents complained that their children had become undisciplined, aggressive or even violent. 

Most parents in rural (roughly 97 percent) and urban (about 90 percent) areas wanted schools to reopen as soon as possible. The report indicates that the parents were desperately waiting for schools to reopen because for many of them, school education was the only hope that their children could have for a better life and future than their own.

The report has said that business as usual would no longer work, and it has asked the government that preparation like repairing school buildings, issuing safety guidelines, training teachers, enrolment drives, etc. needs to be completed first before the schools are reopened. "[T]he schooling system needs to go through an extended transition period not only to enable children to catch up with a reasonable curriculum but also to restore their psychological, social and nutritional wellbeing,” states the report.  

Please follow the twitter id of Road Scholarz in order to know more about the survey.


References: 

Locked Out: Emergency Report on School Education, released on 6th September, 2021, please click here to access  

SCHOOL survey exposes the dark underbelly of online education during school closures, Inclusive Media for Change, 7th September, 2021, please click here to access

Press release: 1 in 3 countries are not taking action to help students catch up on their learning post-COVID-19 school closures, UNICEF, 13th July, 2021, please click here to access

School lockdowns have robbed a generation of upward mobility -Andy Mukherjee, Bloomberquint.com, 8th September, 2021, please click here to access  

How school closures have hurt our less fortunate students more -Rukmini S, Livemint.com, 7th September, 2021, please click here to access  

Closure of schools catastrophic for the poor in last 18 months: Report -Bala Chauhan, The New Indian Express, 7th September, 2021, please click here to access  

‘Catastrophic consequences’: Only 8% of rural children regularly attended online class during lockdown -Diksha Munjal, Newslaundry.com, 6th September, 2021, please click here to access  

Survey details ‘catastrophic’ impact of school closures across India, The Hindu, 6th September, 2021, please click here to access  

 

Image Courtesy: Locked Out: Emergency Report on School Education

 

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